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Monday, August 27th, 2012

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.

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  • http://www.facebook.com/mike.cunliffe Mike Cunliffe

    This pilot was attempting to copy the tone of the comic book at the time. In the mid-90s DC had removed the heavyweights from the team and filled it with the aforementioned lesser-known characters. The tone of the comic was far more humorous and satirical than any of the previous incarnations of the series. Written by Keith Giffen, the comic was far more entertaining and interesting than anything that had come before, but the TV people didn't quite understand that and delivered this garbage, but they were a lot closer to the actual comics of the day than you might think.

    • Matt Schimkowitz

      The mid-to-late 90s seem like a really, really strange time for DC. Does that Giffen run have any arcs worth checking out?

      • froggy

        Yeah it does, the first arc for that giffen/dematteis league should be available and it's what I'd suggest, someone more knowledgeable about that era can offer more than me. The mid to late 90's was a strange time for DC but a lot of fun stuff did pop out of there, like Impulse which was a sitcom in superhero form. It'd be cool if you guys did an article on that haha

        • Big Bad Voodoo Lou

          The Giffen/DeMatteis Justice League actually started in 1987, and those two writers stayed on it until 1992, through several name changes (Justice League –> Justice League International –> Justice League America) and a spinoff title (Justice League Europe). It was a sitcom in comic book form, and made perfect use of Justice League mainstays Batman and Martian Manhunter as the straight men, alongside more comedic characters like Blue Beetle, Booster Gold, Guy Gardner (a loutish, hotheaded Green Lantern), and Fire and Ice, who made it into this awful movie.

          DC has published six trade paperbacks reprinting the first few years of the Giffen/DeMatteis run, which also featured some excellent artists like Kevin Maguire and Adam Hughes. I discovered it in elementary school, and it remains my favorite comic run to this day, here in my 30s. It has aged surprisingly well, and parts of it are still laugh-out-loud hilarious, which contrasts even better with moments of extreme drama and tension that come along later. I'm a huge comedy nerd, and I recommend it highly to anyone who thinks superheroes could be a little less serious.

  • Matt Visconage

    This new column is great. Love it.

  • Arthur F.

    That period of 90s could certainly be recalled for the cinema relying on cannibalisation of TV past, while trying to figure out what to do with the upcoming renewal of comic book culture. The 90s also heralded the new tv cartoon, which meanwhile would handle such things deftly and introduce new life into them. This actually sounds pretty close to the way the cartoon "Dexter's Lab" handled the introduction of a "Justice League" sub-series within their series, a parody (but with a clearly reference to Hulk, Thor, and Captian America) where they would be living together, sitcom style. It was actually funny in that context. As soon as you put real people in those awful costumes it's over.

  • Marc Jones

    I saw this film late one night here in the UK. I spent half my time thinking 'What the hell am I watching? Who wrote this drivel???' and the other half sniggering helplessly at the overall terribleness of, well, everything.