Richard Donner's impact on superhero movies goes far beyond Superman

Richard Donner
(Image credit: Getty - Axelle/Bauer-Griffin / Contributor)

In 1978, kids across the country were inspired by the sci-fi superhero world of Superman: The Movie, the film by iconic Hollywood director Richard Donner, who passed away on July 5 at the age of 91. 

More than 40 years later, movie pundits still cite Superman as having a major influence on the style and structure of even today's superhero movies.

(Image credit: Warner Bros. )

But little do they know just how influential Richard Donner and his production office were on two men who exert and have exerted enormous creative influence over most of Hollywood's superheroes, including almost inarguably the most impactful producer of superhero media this side of the late Stan Lee - Kevin Feige.

Feige, president of Marvel Studios and chief creative officer of Marvel Entertainment, and influential comic book writer and former chief creative officer for DC Entertainment Geoff Johns were among those wide-eyed kids who loved Superman: The Movie. But these two took the film's inspiration all the way to Hollywood and straight to the production company run by Richard and his wife and fellow Hollywood producer Lauren Shuler Donner.

In interviews conducted in 2010, Donner, Shuler Donner, Feige, and Johns all told Newsarama about those formative years. With Donner's passing Newsarama is looking back at the beloved director's lesser-known impact on the superhero genre.

"When Geoff walked in the door he knew more about Superman than I did," Richard Donner told Newsarama. "I knew he'd go far, because in the first week on the job, Geoff totaled my new car. But he walked away from it and opened his shirt, and he had a big 'S' under there. The writing was on the wall."

While they were still young film school upstarts – Johns fresh from graduating at Michigan State, and Feige still a student at the University of Southern California – they both landed jobs with the Donners. Shortly after starting with the company, Johns became an assistant to Richard, while Feige became an assistant to Lauren.

Kevin Feige

(Image credit: Getty)

"I am sure one of the main reasons Kevin managed to get himself an intern position at our company was because of Superman: The Movie," Lauren Shuler Donner said. "We had a lot of interns come and go depending on if it was summer or winter, but there was something about Kevin that made me notice him; Kevin was smart, resourceful and a self-starter. Plus there was a decency, an honesty, and integrity that Kevin possessed that spoke volumes to me. So I hired him as an assistant."

Feige and Johns were not only impressed by the movie, but they were both comic book readers. So working for the Donners was like a dream come true – particularly when the company ended up producing 2000's X-Men movie, one of the films that sparked today's superhero dominance in Hollywood. 

"In addition to being great producers, the Donners developed and produced two of the most seminal films in the superhero genre – Superman and X-Men," Feige told us in 2010. "Why not work for the company that started it all? For a film student and comic book fan like me, there was no better place to merge my two passions."

"Pure and simple, they're responsible for some of my favorite films and, specifically, Dick was a director I always admired for his work on Superman, The Goonies, and Lethal Weapon," Johns told Newsarama. "And Lauren was launching the X-Men franchise when I was just moving out to Los Angeles. I was lucky to be a part of the company during that time."

But even as Feige and Johns worked on a variety of movies with the Donners – not all of them linked to capes and tights – their love of superheroes was obvious to the people who worked with them.

"Kevin is a walking encyclopedia of all things Marvel. That was a hint to the path he followed," Lauren said.

"I met Kevin about a month after I moved to Los Angeles," Johns remembered. "We used to talk about superheroes non-stop. I always wanted to see Green Lantern and a new Superman. He was always talking about Star Trek and Star Wars. But more importantly, Kevin's just a very smart and very creative guy. Like Dick and Lauren, one of the best."

The Donners' former assistants' impact is significant since they have both wielded enormous creative input on both Marvel and DC over the last two decades. As every comic book fan knows, DC and Marvel are the two major publishers whose properties are filled with recognizable superheroes: Marvel with heroes like the X-Men, Spider-Man, Captain America, and Iron Man; and DC with characters like Batman, Superman, Green Lantern and the Flash.

Today, Disney owns Marvel's properties, while DC's heroes are held by ATT's Warner Media, and both entertainment companies produce multiple films and TV shows a year based on the comic book characters, which have become perhaps the most reliable core to each studios' annual theatrical release schedules, the WB's TV schedule (for DC) and now streaming services Disney Plus and HBO Max. 

What impressed Donner at the time when the pair were still in the early stages of their journeys as film executives were what he called their "incredible ability to look past the now and see the big picture."

"They both work in overseeing worlds full of characters, and in our movies, characters are the most important thing," Donner said. "You have to find the reality of each of these characters, and that brings the worlds to life. And that's what those two do."

According to Johns, much of the credit for how things turned out for him and Feige goes to Lauren and Dick Donner. Even though he and Feige were only "assistants," they were given opportunities to participate which gave them invaluable experience.

(Image credit: 20th Century Fox)

"Dick and Lauren not only have unbelievable talent when it comes to creating and producing films like X-Men and Superman – movies with action, fantasy, and heart – they are also two of the most generous and inclusive people in the business," Johns told Newsarama at the time. 

"Both of them not only welcomed you, as an assistant, into the pre-production, production, and post-production process but urged you to get involved. Dick and Lauren invited me to story meetings, I worked on the sets for entire shoots, I sat in mixes and editing sessions – all because they had an open-door policy. They not only became my mentors, but they also became my surrogate parents in Los Angeles."

"Both Dick and Lauren provided an incredible work environment which encouraged creativity and taking things as far as they could go," Feige said. "They readily supported the idea of assistants rising through the ranks and they were always quick to recognize talent in young folks – harness this talent and offer a platform in which up and coming producers and executives could grow."

While Superman: The Movie is recognized as one of the greatest stories starring the Man of Steel ever, Newsarama looks at the greatest Superman comic book stories of all time

Freelance Writer

Vaneta has been a freelance writer for Newsarama for over 17 years, covering Marvel and DC, and everything in between. She also works in marketing.