[Editor's Note: With the reported news that writer-turned-executive Geoff Johns is leading a new DC Films division for Warner Bros, we thought it interesting to take a look back at this somewhat prescient article from 2010 comparing the shared connections between him and Marvel Studios' President Kevin Feige.]
In 1978, kids across the country were inspired by the sci-fi superhero world of Superman, the movie by director Richard Donner. More than 30 years later, movie pundits often cite the film as having a major influence on the style and structure of even today's superhero movies.
But little do they know just how influential Donner's office was on two men who now have creative control over most of Hollywood's superheroes.
Kevin Feige, president of Marvel Studios, and Geoff Johns, chief creative officer at DC Entertainment, 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 Lauren Shuler Donner.
"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 an intern at USC – they both landed jobs with the Donners. Shortly after starting with the company, Johns became assistant to Richard, while Feige became assistant to Lauren.
"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 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.
"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 said. "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. "Kathy Liska, my executive assistant, remembers that Geoff Johns would draw all the birthday cards for people in the company. That was how we first learned he was such a talented artist."
"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 StarWars. But more importantly, Kevin's just a very smart and very creative guy. Like Dick and Lauren, one of the best."
The impact of the Donners' assistants-turned-executives is significant, since they have creative input on both Marvel and DC. 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 Warner Bros., and both entertainment companies are developing multiple films based on the characters in the wake of huge successes in the genre.
Feige, as president of Marvel Studios, oversees the development of movies like this year's Iron Man 2 and the now-filming Thor. Johns, working out of his office at Warner while also writing best-selling comic books, has co-written or consulted on much of Warner's upcoming superhero movie slate, including Green Lantern and The Flash.
For the Donners, the ascent of their assistants in Hollywood's superhero landscape has been fun to watch, but both said they're just as impressed by who they've become as people.
"Both Kevin and Geoff have had the unique ability to hold on to their integrity while ascending to the top of their professions. In a town like this, that is not easy," Lauren said.
According to Johns, much of the credit for how things turned out goes to Lauren and Dick Donner. Despite the fact that he and Feige were only "assistants," they were given opportunities to participate that gave them invaluable experience.
"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 said. "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 become my mentors, they also became my surrogate parents in Los Angeles. I just had dinner with Dick last week and it's incredibly gratifying to be where I am and be able to buy him dinner."
Because of that open door policy, Feige and Johns rose through the ranks in Hollywood – Feige by moving to Marvel Studios; Johns by working with comic books and, just this year, being appointed to his creative job with DC Entertainment.
"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."
Over the last decade since the pair left the Donner office behind, Hollywood has made dozens of superhero movies, and moviegoers' love affair with tights doesn't seem to be ebbing anytime soon. And as the future of the comic book movie takes shape, it will be two young Donner assistants who were impressed by the movie that will lead it through the coming years.
"What's unique about them as a pair is this incredible ability to look past the now and see the big picture," Richard Donner said. "They both work in overseeing worlds full of characters, and in our movies, characters are the most important thing... 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...
"And now that we've brought it up," he added, "I remember Geoff never did pay me for that car.”