What are superheroes like when they take off their masks and drop their â€œheroicâ€ persona? It is a common theme found in many comic books today. In fact, some books are based solely around this question, and they all have varying degrees of success. One of the more noteworthy examples of this is the 1987 run of Justice League (International), created by the living legend Keith Giffen and J.M. DeMatteis. In it, the comic showed the reader the politics, the in-fighting, and ultimately the humor that is unleashed behind closed JL headquartersâ€™ doors. Sounds like a great sitcom, right?
That’s exactly what CBS thought.
Justice League of America
Starring: Matthew Settle, Kimberly Oja, John Kassir, Michelle Hurd,
Kenny Johnston, David Ogden Stiers, Miguel Ferrer
Director: Felix Enriquez Alcala
Now, before I get to the plot synopsis for this TV movie, I’m going to ask you all to forget everything you know about the Justice League. Seriously. Everything. Trust me.
The film opens with an interview with Tori Olafsdotter, otherwise know as the hero Ice (Kimberly Oja). How do we know this is Ice, you may ask? Because it is printed on-screen within the first 5 seconds of the movie. Apparently, the producers didn’t want to â€œbury the lead.â€ Anyways, Tora is describing what it’s like to be a shy, nervous girl in the Justice League. Cut to opening credits, then we’re presented with the first actual scene of the film, where Tori is working for Dr. Eno (Miguel Ferrer), a meteorological scientist. At this point, she doesn’t have powers yet, meaning this entire movie is essentially told in flashback. One by one, we’re introduced to the rest of the cast: Barry Allen (Kenny Johnston), a nice guy who has just been kicked out of his apartment, Guy Gardner (Matthew Settle), a smooth-talking software salesman who is constantly having â€œrelationship issues,â€ Ray Palmer (John Kassir), the stereotypical nerd, and B. B. DaCosta (Michelle Hurd), a snooty struggling actress.
Suddenly, their high-tech JLA beepers (remember beepers?) sound, and the team is humorously whisked away to stop a giant hurricane created by the devious Weatherman (the writers changed it from Weather Wizard because it sounded too ridiculous, I guess). Time for some action, right? WRONG! We are treated to scenes like the Atom shrinking down to rescue an old woman’s cat, and the Flash running in the opposite direction of the storm, negating it. Back at the science lab, Tori spills water on a strange machine and is given ice powers. After inadvertently saving a drowning skateboarder, Tora is kidnapped (!) by the JLA and brought to their leader. They are convinced that she’s the Weatherman, which is a giant shock to no one when she tells them she’s not.
Anyway, to wrap this up, the JLA save the day a few more times, mostly off-camera, and struggle through their personal lives. The Atom does the limbo, the Flash gets fired from a few more jobs, Fire rejects the advances of a young David Krumholtz (the smart guy from Numb3rs), and Tori learns to control her powers with the help of J’onn J’onzz (David Ogden Stiers), who is portrayed more like a galactic Professor X than a superhero. The day is saved yet again, this time clocking in less than 70 minutes.
In order to understand why this aberration was created in the first place, we have to think back to the year in comic book media had in 1997. It was the year of â€œBatman & Robin,â€ a movie that almost single-handedly ended DC’s superhero film franchise altogether. Because of this, DC was scrambling to redeem its characters, and was a little hasty in loaning out their intellectual property, hoping that something would click with a mainstream audience. It’s interesting to note that 1997 was the year another giant black mark was put on DC’s name: the feature film Steel, starring Mr. Shaquelle O’Neal and Judd Nelson from The Breakfast Club. Let’s face it- ’97 was a bad year all around for DC.
The characterization of the â€œJustice Leagueâ€ leaves much to be desired. It’s obvious that no one on set had any idea who the characters were in the comics. For example, they took the Atom, a character who not only was as courageous a hero as Superman himself, but also able to solve crimes with his mind as well as his fists, and reduced him to a nerdy, nervous, loser middle school science teacher. The Flash’s portrayal is worse, changing him from nearly-flawless â€œSaint Barryâ€ (as he’s know around here) to a pot-bellied twenty-something slacker who can’t hold a job and is constantly mooching off his teammates. Green Lantern a bastardization of not one, not two, but THREE of the former ring-wearers. Fire and Ice were also drastically altered for the show, but their variations are not as glaring to the casual comic reader simply because they are not as widely known.
Speaking of alterations, the costuming for JLA was horrific. Between GL’s amalgamation of Guy Gardner and Kyle Rayner’s costumes, the Atom’s Nerf-like shoulder pads and glowing insignia, the Flash’s weird head ridges and lightning bolts on his gloves, and Fire’s leather chaps and use of what has been describes as â€œextreme eyeshadowâ€ as a mask, I honestly have a hard time determining which uniform is the worst. Even the Weatherman, who we only get a head and shoulders view of, has an incredibly uninspired costume. Apparently, the use of sunglasses and bandannas were appropriate, because the last thing we’d want is for someone in this film to look stupid. I do have to say, however, the prosthesis used on David Ogden Stiers was above-average, and worked very well for J’onn J’onzz. Too bad the costume designers couldn’t do anything to hide Stiersâ€™ apparent girth. It looked as though the Marian Manhunter had either eaten one too many cases of Oreos or was about 7 months pregnant.
To say that the acting was bad would be an understatement. To me, the actors in the film were worse than bad; they were completely bland and unappealing. If I weren’t looking at the screen, I honestly wouldn’t know which character was talking at any given point during the movie (well, that’s not entirely true… because the characters were using each other’s names every 3 minutes in an effort to drill their names into the viewer’s brain). Tori and Ray’s voices were so grating, I actually had to get up and leave the room at one point, and I don’t know whose idea this was, but for some unknown reason The Flash had this strange pseudo-New York accent that faded in and out throughout the film. Again, Stiers and Miguel Ferrer gave competent performances, but I could tell that the two actors knew that they were in a real turkey.
So, it’s fairly obvious that JLA is a train wreck; however, I feel that by changing one key element, this show could have lasted longer than it ultimately did. If I were a network executive put in charge of ensuring the quality of this show, the first thing I would have done was drop all ties with DC and its characters. This would not have ensured any form of longevity for the series, but it would have at least given the writers the freedom to attempt something new with the idea of the â€œsuperhero sitcom,â€ instead of the feeling of… I don’t know how to describe it… â€œcharacter obligationâ€ that looms over this show. It may have even lasted a few episodes before getting the inevitable axe.
In the foreword to the original compilation of Giffen and DeMatteis’ Justice League, DC editor Andrew Helfer stated that in comics, writing a story that would work regardless of the characters involved is suicide, that (for example) a good Batman story can only feature Batman. In the case of the failed TV pilot Justice League of America, it is plain to see why. This film is proof that it is nearly impossible to write a character driven story with any degree of success if you don’t know your characters to begin with. I give Justice League of America 1 out of 5 stars, and that’s being generous.
Coincidentally, if any of you are looking for a superhero sitcom that (more or less) does it right, check out BBC’s No Heroics. It’s not perfect, but definitely worth a watch.