Superman: The Movie, one of the most important and influential superhero movies of all time, celebrates its 40th anniversary this month. The film remains the template for all superhero movies, and its influence can still be seen in some of the most revered films of the genre, notably the X-Men movies, Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man, Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins, and Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman. Marvel Studios mastermind Kevin Feige routinely cites it as an inspiration, and famed DC Comics writer and DC Films producer Geoff Johns has never been shy about the influence of Richard Donner’s Superman movies on his own work.
While Donner’s association with Superman and his world ended midway through the troubled production of Superman II, the director (whose impressive filmography also boasts the legendary Lethal Weapon franchise, The Goonies, and other favorites) still speaks fondly of his time with the character, and remains aware of why the Man of Steel is such an important figure in pop culture.
We spoke to director Richard Donner to discuss why Superman: The Movie still resonates today, the challenge of preserving the reality of the Man of Steel, and the enduring magic of Christopher Reeve’s performance.
Den of Geek: People see you as the godfather of superhero movies because of Superman.
Richard Donner: That’s nice to hear. I took a challenge that was very exciting for me. I did it because, essentially, when I read what they were doing, I just felt I had to step in and try and save what I felt was a respectful area for Superman.
You’re referring to the shape the script was in when you got it, before Tom Mankiewicz came on as writer?
Exactly. Here’s the thing, it was well written, but every script that gets made, there’s somebody involved pointing the writers in the direction that these people want to see.
I don’t hold any disrespect for what was written. It was quite good but it wasn’t what I felt Superman could or should be. When Tom agreed to come on, that’s when I made up my mind I would make the movie.
I’ve read some of those earlier drafts, and Tom’s is much tighter and more reverent.
“Reverent” is a good word. That’s what we were striving for. It took a lot of arguing back and forth, but we agreed this is the way we’d do it, and it had its own reality. Our first challenge was the unrequited love story… two guys, Superman and a character named Clark Kent, basically in love with the same woman, and [it’s] impossible to tell her what the reality was in their lives. The second challenge was to make a man fly and make the audience totally believe it. If they didn’t believe the love story or the flying, we didn’t have a movie. Tom solved the love story problem and the flying was brought to life by one of the greatest crews ever put together.
You talk a lot about being reverent to the myth of Superman, which is something that modern superhero movies have used as their starting point.
We decided that we wanted to make this close to reality. If this set some sort of a precedent, it wasn’t our intention, which was strictly to make a good movie about this beloved character and treat him with our greatest respect. That’s where we ended up, and when you say it set a precedent, I wish it was retained.
I don’t see Superman as the way he’s being treated today, which is in a very dark fashion. He was a fantasy that really believed in “Truth, Justice, and the American Way.” He believed it, and it gave him an aura. If that line came out as a joke, we were fucked and we knew it. Until we had the first screening, it was, in my mind, very scary. We treated him as a reality. His reality had to be the good in life by our comparison, but at the same time, totally real to him, and it worked, surprisingly.
Would that approach work today?
I definitely think that in today’s world, the conditions we’re in and the president we have, we all need a Superman in our lives today. He would make a wonderful hero, but I’m afraid that will not come true.
Do you think that’s why the character has struggled on the big screen in recent years? Is it America’s changing attitude, or do you think it’s the stories being told?
Well it’s a matter of how the stories are being told. I think we’re in strange, dark days of moviemaking, but Superman was a hero. He was a fantasy, but we believed him. He’s not treated like that anymore. I’m not happy with it but I have nothing to say except to you.
I think as filmmakers, we all kind of reflect who we are, what we stand for, how we treat the whole relationship of motion pictures. My wife is a really great producer, and she always says to me, when you’re making a movie, and you’re hiring the director, invariably, the director’s personality comes across on the screen. It’s so true. Most of the time, when you see a film and you know the person, you almost can tell who made it without credits. It’s a very dark society, I’m sorry to say. Where’s all the laughter and fun and the possibilities of everything being wonderful in life? They seem to be pushed aside and somewhat suppressed.
What about the other actors that were considered to play Superman?
I’ll tell you the truth, the only person that I took seriously was Christopher Reeve. We met with and screen-tested quite a few people.
Reeve was a big problem [because] the producers really wanted another name, but I couldn’t believe him in tights flying around Metropolis. He was Superman, you know. I mean, there’s no two ways about it. Christopher, when he got into that role, was Superman. He was such a dedicated young actor taking on what some considered a ridiculous role. But he dedicated that period of his life to that character. I’ll always respect him for it.
Did you have to fight for him?
We had gone a long time trying to find the actor that fit the character. We were getting close to a point of no return, as far as time went. Once Ilya Salkind and I saw him in an off-Broadway play, we came away totally believing that this skinny, light-haired kid could play the role. He was brave to take the shot.
Things didn’t work out the way you expected with Superman II. Was there ever talk of you coming back to rescue the franchise?
No. I wouldn’t have. I did one, and put everything I had into it. We brought to life a beloved character and that was it.
Do you have any advice for the next person who will bring Superman to the screen?
Oh, that’s hard. It’s so easy to get caught up in other people’s thoughts of how things should be done. I’m an old-fashioned guy, and I would never expect anybody to change their approach. The only advice I have is find the reality and make what you believe. It’s tough. The only way you can do it is you’ve gotta make the movie you believe in.
A version of this interview first appeared in the Oct. 2018 edition of Den of Geek magazine. It has been edited for clarity and length.