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Expert comment on the work of Richard Donner

Dr James Taylor, expert in the transition of comic book stories and character to film, comments on the legacy of Hollywood director Richard Donner who has died aged 91.

"Richard Donner was a highly accomplished director whose impact on modern Hollywood is clear. He turned his directorial eye to different genres—including horror (The Omen), comedy (Scrooged), action (Lethal Weapon) and adventure (The Goonies)—to both critical and commercial success. While this variety makes it rare to hear of his filmography discussed as representing the distinctive vision of an ‘auteur’, all of his films are unified by a meticulous craftmanship.

"Donner’s legacy and his craftmanship are exemplified by one of his most beloved films, Superman: The Movie. Released in 1978, Superman helped define and refine the new model of blockbuster filmmaking that Hollywood developed in this period (other key films being Jaws in 1975 and Star Wars in 1977). This model of blockbuster filmmaking continues to be central to Hollywood production and the immense popularity of superhero blockbusters over the last few decades testifies to the significance of Superman—the first film to give the superhero genre blockbuster treatment—to this history.

"Despite blockbusters frequently being accused of sacrificing artistry for commercial pursuits, Superman is a showcase for Donner’s craft. Donner harnesses his knack for working with different genres to weave together different facets of Superman; science fiction is foregrounded for a grand retelling of Superman’s extraterrestrial origins, action comes aplenty in the superhero’s spectacular feats and there’s even time for a romantic musical number as Superman flies Lois Lane above the clouds for an aerial dance. Behind the scenes, Donner was embroiled in his own fight. Superman is one of Hollywood’s notoriously troubled productions. By all accounts, at the core of the on-set tensions was a bitter antagonism between producers Ilya and Alexander Salkind, who wanted to rush the increasingly over-budget and over-schedule film to completion, and Donner, who wanted to continue to give every scene the care it required.

"Donner’s refusal to sacrifice his artistic integrity was undoubtedly crucial to the film’s ultimate success, although also led to the Salkinds firing him from production of the sequel. Donner’s efforts made him a hero to superhero fans and ensured that, although he is now sadly gone, his influence in Hollywood lives on."

6 July 2021