Richard Donner passed away yesterday. I realize there are many who won’t recognize his name, but he did a whole lot for fantasy in film, and I wanted to take a minute to appreciate that. When the Christopher Reeve Superman came out in 1978, it was the first time a studio had really thrown money at a superhero film. As we all know (or should know, at any rate), simply throwing money at film isn’t a formula for guaranteed success. (Waterworld, anyone?) It would have been very easy to have this first superhero effort go seriously wrong.
Warner Bros. picked Richard Donner to helm the film. What had he done before that? He’d directed The Omen, a small budget ($3 million) horror movie that grossed $60 million. He’d also directed a whole slew of television episodes, ranging from Perry Mason to Get Smart to The Twilight Zone. Superman had a budget of $55 million, so much bigger expectations. Donner took the movie and made it a huge success. ($300 million. That might not seem too impressive, until you realize that would be $1.2 billion today.)
In many ways, Donner set the stage for the future superhero movies to come. The mixture of comedy and action. Special effects but retaining a focus on character as well. (Though of course, the biggest contribution was proving a superhero movie could make a whole lot of money. That’s the biggest thing a movie can do to ensure other movies like it will be made.) I loved that movie, and spent many hours pretending I was Superman, even though I’d never cracked open a page of the comics.
If Superman were the only movie Donner had done, he would have still been very influential on the genre. But he went on to direct a slew of great films: Ladyhawke (straight up fantasy with Matthew Broderick and Michelle Pfeiffer), The Goonies(!), Lethal Weapon, Scrooged (one of the cooler (and more bizarre) Christmas Carol adaptations, with Bill Murray), and Maverick (comic Western with Mel Gibson and Jodie Foster).
The Goonies is flat out incredible, and I’d argue it played a role in the development of YA as a genre. Entirely kid-centric, with no parents barging in to solve the problems. Fast paced and snappy, but still recognizing the kids as real people with real wants and concerns. I’m not saying the whole genre stems from the movie (that’s clearly wrong), but rather that its acceptance and growth were helped along by the success of The Goonies. At least for yours truly, that movie defined in many ways what I want to get out of a YA adventure. (Plus, the movie gave us Sean Astin . . .)
These are all movies I grew up with, and which I’ve watched multiple times. To have them all come from the same director speaks to his ability to really make films that resonated with me. Were all his movies great? Well, no. Let’s not talk about The Toy or Timeline. But still, he had a great track record of success. If you haven’t seen some of these, I encourage you go and check them out. I just might have to fire up The Goonies tonight in his honor.
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