When the somber news of Richard Donner’s passing at age 91 broke on Monday, July 5, 2021, social media was flooded with commiseration from fans, colleagues, comic writers and many of the fellow entertainers that the famed director had worked with and influenced over the decades including Kevin Feige, Zack Snyder, Steven Spielberg, Frank Miller, Tom Taylor and many more.
Born on April 24, 1930 in the Bronx, Richard Donald Schwartzberg grew up in Mount Vernon, New York. His father, a Russian Jewish immigrant, ran a furniture manufacturing company, and his mother, a daughter of Russian Jewish immigrants, was a homemaker. The filmmaker changed his name when he set out to become an actor, and then later was given advice by Marty Ritt that he should become a director instead of an actor since he had a problem with taking direction, according to Ritt.
Kevin Feige of Marvel Studios posted a heartfelt statement on Twitter, detailing how Richard Donner helped get him his first office job in Hollywood and nurtured him through his early years alongside Geoff Johns of DC Entertainment. Both comic figures are noted to hail “Superman” (1978) as the gold standard of superhero films.
“Richard Donner not only made me believe a man could fly, he made me believe that comic characters could be brought to life on the big screen with heart, humor, humanity and verisimilitude,” Feige’s Marvel Twitter tribute said. “Above all he taught me that it can and must be done with respect, caring, and kindness to everyone in front of and behind the camera. Dick and Lauren became mentors during my early career, and key supporters throughout the birth of the MCU. I owe my career to the way they took the time to nurture and teach a kid from New Jersey who didn’t know how to use a fax machine or make coffee very well. I always thought Dick was immortal. I still do. My thoughts are with Lauren and the entire family.”
Justice League director Zack Snyder simply posted the iconic Superman teaser poster art by Bob Peak, which bears the tagline “You’ll Believe A Man Can Fly.” Snyder captioned his post with “Thank you, Richard Donner. You made me believe.”
Richard Donner made Hollywood history with his directing of “Superman” in 1978, starring Christopher Reeve, Marlon Brando, Gene Hackman, Margot Kidder, and others. At the time, “Superman: The Movie” was the most expensive film made up to that point, with a budget of $55 million, and went on to earn over $300 million worldwide, heralding a roaring era of superhero films on the big cinema screen. While working on the “Superman” project, the director famously mounted a sign in his office bearing the word “verisimilitude”, which he defined as “Be truthful. Honor the source material. Believe it, and take it seriously.” Richard Donner’s slogan of “verisimilitude” — pushing for realism in his depiction of Superman — was what paved the way to Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight trilogy, Zack Snyder’s Superman saga, and the modern wave of realism in comic book entertainment.
35 years after 1978, Zack Snyder was drafted by Christopher Nolan to reboot the iconic American hero for the modern age. Henry Cavill became the next generation’s Superman in “Man Of Steel” (2013), “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice” (2016), and “Zack Snyder’s Justice League” (2021). Zack Snyder, Bruce Timm, and Jay Oliva also developed a two-minute “Superman 75” short film, in celebration of the 75th anniversary of the character of Superman, which was created in 1938. The iconic music of John Williams, who scored the theme and soundtrack for the “Superman” film series with Christopher Reeve, can be heard in the “Superman 75” animated short film, which then transitions into the modern Superman theme music by Hans Zimmer, scored for “Man Of Steel” with Henry Cavill.
Hollywood has a surreal history that often repeats. Donner was fired while filming “Superman II” (1980). Donner had sparred with the father-son producers, Alexander and Ilya Salkind, and complained about the lack of a clear budget or schedule for the movies. The Salkinds replaced Richard Donner with Richard Lester, who reshot most of the Superman sequel. After a fan campaign, Donner’s cut of “Superman II” was released on DVD in 2006, in conjunction with the “Superman Returns” (2006) movie which attempted to continue the story with Brandon Routh donning the tights. Famously and tragically, Zack Snyder was replaced by Marvel director Joss Whedon during the post-production of “Justice League” in 2017. Zack Snyder had left the project to deal with the grief of his daughter’s passing, and after a grueling fan campaign, HBO Max greenlighted the “Snyder Cut” on May 20, 2020, with the director’s cut titled “Zack Snyder’s Justice League” being released on March 18, 2021 to critical and popular acclaim. It is unclear if Donner got to witness the Snyder Cut during his time.
Comic writer Tom Taylor posted his tribute: “Thank you for my heroes, Richard Donner. Thank you for Superman, for Lois, and for making us believe a man can fly.”
Cartoonist Frank Miller wrote “Richard Donner showed us the mythological potential of the superhero. He convinced us of the impossible, and just like Superman did with Lois Lane, he swept us off our feet. Forever grateful for what he gave us and will miss him greatly.”
Steven Spielberg reflected on the passing of Richard Donner, via his Amblin page: “Dick had such a powerful command of his movies and was so gifted across so many genres.”
Kevin Smith wrote “Guy was a natural born storyteller. Thanks for all the flicks, Dick!”
The tremendous public outpouring of reverence and veneration for Richard Donner shows the success of the filmmaker’s skill of exemplifying verisimilitude in live-action storytelling, and making us believe a man can indeed fly.