Richard Donner, one of the most successful Hollywood directors of the ‘80s and ‘90s and one of the major architects of the modern superhero movie, has died, according to Deadline. He was 91 years old. No cause of death has been reported.
Donner got his start in the industry, like so many in his generation, with television. He cut his teeth directing episodes of The Twilight Zone, Route 66, The Rifleman, The Man from U.N.C.L.E., Perry Mason, even Gilligan’s Island. His feature film debut came in 1961, with X-15, aviation drama co-starring Charles Bronson, hot off of The Magnificent Seven.
It would take another decade and a half for his first blockbuster: 1976’s The Omen, which introduced the screen to Damian, the young Antichrist who unwittingly causes the gruesome death of anyone who happens upon his secret.
Donner parlayed that into the gig directing 1978’s Superman: The Movie, the first major film to take comic books seriously. Filled with big, handsomely paid names (Marlon Brando, Gene Hackman, Glenn Ford, screenwriter Mario Puzo), plus one fresh-faded instant star (Christopher Reeve), it was a troubled production. Indeed, Donner’s relationship with the producers was so fractured that they removed from the adjacently filmed sequel, replacing him with A Hard Day’s Night auteur Richard Lester.
But Donner’s contribution to comic book cinema would leave it forever changed. No longer would superheroes be treated only like kitsch and camp. They were epics with big themes and flawed heroes who didn’t always do good. They would get big budgets and big names and dominate the box office. And it all started with Richard Donner’s Superman: The Movie.
Despite the Superman production headaches, he went on to a very successful career. He rebounded with The Goonies, for Steven Spielberg’s Amblin Entertainment, as well as the fantasy Ladyhawke. In 1987 he found his per series: Lethal Weapon, the buddy comedy that changed the buddy comedy forever. He’d return to the series every few years, in between comedies (Scrooged), dramas (Radio Flyer), and other thrillers (Assassins, Conspiracy Theory, 16 Blocks).
(Incidentally, since Donner directed 1996’s Assassins, starring Sylvester Stallone and Antonio Banderas, that means he’s responsible for one of the internet’s most popular gifs.)
One of the last films he worked on, some 15 years ago, was a redux of Superman II, which cobbled together something like a director’s cut, using never-seen footage and some digital touch-ups, getting as close as he could to his original vision. But you can see Donner’s touch in every comic book movie you see today.