The poster for Superman: The Movie features one of the greatest taglines in cinema history: “You’ll believe a man can fly.”
In 2021, when high-quality visual effects can be created via iPhone, and new superhero movies hit theaters on a seemingly weekly basis, it’s easy to overlook the kind of groundbreaking achievement Superman: The Movie constituted over 40 years ago.
Fancy effects can only make a man fly; hoist them on wires, and you’re halfway there. It takes an especially careful storyteller to make audiences believe in the impossible. The late filmmaker Richard Donner — who died on Monday, July 5, at age 91 — was such a storyteller.
While we can argue all day about what superhero movie is the actual all-time “best,” Superman: The Movie without question remains the most influential. In the same way Superman himself birthed the superhero genre in comics, Donner’s Superman is the prototype all 21st-century superhero movies built upon.
The enduring appeal of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and the proliferation of prestige, alt-superhero media, like HBO’s Watchmen and Amazon’s Invincible, is a testament to Donner’s filmmaking. His authentic approach and sincere reverence to the genre — especially in 1978, at the close of a decade plagued with cynicism — were foundations that allowed heroes to reign supreme in our lifetime. One can draw a straight line between Superman: The Movie and Avengers: Endgame. You couldn’t get to here without starting there.
The Key Word
One word was said to be Donner’s favorite: “verisimilitude.” This word hung in Donner’s office throughout production on Superman: The Movie, via a photo of the character holding a sash emblazoned with the word. Essentially, it means “plausibility,” a word Jon Favreau (likely emulating Donner) hung up while directing Iron Man.
This word, verisimilitude, was critical to Donner’s approach to Superman, as the filmmaker chose not to make a superhero movie that lived up to the stereotypical image that comics had at the time as goofy and childish. At the time, the industry was still wrestling with the Comics Code Authority’s censorship restrictions, which basically forced comics down to the level of dumb gibberish.
In a retrospective interview in 2018 with RetroFan (via 13th Dimension), Donner even said he had “no eyes” to make Superman: The Movie, despite his childhood being defined by comics. “We were kids,” Donner recalled. “Our reading material would be whatever the newest comic book was that came out.”
Superman, in particular, “was one that stuck with me,” he said.
After Donner’s horror movie The Omen became a hit in 1976, a desperate team of producers at Warner Bros. hired him for Superman: The Movie. Steven Spielberg, committed to Close Encounters of the Third Kind, had already passed on the project, and George Lucas was too busy working on another classic: Star Wars. Donner accepted after getting “a ridiculous offer,” only to be greeted with a camp script. “I took it upon myself to read it and was very disappointed,” Donner told RetroFan. “They were making a parody out of something much like American history.
“I was angry,” he added, “that they were disrespectful to the character.”
Eventually, Donner accepted the job of helming Superman (and Superman II, back-to-back) on the basis that he could rewrite it. Donner did just that writing a new script with his creative partner Tom Mankiewicz that did the character justice by treating him with more reverence.
To reiterate, this all took place in the late ‘70s. This was a very hostile time and place for an earnest superhero movie in which the lead flies around in red underwear. The ‘70s were ruled by gritty and ground-level anti-heroes, by dirty cops played by Clint Eastwood and kung-fu masters like Bruce Lee. With memories of Vietnam and Watergate haunting everyday Americans, and the overtly campy Batman TV show placing comics in a silly light the industry wouldn’t shake off for decades, Donner was facing an uphill battle with Superman.
“It was extremely important that the characters in the story believed themselves,” Donner said. “And the minute they didn’t, like I said, it became a parody.”
Donner’s “verisimilitude” allowed Superman to come to life in a way that felt, well, real. You can still see it watching the movie now, with snappy dialogue that feels like it’s formulating the Marvel Studios house style in real-time. In one timeless scene, Margot Kidder’s Lois Lane invites Superman (Christopher Reeve, who knew the character to an unparalleled degree) to her apartment for an interview.
When Lois offers him a glass of wine, Superman declines. “I never drink when I fly,” he quips.
Later, when Lois Lane asks Superman why he’s on Earth, he answers with utter sincerity, “I’m here to fight for truth, justice, and the American way.” Lois laughs, saying back to him: “You’re going to end up fighting every elected official in this country!”
At a tense time in American history, as political and social institutions were failing the people they were created to govern — and had yet to fail in more dramatic ways — audiences got a good laugh as they began to believe in the power of Superman.
“The perfect superhero film”
In 2017, Marvel’s Kevin Feige praised Superman: The Movie as “the perfect superhero film” and claimed that it influenced every film his studio had made.
“We watch it before we make almost any one of our films,” Feige said during a speech in honor of Richard Donner. The producers’ connections run deeper than that; Donner was also an executive producer on 2000’s X-Men, where Feige got his start in Hollywood. It is almost factual to say the MCU wouldn’t exist without Donner and his Superman.
When Donner died on July 5, Feige issued a statement that again contained his favorite word.
“Richard Donner not only made me believe a man could fly, he made me believe that comic book characters could be brought to life on the big screen with heart, humor, humanity, and verisimilitude,” Feige wrote. “I always thought Dick was immortal. I still do.”
In this modern era teeming with superheroes, every comic-book blockbuster owes a debt to Superman: The Movie. Outside of its many merits, from the performances of its leads (including Gene Hackman as an unforgettable Lex Luthor) to a timeless score by John Williams, it’s the movie’s verisimilitude that’s most paved the way for our obsession with the MCU.
Richard Donner promised we’d believe a man can fly. But even he couldn’t have imagined how much higher we’d soar by following his lead.
Superman: The Movie is streaming now on HBO Max.