Film director Richard Donner, best known for Superman and the Lethal Weapon series, has died, and this makes me sad. As I noted on Twitter, he once sent me a thank you note when I was a critic, because I was kind to his film Radio Flyer, a strange and fantastical little film about child abuse and the fantasies those children will produce in such circumstances. The film was generally panned (Here’s Roger Ebert’s review, which was typical) and was a commercial flop, but I didn’t hate it and found things to like about it. There were few enough reviews like mine that Donner took time to pen me a note for it. I appreciated that at the time.
Donner, shall we say, got over that disappointment quickly enough; his next film after Radio Flyer was Lethal Weapon 3, which was a monster hit in a series that never wasn’t a monster hit. The Lethal Weapon films eventually became the calling cards for Donner’s particular directorial style: Light and breezy and action-packed, with likeable good guys, boo-able bad guys, and not a whole lot of subtext. It’s not a style that wins Oscars, but it’s a style that made him one of Hollywood’s most commercially successful directors across two decades, from Superman to Lethal Weapon 4. That’s not chicken salad.
Indeed, Superman, Donner’s second major film (after The Omen; he’d done TV work and some small British films before them), is still one of the best superhero films more than 40 years on, because Donner’s gifts as a director mesh nearly perfectly with the subject material. His style plus the decision to make Metropolis a lived-in city and not just a Warner Bros backlot, plus arguably the best cast ever for a superhero film, created a bar that it took three decades for any other superhero film to get close to, much less clear. Watch Bryan Singer’s Superman Returns, a clear and obvious, if stilted, love letter to Donner’s film. Singer tries and fails to hit all the grace notes that Donner gives the appearance of hitting so effortlessly in his take. Take note just how difficult “light and breezy” can actually be.
I’ll let others argue whether Donner was a great director. What I will say is that he was great at playing to his directorial strengths, and kept a lot of people, including me, entertained while he did so. He had style, and no one else’s style was quite like his. He’ll be missed.