Justice League of America

Martian Manhunter David Odgen Stiers fights middle-aged spread, while Green Lantern wonders if he can turn to confront Miguel Ferrer with a straight face.

Strangely enough, in 1997, while the world was waiting for Bruce Timm to create the show Justice League, CBS commissioned a pilot for a live-action Justice League of America. And as it happens, my local video store happened to have a copy of this little-seen pilot. As a “free rental,” no less. How could I resist?

A perfect example of how wrong a thing can go, Justice League of America shows what can happen when a decent idea falls into the hands of the uncaring. Now mind you, I never thought the original comic books (that is, in 1960) were any kind of ground-breaking miracle (they are mostly busy-work potboilers), but the makers of Justice League of America do not seem to have given a thought as to what their show is even about.

The lineup of this particular Justice League, for those interested, is Martian Manhunter, Atom, Flash, Green Lantern, Fire and Ice. The key thrust of the show seems to be “What if the Justice League were ordinary people, trying to lead their ordinary lives, trying to love and work and make friends, but then periodically having to dash off to save the world?”

Now, I’m all for superheroes behaving like human beings (that is, in fact, what makes the Bruce Timm show so successful), but there are limits. In Justice League of America, the superheroes aren’t just ordinary, they are desperately ordinary — sub-par slackers, halfway between The Incredibles and Mystery Men.

Take the Atom, for instance. In the comics, the Atom, Ray Palmer, is a brilliant physicist. That isn’t just a plot convenience, it’s the whole character. Ray Palmer must be a brilliant physicist because he invented the suit that enables him to get microscopic. In Justice League of America, Ray Palmer is a doughy, dull-witted, bespectacled high-school science teacher, unable to fix a television, much less rearrange the molecules of, say, an alien menace’s brainwaves.

Or the Flash. For the purposes of this show, it has been decided that Barry Allen can’t get his life together, attract women, or hold down a job. And so there is much “comedy” mined from Barry’s job misfortunes, lack of money and boredom. Why can’t he hold down a job? Well, because he moves too quickly, of course. Because apparently, in the world of this show, speed in one’s work is something that is frowned upon.

Or Green Lantern Guy Gardner (well, he’s called Guy Gardner, but he wears Kyle Rayner’s outfit, and of Lanterns, most closely resembles Rayner in temperament). The man who carries the most awesome weapon in the universe is a blithe, jokey ad executive, a man who has never given a moment’s thought to the responsibility he carries or the lineage he serves. I once wrote that Green Lantern is a job, but for Guy Gardner it appears to be more of a hobby.

Instead of watching Earth from their Watchtower up in space, this Justice League lives in a dumpy, retro apartment, where they bicker about chores and their love lives. That’s right, it’s Friends with superpowers. Far from protecting the world from intergalactic menace, it takes the whole team to protect one city from a terrorist with a plan that Dr. Evil would pass on as too absurd.

Now then: there is plenty in comics history to suggest that a group of superheroes with screwed-up personal lives could click — something 2000’s X-Men did beautifully — but what happens here is, disaster of disasters, the protagonists, dull as they are, become less interesting when they don their colorful outfits and fight crime. Their costumes are atrocious and laugh-inducing; they look like idiots dashing around their fake city in their bulky, ill-fitting suits and masks, rescuing tykes and dragging cats out from underneath porches. They have no ideas for fighting a menace or saving the city, they just kind of plod along, putting out fires while they wait for evidence to fall into their laps.

For those interested in viewing some representative clips, they may be found here.

The cast and crew of the pilot is a solid bunch of TV professionals, which makes it all the more perpexing that the show feels more like the production of some enthusiastic amateurs, not quite as polished as this.


40 Responses to “Justice League of America”
  1. kornleaf says:

    the grayson thing seems interesting
    but wasn’t he nightwing by that time


    wasn’t there a wally west flash tv show in the late 80’s/ early 90s?

  2. Todd says:

    Sure, Miguel Ferrer, son of Jose Ferrer and Rosemary Clooney, which I guess makes him a cousin of George Clooney, who once made a movie with Joel Coen, who once made a movie with me. Shit, we’re practically the same guy!

    Seriously though, Miguel Ferrer first came to my attention as the scheming yuppie in Robocop and then on Twin Peaks, although he’s done a whole heck of a lot more than those. One of my favorites.

  3. black13 says:

    I once caught this one on TV, two or three years ago. It was particularly groan-worthy because it seemed that at least the actors and designers were trying for more, and it felt like they were being torpedoed by the writers, the director, and the producers.

    • Todd says:

      I can see that the designers were trying for more, but more of what I’m not sure. To me the design looks cheap, superficial and fake.

  4. robolizard says:

    This was produced for HBO?!…*Really*!?

    Oh man. I love how fat the Martian Manhunter is. And how Batman and Superman are missing [I guess you can’t mess with characters the audience already knows…]. Besides this had to be made eventually, in one point or another. Better to get it out of our collective cultural system earlier rather than later [or refine it with ‘The Incredibles’…]

    Ah well. Timm really set the stamdard for JLA on film [or anywhere] quality. He constructed it, deconstructed it, and even made the fifth season a huge throwback to the other four. He more or less beat his future followups to the punch…

  5. craigjclark says:

    I tried watching this with a group of friends who also delight in bad movies, but our (bootleg) copy froze up about 20 minutes in. I think we’d seen enough by that point, though. We’re veterans of the Roger Corman-produced version of The Fantastic Four, so we’ve been down this road before.

    • Todd says:

      The difference with Fantastic Four, if memory serves, was that that movie was never intended to be completed, but was only produced in order to hold onto the movie rights for a period of time.

