Justice League of America (1997 television pilot)

Posted: June 11, 2014 in DC, Flash, Green Lantern, Justice League

Have you ever heard of an elevator pitch? Now that I provided a helpful link, you should all be saying, “Yes! Of course! Don’t ask condescending questions!” Ok, jeeze. I have watched this pilot more times than I care to admit and one thing keeps running through my mind: what was the elevator pitch for this? I can just imagine some excited executive at CBS breathlessly explaining his grand scheme for this series, “It’s Friends but with superpowers!” And his boss, dollar signs clouding his vision responds with, “Yep. Let’s do it.”

So, instead of a proper Justice League who save the world, we’re treated to a group of losers that can barely stop a guy that predicts the weather (and can change it or something). But even that scant plotting is constantly cut into with annoying sort-of-improv interview segments with the characters. They typically whine about how tough it is to have powers or reminisce about adventures unseen in the show. So, the JLA’s a reality show? Where’s the camera crew? And if they’re discussing their secret identities on TV then what’s the use of having them? It’s clear that since the tone is played for laughs, that’s used as justification for nothing making sense. It’s comedy…right?

“You sure no one’ll see this?”

To the uninitiated, the pairing Justice League and comedy may seem like an odd fit. However, in the mid-80’s Keith Giffen and J.M. DeMatteis (with the art of Kevin Maguire) re-imagined the League as a group of misfits who bickered with each other and got into comic-capers between bouts of super-heroics. Admittedly, this is a pretty decent starting point for a television series. It would have provided some characters with TV friendly (cheap to produce) powers who also had personalities tailor-made for a sitcom format. However, the studio obviously wanted some higher-profile characters.

Unfortunately for them, complicated rights issues prevented any big-name heroes from appearing, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Without the insane level of name recognition that comes with Batman or Superman, the writers of this could have opened the door for lower tiered characters to shine (much like Booster Gold and Blue Beetle did in the 80’s comic). Instead, they stuck with said lower tiered characters but completely re-wrote everything about them. If not for the costumes (the horrid, foam costumes) it would be impossible to figure out who they were actually supposed to be. Here’s a quick rundown:

GL, threatening a man with a
chainsaw. How heroic.

Guy Gardner. In the comics, Guy is the hothead Green Lantern. At the time this series was put into production, he was mostly played for laughs and best recognized when drawn with a ridiculous ginger bowl-cut. In the film, more than a little is taken from other GL’s (namely Kyle Rayner’s mask and logo, Hal Jordan’s looks and Alan Scott’s ring) while his overall demeanor is paint-by-the-numbers “hero with a secret identity”.

Ray Palmer. The Atom is the quintessential science-hero in the comics. He’s blindingly intelligent and has created one-off inventions that have saved his teammate’s asses multiple times. In this, he’s a high-school teacher played by the Crypt Keeper, stuffed into uncomfortable-looking, blue-and-red football pads. Also, he fights a cat. Way to make the most of the shrinking power, guys!

Not pictured: Dignity.

Beatriz DeCosta. Fire is a hero with a shady backstory. She was once a government assassin and is trying to make up for her past sins by using her pyromancy for good. And the film follows suit…oh wait, of course it doesn’t. In this she’s a failed actress who’s wearing a banana costume when she’s introduced to the audience.

Due to his awkward mask design, he
 always seems to be looking down.

Barry Allen. The fastest man alive is also one of the most noble. At the time of this film, Barry was notable for sacrificing himself to save the universe during the Crisis on Infinite Earths event. On top of that, he was an all-around nice guy who genuinely wanted to help people. Here, he’s a slacker who can’t keep his life in order and annoys everyone on the team.

Tora Olofsdotter. In the source material, she’s a princess from a magical tribe of Norsemen who can manipulate ice. She’s also Fire’s best friend and Guy’s love interest. In the film she’s a naive research assistant to Dr. Eno (the film’s villain) who accidentally gains superpowers and dresses like a soccer mom. Granted, her new origin probably plays a bit better on television.

J’onn J’onzz. While a Martian in the comic, his race is never directly identified here. He also seems to have scaled down powers, limited to shape-shifting and above average survival skills. He also seems to be morbidly obese.

“Gah!”

So that’s the League. The writers decided to split the difference between B-level, recognizable heroes and the much-loved but less visible League from the 80’s. Sadly, pretty much everything is lost in the translation. What we end up with is a directionless mess that seems to have been made by committee.

On the bright side, this has become a camp-classic due to its unofficial, bootleg release at various cons. It’s incredibly entertaining but for all the wrong reasons. And, to date, this is the only live-action film, TV series or anything with the title Justice League. You could split hairs about the Legends of the Superheroes, but this was actually called Justice League of America. So even in all its crappy garishness, it still has a place in comic book movie history.

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