With HBO Max on the verge of releasing Zack Snyder’s Justice League, the culmination of the director’s interpretation of the iconic DC Comics superhero team featuring the likes of Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, et al, we thought it would be interesting to go back and take a look at the critical response to the four DC Comics based films that serve as the foundation for all comic book adaptations today- Superman: The Movie, Superman 2, Batman and Batman Returns.
And whose reviews are better to look back upon than those of Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert? First as reviewers for the rival Chicago dailies the Chicago Tribune and the Sun-Times and then as co-hosts of a movie review program that ran nearly three decades, Siskel and Ebert not only brought film criticism to masses, they championed some films that could have slipped into obscurity, all the while becoming as much a household name as they movie stars whose work they were critiquing. Sometimes they agreed on whether a movie was good or bad, and when they did it could be for different reasons. But the thing that kept readers and viewers returning was when they disagreed, because they did so with vigor, passion and knowledge about the movies that made those conversations especially illuminating.
Superman: The Movie
Director Richard Donner’s Superman: The Movie was such a revelation in how it treated its world and its characters more seriously than comicbook adaptations had done so before, that it seems to have caught Siskel and Ebert a bit off balance. As he states in his review, for Siskel “the big surprise is that the film’s love story, not the much talked about flying scenes, that’s what makes Superman a hit.” He also points out how the hiring of an actor of the stature of Marlon Brando serves to “make the fantasy believable.” Meanwhile Ebert praised the film’s light comedic touch and star Christopher Reeves’s performance, pegging the newcomer as an actor to watch. The pair concluded the show recommending the film to viewers. (This is back before they started using their iconic Thumbs Up/Thumbs Down summations.)
When it came time to review the sequel, Siskel and Ebert found themselves once again praising the film’s love story between Superman and Lois Lane, even more so than the film’s superheroic action sequences. Siskel stated that he enjoyed Superman II even more than the first film, calling it “Delightful… A sequel that stands on its own. This is no ripoff.” He also called out Reeves work as being underappreciated, drawing a parallel to Cary Grant ‘s comedic work, “bumbling, yet very appealing.” Ebert also praised the love story and reiterated how it is the casting that really makes both films work. (It should be noted that Siskel and Ebert do not make mention of the fact that a good portion of Superman II was shot concurrently with the first film, thus contributing to the continuity of things they like about both films.)
Siskel found himself drawn to the more adult take on the character and it’s “troubled characters and dark look. It is a shame that such an approach has to be considered a risk these days, but I’m glad that the approach was taken.” Ebert states he was struck by the art direction, but found he could not connect with the characters. After watching their consensus over the first two Superman films a decade earlier, their split review here is actually more fun to watch as they spar back and forth on various points about the movie.
For this review, Ebert finally gets to take the lead. (The pair would flip a coin before shooting started to determine who would introduce each film review.) But he still finds himself liking the look of Burton’s work but not being able to relate to the characters. “I always thought I was watching from the outside,” he states. “There are some strange contradictions here. Batman [Returns] is not a successful movie but, visually at least, it is an inspired one.” Siskel, meanwhile, states that he finds himself drawn to the villains of the film as played by Michelle Pfeiffer and Danny DeVito. The disagreement on the film leads to a lively, if too short in this case, discussion between the two.