With today’s release of Justice League, we thought it would be interesting to look back at the last time DC tried to bring a live action Justice League to the masses. This is the story of the 1997 failed Justice League of America television pilot.
In 1997, perhaps inspired by the success of Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman, CBS decided to get into the superhero television game. They produced a pilot featuring DC’s premiere team, the Justice League of America, basing it off the team established in its last truly iconic run at the time, the Keith Giffen/J.M. DeMattais/Kevin Maguire ‘bwahaha’ “Justice League International.” With a cast of attractive young actors and a classic DC villain being reinterpreted for their first opponent, it seemed like the show would be an easy hit for the network.
But you have to realize, they did everything wrong.
To start, this is presented like a mockumentary, with solo and group confessionals filling us in on some backstory and giving the characters some depth and motivation. In these vignettes, we get the basics of each character: Fire (B.B.) is a struggling actor, the Atom (Ray) is a science teacher, Green Lantern is…bad at relationships? And the Flash is a jock-y lunkhead who is both unemployed and dumb.
The Flash and Green Lantern need a little more explanation, because neither is what you’d expect. As I said earlier, the pilot is loosely (like a baby wearing a circus tent loose) based on the iconic JLI team of the late 80s/early 90s. That team, like this team, featured Guy Gardner as the Green Lantern. Here, the only connection between TV Guy and comics Guy is the name and the basic shape of his vest. A vest, mind you, which is really teal, not green, despite the ring making solid green constructs. Plus, the vest has Kyle Rayner’s logo on it, but he’s nothing like Kyle. I guess he is like Hal Jordan the most, if only because both tend to fancy themselves lotharios with varying success. But this is about as vanilla as you can get in terms of characterizations: not particularly good or bad at superheroics, not particularly funny or grumpy or nice – he’s just sort of there. Early on in the pilot, when it turns out that the Flash is moving into his apartment, he’s shitty about it for about 5 seconds and then empathizes and moves on with his day.
The Flash is even more puzzling. Name Barry Allen here, Allen had been dead for 12 years at the point of this shooting, and was never even a part of the JLI run. But the Barry on screen is not like Wally West or Barry – because he’s painfully dumb. He can’t talk his way out of the simplest situations, he can’t hold down a job because he makes his coworkers look bad by running at the speed of sound, and sounds like a dumber Joey from Friend whenever he opens his mouth.
The Friends comparison is an apt one, as you absolutely get that vibe from the show. A number of the team members live together, there’s an ex-couple in the ranks (Guy and B.B.), as well as new romance brewing (between Ray and Tori, who we will discuss shortly). The problem is, the show isn’t particularly funny; it comes off like a less funny Powerless, which is saying something.
The show does attempt a little humor, and even some risque humor (for 1997 CBS), like when B.B. tells Guy that she faked ‘a lot of things’ when they were together (she means her orgasms you guys!), or when the team sort of implies that if Tori didn’t join up they’d kill her. No, seriously, she sks “what would you have done if I said no?,” to which she is answered, “don’t ask.” Har har!Continued below
Tori (Ice) is the audience surrogate on the show. She works for a weather tracking service and, through a mixup at work, winds up with freezing powers. You know, as one does. But she only gets involved with the League because she inadvertently saves someone’s life by freezing part of the Metro City Bay, and so the League takes notice.
Tori is another vanilla character, which is made up for by the fact that most of her interactions are with Ray, played by John Kassir, a voice actor you may know as the Cryptkeeper from Tales From the Crypt. Kassir brings a sense of calm and heart to the role. He’s easily the best of the male actors on the show, both in terms of straight acting chops and in making you care about his character. His goofy affection for Tori is endearing, and for a second, he makes you forget you’re watching something truly dull.
The other standout performance is by Michelle Hurd as Fire. She’s incredibly likable and graceful in the role, and you can’t take your eyes off her when she’s on the screen. She also benefits from having a lot of interaction with David Krumholtz, who guest-stars as a production assistant on a faux-Fruit of the Loom commercial who is smitten with her. Both parts, in lesser hands, would have been terrible – Krumholtz is supposed to be 22, but often acts like he’s 16, but does so with such charm that you forgive it. And Hurd’s combination of stunning beauty and understated acting makes for the show’s most naturalistic performance.
The other watchable performance comes from the late, great Miguel Ferrer, who plays Dr. Eno/the Weather Man. Ferrer turns on the charm and tries to distract from the fact that, in the 90s, he pretty much only played bad guys, but you can see through it pretty quickly. But Ferrer is his usual great self, and he helps Tori not appear to be so wooden in their scenes together. Why the show felt that ‘Weather Man’ was better than the traditional DC villain of ‘Weather Wizard’ I’m not too sure, especially because the show doubles down on the cheesy/goofy quite a bit.
The plot of the pilot is simple – Weather Man wants to hold Metro City ransom for lots of money. He has a machine that can control the weather, and he threatens the city with a number of catastrophes, from tornadoes to tidal waves. The way that team deals with these are silly at best and potentially life threatening for the citizens at worst. For instance, Ice freezes a tidal wave. Well, once that thaws, won’t the city still be underwater?
The last member of the team, who appears only in a few scenes, is Martian Manhunger, who is the leader of the crew, and who operates things from a bunker beneath a graffiti-laden bridge base. Manhunter, who has a paunch like Oliver Hardy, uses his shapeshifting ability twice in the episode, first to get Tori to spill her guts about some work business while posing as Dr. Eno, and the other to convince Martin, B.B.’s young suitor, that she’s not Fire. This scene is particularly dumb, as when you see the Fire and B.B. standing next to each other, you would have to think they are identical twins. One’s hair being up and having green makeup on her face is not enough to fool anyone.
But for all the storytelling flaws, and the poor acting, and the weird decisions made, none handcuff the show more than its look. I know that budgets were quite smaller 20 years ago, but unless green fabric was being held back for the war effort, there is no reason for a Teal Lantern. The Atom suit makes the somewhat trim Kassir look like a chunky middleschooler. The Flash costume is about 10 steps down from the one the 1991 series used. These characters all look like they are wearing costumes that a local car dealership would rent for its “super sale.” A few tweaks here or there would have allowed the series to look presentable at quick glance, and wouldn’t have been the laughing stock it is, just on a quick glance.Continued below
I first saw this when I was in college, when I purchased a VHS copy at the Pittsburgh Comic Con in 2001. It was clearly transferred from a video on a shitty PC, because about ten minutes of the film was just a frozen image on the Atom’s crotch, while dialogue kept moving. Shockingly, this wasn’t one of the worst parts of watching it.
So, regardless of what Justice League is like – and you’ll have a few Multiversity opinions over the next few days, between our review and a special DC3cast episode dedicated to it – at least it won’t have a Martian Manhunter mask that doesn’t cover a double chin, or a chef’s hat wearing Barry Allen, or Guy Gardner learning an aria from an opera to impress his terrible girlfriend, or a secret identity being in question due to some earrings.
At least I hope to God it won’t.