The idea of a live-action Justice League show today doesn’t seem far-fetched. Superhero shows are a dime a dozen in the current landscape, but back in 1997 things were much different. Though superheroes were beginning to figure out how to break into mainstream television while still honoring their colorful heritage, there was one particular adaptation along the way that could have been a real embarrassment.
In 1997, CBS ordered a pilot based on the Justice League of America. There was one big stipulation though: The show could not feature any of DC Comics’ Big Three — Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman. These three characters were considered notable enough that they could carry their own potential series, as well as feature films. This was something of an obstacle at first, but screenwriters Lorne Cameron and David Hoselton figured that there were plenty of other members that could make up a successful team.
The lineup would consist of The Flash (Barry Allen), Green Lantern (Guy Gardner), The Atom (Ray Palmer), Fire (Beatriz “B.B.” DaCosta), Martian Manhunter (J’onn ‘J’onzz), and Ice (Tori Olafsdotter). The villain they would be up against would be a meteorological manipulator called the Weather Man (played by character actor Miguel Ferrer).
It’s difficult to count how many things Justice League of America gets wrong, not just as an adaptation but as a piece of television. For starters, the characters are mostly their respective comic book counterparts in name only. Barry Allen isn’t a scientist, he’s an underachieving and unemployed meathead. Guy Gardner isn’t an obnoxious but stalwart warrior, he’s a regular guy who just can’t get his love-life together. What exacerbates this whole problem is how the show decides to stick these characters together: in an apartment. Yes, Justice League of America has more in common with Friends than it does Super Friends.
Not only do almost all the attempts at sitcom humor fall flat, but there’s also the bizarre decision to feature interview segments with each of the members a la The Office. It’s another device that takes away from the superheroic elements of the show… which aren’t much better. To be fair, the constructs Green Lantern creates are fun and the Flash’s super-speed is decent, but they make up such a small portion of the entire pilot.
You do have to give the creators some credit for trying. Sure, the costumes look goofy, but they mostly attempt to mimic their comic book look. Only the Atom ends up being a little off base, but that’s OK since actor John Kassir is easily the most talented and tuned in of all the performers. Not even the legendary David Ogden Stiers can breathe an ounce of believable wuality into an almost perfect visual take on the Martian Manhunter.
If Justice League of America had managed to take off, it could have tainted the property for a number of years. The decision to distance the show from its superhero shenanigans and focus more on comedy makes the whole affair feel extremely awkward. It doesn’t help that there just isn’t the budget in place to bring this vision to life. This fits right along side the cheesy nature of Generation X.
1997 would prove to be a bad year on two fronts for DC Comics. Not only would Justice League of America fail to get a series order, but this was also the year that the infamous Batman & Robin was released into theaters. A shameful year indeed. At this point, Justice League of America can only be recommended to the morbidly curious. It’s a painful and often plodding piece of ’90s TV that just doesn’t understand the source material its drawing from. The following year would give us the comic book movie that changed the whole game: Blade. But, if Justice League of America was what we had to suffer in order to get there, then so be it.