Before Capes Were Cool #7: Justice League of America (1997)

I’ve talked before about how, just within my lifetime, I’ve gone from starved for choice to spoiled for choice when it comes to superhero movies. Late last year, DC/WB released its big-screen Justice League movie, and I couldn’t work up the interest to go see it in theaters. Reviews were generally positive if not enthusiastic, but at the end of the day, I felt that I could save myself the cost of a theater ticket and wait until this comes on one of my streaming services (or possibly if my brother buys it on DVD/Blu ray). Yet, twenty years earlier, a notoriously horrible Justice League of America pilot was commissioned and turned down by CBS, and I made it a point to procure a copy. Reviews were actively hostile1, and the vendor I bought my bootleg VHS copy2 from at a local comics convention in the late ‘90s—a guy, keep in mind, who was trying to sell me things—helpfully informed me, “You know this is terrible, right?” And yet, I plunked down $15 or whatever it was and watched it more than once.

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I have been tending toward being lenient and forgiving of these movies that saw me through the lean years of superhero film and television, but even I will tell you flatly: this TV movie sucks. But you really don’t need me to tell you that. Read literally any other review on the internet about it. Or just look at the header image with your own eyes. This is not a film that requires a savage, point-by-point takedown; this is a three-legged puppy that’s been kicked for two decades now, and I needn’t dirty my shoes on it. So instead, I want to do what I’ve been trying to do all along with these articles and look at the context of when it was made to try to determine why this movie is the way it is.

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There’s not a lot out there about the behind-the-scenes aspect of this movie; I haven’t been able to find any oral histories, or interviews with cast or crew, or articles about its production. But I think we can piece together what CBS and the producers of the show were likely thinking. The film and TV arm of DC Comics was, at the time, largely in the business of Batman and Superman and not much else. A 1990 The Flash series lasted only one season, so maybe the notion was that bundling these second-tier heroes together would fare better. The Morrison/Porter JLA series was popular at the time, so maybe DC was feeling a little bullish about the Justice League as a media property.

Now, what else was on TV? Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman ran for a decent four years, and it differentiated itself from other superhero projects (and other iterations of Superman adaptations) by focusing on the personal life and romance angle of Clark Kent and Lois Lane. Friends was at the height of its popularity and focused on young adults’ struggles with their love lives and careers. It seems likely that the thought was to fuse the two shows; there would still be costumes and heroics and villains, but the major differentiator of this show would be to lean heavily on the comic misadventures of the heroes in their civilian identities. There was even a precedent for a comedic Justice League in the well-loved DeMatteis/Giffen/Maguire Justice League/Justice League International run of the 1980s.

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What you end up with looks almost very modern: a single-camera sitcom with no laugh track, a semi-parody of superhero narratives. It even incorporates talking head segments that, at the time, would have suggested something like The Real World but now look to anticipate similar devices on shows like The Office and Parks and Recreation.  The heroes are not just teammates but roommates; they’re young, struggling, loveable losers trying to make their way in the world. Green Lantern has Guy Gardner’s name and costume (and Kyle Rayner’s logo and mask) but is more like a Bronze Age Hal Jordan: he’s the charming, funny guy, a salesman who’s constantly in hot water with his girlfriend for being unreliable. The Flash is named Barry Allen but is an affable lunkhead who can’t hold down a job, and he’s got early post-Crisis Wally West’s need to consume massive amounts of calories to power his speed. Fire/BB da Costa is a working actress with big-screen aspirations who’s scraping by trying to land parts in dumb commercials. The Atom/Ray Palmer is a nebbish science teacher and hopeless romantic. Ice/Tori Olafsdotter isn’t terribly well defined because a lot of the movie is just her coming to terms with gaining powers and her connection to the villain, but maybe she’d be kind of wide-eyed and naïve? And you have J’onn J’onzz acting as mentor.

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At any rate, you can see how these characters fit together and how you their dynamics could generate stories in future episodes. The movie gives everyone a civilian-focused subplot, and one imagines the series would continue with the same sorts of plots. Guy has promised to do something for his girlfriend but gets sidetracked with Green Lantern business. Barry gets a new job but invariably messes it up. BB suffers an indignity in an audition. Ray and Tori navigate their new relationship. Presumably J’onn could be a sounding board and offer advice from time to time, and maybe he even has to use his own powers and get more directly involved in cases when the situation calls for it. The dynamics might be derivative of other shows—and maybe sitcom shenanigans aren’t what you, as a fan, necessarily want out of a show about the Justice League—but it’s a competent setup and storytelling engine. It could work.

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But it doesn’t work, and while the cheap costuming and cheaper special effects are pretty obvious turnoffs, I think the problem with the pilot goes deeper. Who, exactly, is the intended audience? Lois and Clark probably owes its success because it committed to a focus: “Here’s a sexy young couple, and also the guy is Superman.” At the end of the day, it was a show pitched to Mom and Dad, but the kids could tune in too. Justice League of America, by contrast, waffles in the middle ground. I think it maybe wants to have the same kind of focus as Lois and Clark, but this thing feels like it was constantly second-guessed. What you end up with is a superhero show that would likely have turned off kids because the superheroes spend so much time doing mundane, non-superheroic stuff…and yet, it’s never allowed to be terribly sophisticated or urbane, so you can’t really see adults connecting to the Saved By The Bell-level plotting. And the superhero stuff is treated in a fairly generic3 and dopey way with none of the wit or modernity of Lois and Clark‘s Superman action; the Atom saves an old lady’s cat during a storm, that sort of thing. The movie tries to be safe and amenable for all possible demographics, but as a result, there’s really just nothing here for any demographic to really latch on to.4


NEXT WEEK: It’s Fox Night at the Movies yet again as we close our little late-‘90s TV movie course with Nick Fury: Agent of SHIELD. After that…I promise we’ll do something good again.