1978's Superman was not the first movie I saw in theaters. Honestly, I'd seen quite a few by that time, so much so that going to the movies had become a somewhat regular thing for me and my friends. Growing up in a small town, there really wasn't all that much to do, and Fridays had long ago come to mean something fresh was playing on the silver screen. I was aware that Superman was making his grand debut on the silver screen, and I was there on opening night. Naturally.
I think statements are always subject to debate, but I'd be hard-pressed to find someone to contradict this one: director Richard Donner was the first storyteller to 'get it right' when it comes to putting superheroes on the big screen. Granted, having a character as popular and enduring as Superman helps, but Donner and company knew to treat the source material with the reverence it deserved. The logical reason would be that fans were always watching closely, and if you couldn't win them over with your effort in the first try then you were likely destined for second place. I think Donner understood this, and I think Donner knew all too well that winning over fans who would tell their friends to go see the movie was crucial. In the end, he probably didn't tell this story necessarily for the fans; but he knew they were a key component of making audiences believe that a man could fly. He did, and Superman soared.
Without getting too much into the weeds, Donner was rather famously fired from the production of Superman II. Despite his shooting most of the film while the first one was underway (their scripts were, originally, very closely linked with Superman's failure to follow his father's wishes releasing the Kryptonian villains from the Phantom Zone), the producers brought in Richard Lester to complete Superman II. Allegedly, there was some pushback from the cast (Gene Hackman and Marlon Brando), but, in the end, none of it mattered as Donner had delivered enough greatness to make the sequel a hit at the box office.
In a recent interview, actor Jack O'Halloran -- who played 'Non,' one of those Kryptonian villains -- mentions that, apparently, the plans for the Superman movies changed somewhat drastically after Donner's departure. He alludes that he knew there was far more planned with those characters -- that they were to return and pose an even greater threat -- and the fired director had hoped to do some incredible arcs crossing and intersecting throughout the Superman films (kinda/sorta sounds similar to what Marvel is doing today, no?) ... but it wasn't meant to be.
Donner continued directing, and he enjoyed some modest success but perhaps nothing quite as grand as what he achieved with cementing the Superman mythos up in the lights where it belonged. I know fans who cherish his Spielberg collaboration, The Goonies (1985), but that one wasn't for me. His first two Lethal Weapon films are very good, and his foray into Fantasy with Ladyhawke (1985) is definitely worth a visit.
Alas, word reached the Information Superhighway yesterday that this talented storyteller shook off his mortal coil, and I can't help but wonder even now -- decades later -- what a Donnerverse may have looked like at the movies. As tempting as it sounds, I imagine the producers and Warners Bros. would've found a way to muck that up as well.
Prayers to the Donner family. Filmdom has lost a true original.