      • craigjclark says:

        Yes, that is correct. The thing is, the big-budget version makes many of the same mistakes as the Corman-produced one, which shows that you can spend as much money on special effects as you want, but if you don’t have a decent script to hang them on you’re still going to make a crappy movie.

  6. medox says:

    I love a good fan film — thank you very much for the clip.

    There are some fun DC-related ones here: http://www.youtube.com/blinky500
    (But I’m probably biased because I love the Blue Beetle, and he is featured on several films there).

  7. greyaenigma says:

    Wow. That Justice League was terrible. What has poor Atom been reduced to, besides four inches tall?

    Grayson looks like it could be interesting seeing it done professionally, but I have to agree that he should never be Robin on his own, he’d have to be Nightwing or something else. Robin is always a sidekick.

    • Todd says:

      What has poor Atom been reduced to, besides four inches tall?

      The saddest moment in the pilot, by far, is the scene where poor Atom shrinks down to the size of an action figure and then realizes he has no plan for getting a cat out from under a porch, after which we see the brilliant physicist tug half-heartedly on the cat’s tail.

      • greyaenigma says:

        Yeah, that was the scene. Ray could have been better used elsewhere, and Guy With a Broom could have sufficed.

        And were those two creating the storm the villains? They were talking about solving the world’s energy problems! Is this like early Superfriends where they kept fighting environmentalists and utopian idealists?

        • Todd says:

          The plot of the Justice League of America pilot involves the Weather Wizard (who is here called the Weather Man for some reason), who has, as any schoolboy will tell you, invented a thingymabob that controls the weather, and is holding the city ransom so he can get money to complete his research.

          Which, okay, is stupid, if only for the enormous Monday Morning problem. After he gets the money for changing the weather, then what? Does he think no one in “New Metro” (I wonder what became of “Old Metro”) will put two and two together?

          1. Whew, it’s a good thing we paid off that horrible Weather Man with his weather-controlling doohickey! Now we can be safe!

          2. Indeed, I whole-heartedly concur! I — hey look, I see here that that nice Professor Eno from the Eno Center for Weather Control Research finished his weather-controlling doohickey! Isn’t that nice? Good for him!

          • greyaenigma says:

            Dammit, Eno! Where were you last week when we really needed a scientist who could… control… weather… Hmm.

            I think logistics get a free pass in comics-universes. How else to explain the ever more elaborate and still secret Batcave and Watchtower? Really, almost any blackmail scheme where the most complicated part isn’t about the money transfer is going to have the same problem.

  8. greyaenigma says:

    And another thing!!

    J’onn J’onnz: Don’t worry about me. Where I come from, 300 degrees is a beach day!

    That’s what wrong with this movie! They replaced Martian Manhunter with Venusian Vigilante! Who is, presumably, afraid of ice.

    • Todd says:

      Re: And another thing!!

      It’s worse than that. J’onn J’onzz (I don’t think they call him Martian Manhunter, which makes sense because, after all, he’s not a manhunter [unless they’re referring to the men he’s hunting by dressing like a male stripper]), here, is not the “last son of Mars,” but a political refugee who fled Mars because of their oppressive society.

      All of which could have worked. Nobody cares about the backstory of J’onn J’onzz, Christ, I can barely type his name with a straight face. Make it anything you want. But put your goddamn protagonists in light that makes us want to see what they do next, not squirm with discomfort at what insufferable losers they are.

  9. thunder24 says:

    Two hours of your life you’ll never get back…

    • Todd says:

      For us screenwriters, we sometimes learn more from others’ mistakes than from others’ successes. A few more movies like this and I shall become a genius.

      • craigjclark says:

        I don’t know if you’re a reader of The Onion or its A.V. Club, but writer Nathan Rabin has started a series in the A.V. Club Blog called My Year of Flops. So far he’s written about Elizabethtown, Envy and Ishtar, and so far it’s been highly informative and entertaining — even though I’ve never seen the movies in question. (I’m sure he’ll eventually get around to some I hold dear, though.)

  10. gdh says:

    J’onn looks like he’s had one too many Chocos.
    And where are Batman and Superman?

  11. mikeyed says:

    I totally have to see this.

  12. ghostgecko says:

    >>>That’s right, it’s Friends with superpowers.

    “Dexter’s Lab” used to do an excellent spoof of this idea, “The Justice Friends”, in which the three superheros, Major Glory, Val Hallen and the Infragable Krunk, were also slackers sharing a tiny apartment and worrying about rent and uninvited houseguests in between smacking down the bad guys.

    • dougo says:

      And they sat around watching their favorite show (a show-within-a-show-within-a-show), Puppet Pals. Gosh, I loved that first run of Dexter’s Lab. Too bad the second run sucked so bad.

      Anyway, “heros with real-world problems” was a main idea of “The Tick”, also. If we’re making a list.

      • Todd says:

        All good reasons to suggest that Justice League of America could have worked. If it had, it could have felt as natural and refreshing as Tim Burton’s Batman and extended the life of the title in a whole new direction. But, alas, it does not.

  13. robolizard says:

    Its funny, in any other situation ‘David Ogden Stiers as the Martian Manhunter’ would’ve been a casting dream come true…

    • Todd says:

      He would have been a good choice for the voice of MM on Justice League, but I’m glad they went with Carl Lumbly, who is in my mind forever the voice of J’onn J’onzz, same as with Kevin Conroy‘s Batman.

      • Anonymous says:

        Heh, I actually got excited and thought “Justice League!” last week when I heard Lumbly’s voice from the other room.

        Alas, my roommate was watching Alias.

  14. thebitterguy says:

    Sorry to jump in eight months later, but the show seems to be based on the Giffen/DeMatteis run of JL called Justice League International.

    It was a lot lighter than current runs of the book, although it wasn’t quite as hard on them as this appears to be.



  15. Anonymous says:

    it weren’t bad but i do admit my power went off through out