The Disaster That Was the 1997 Comedy Pilot for ‘The Justice League of America’
Sometimes TV shows drag their unfunny, uninteresting, and yet, highly rated feet across our living rooms for years. “Who let this happen?” we ponder as our foreheads turn red from frequent smacks. Other times, the powers that be get things right. That’s where “Brilliantly Canceled” comes in, looking at the shows that didn’t make it past the pilot and saved us all a ton of grief.
For decades, the Justice League of America, home to Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman, acted as the premiere superhero collective. It spawned comic books, cartoons, and a steady stream of merchandise. It also produced the pilot to The Justice League of America, an 80-minute mini-movie introducing the world to some of DC Comics’ most forgettable heroes. Designed to carry DC back into the world of serialized television, Justice League of America buckled under the pressure.
Following the mid-90s trend of producing terrible superhero adaptations, director Félix Enríquez Alcalá forces the League onto TV with no understanding of the medium nor his material. Instead, Alcalá turns up the camp and tones down the action and transforms the adventures of the League into a low-stakes sitcom. He didn’t adapt to the form. He merely changed Chandler Bing’s name to Green Lantern and called it a day.
CBS’s Justice League of America exists somewhere between Three’s Company reruns and 1997’s garbage dump of live action superhero stories, transplanting Joel Schumacher’s action figure commercials to the small screen sans the neon spectacle and nipples of Batman & Robin. Alcalá directs a campy, soulless mess of a pilot, which tries to blend action and comedy but manages to confuse the two.
Side stepping around the expensive rights of DC’s stars, JLA recruits some of DC’s most curious heroes. Sure, the Flash and Green Lantern are recognizable faces, but whom else do we spend our time with? Superman? Aquaman? The Power Twins? Nope. Fearing that popular characters would only attract a healthy audience, Alcalá populates the pilot with a host of D-list players, like Fire, The Atom, Ice, and a diabolical weatherman named The Weather Man.
Most of this comes about because Alcalá can’t make heads or tails of Lorne Cameron and Dave Hoselton’s script. They haphazardly mix genres, hoping to cultivate a narrative that has something for everyone. First, they try their hand at the mockumentary, opening the show by interviewing a new character, Tori Olafsdotter, because that’s a name a writer once wrote, who talks about making the jump to superherodom. It could be mistook for a informercial testimonial, if it weren’t so poorly shot. Next, they change genres again; this time, as a charmless, George Reeves-styled series of effortless heroics from the League. Finally, the team changes into their secret identities, and the pilot turns into a light sitcom, a genre that overpowers the other two.
As things progress, the writers share time among the breaking news of a weather station, where a terrorist uses storm systems against the city of New Metro; the Nancy Drew misadventures of Tori, an up-and-coming meteorologist; and the mundane problems of the League’s respective members. It’s an episode Friends with a helping of meteorological terrorism that’s consistently illogical and just plain dumb. The split between comedy and action, documentary and sitcom, and human and superhuman ruins the pacing, squeezing the life out of each agonizing minute.
Each of these elements attempt to humanize these characters and take the super out of the heroes. Though, the superhero testimonials and the League’s comedic problems (the unemployed and uncouth Flash moves in with Green Lantern and The Atom) play second fiddle to Tori, who Alcalá positions as our guide through the weird world of the League. This is Tori’s story, which, surprisingly, is not one anyone wanted to hear.
Things don’t get much better in act II. After the Weatherman successfully does nothing in the pilot’s first third, Tori begins to suspect that a co-worker might be the mysterious evil-doer. At the behest of the League, who couldn’t use their superpowers to take care of this one, Tori snoops around the suspects office, where she’s struck by a laser that gives her the power to turn water into ice. Exciting.
The innate silliness of the script is only matched by the innate silliness of the production. The costumes, sets, and effects are remarkably cheap. Those costumes, clunky and awkward, fit like muscular Halloween garb from a surplus store, while the state of the art effects remain 1997s best use of Microsoft Paint. The sets render the mystery and awe of the Hall of Justice into boring sound stages. Its dressing: one spotlight and a couple ugly computer terminals. Even if the endless monologues and comedic setups had been enjoyable, everything looks far too stupid to work.
The ending sets the series up for what no one was hoping would be the long haul. A Justice League of bit players playing with cheap effects in an underpopulated New Metro barely seems like a good time to those involved. Even by the low standards of the era, this one is a failure. It actively refuses compelling storytelling, favoring sitcom goofiness over super-heroics. For a show about a team of magical characters, the outcome is bland, and the blasé performances only reinforce this.
All this was for naught, though, because only a select few got to see the thing. Justice League never aired in America; although, it did screen before the poor eyes of the U.K., Puerto Rico, and Germany, among others. Since its still-born release and abandonment by CBS, JLA saw interest from comic book conventions and now the Internet, where it will exist in a mocking purgatory for all eternity.
Was this the limit of what TV could handle in 1997? Were superheroes only understood through parody? Will The Flash ever find a job? Find out for yourself:
Matt Schimkowitz is freelance writer, critic, and Class-A dungeon master, despite having never picked up a 20-sided die. Like you, he enjoys the finer things in life: drinking from coconuts, the latest Italian vogue, and complaining about movies, music, and TV. Find more writing about canceled TV shows on the Twittersphere @borntoslug.