To know where ‘Justice League’ is headed, it’s often helpful to remember just how low ‘Justice League’ has been.
Considering that the first Comic-Con Justice League trailer dropped on July 23 of 2016, you can certainly be forgiven for thinking that Justice League hype has joined death and taxes as the third universal constant. Since we first laid eyes on Jason Momoa’s Aquaman, Ben Affleck has written, shot test footage for, and been removed from his standalone Batman movie; Wonder Woman has reset expectations for an entire slate of blockbuster movies, and Joss Whedon has wrested some degree of creative control away from then-franchise architect Zack Snyder. We’ve spent so much time hashing and rehashing arguments about the DC Extended Universe that we’ve lost sight of what really matters when it comes to superhero adaptations: they’re all a helluva lot better than the crap studios were churning out back in the 1990s.
Take Justice League of America, the 1997 adaptation of the popular DC Comics series. Shot as a pilot for CBS by experienced television director Félix Enríquez Alcalá (The Good Wife, Madam Secretary), Justice League of America asked the same question Warner Bros. executives like Geoff Johns are currently struggling to answer: can a DC Comics property be successful without the inclusion of Batman or Superman? Without Superman’s nobility or Batman’s tortured soul, Justice League of America throws several second-tier members from the comic books and frames the entire affair as a Friends-esque situational comedy. If that sounds odd in theory then it gets even odder in practice; watching the pilot the week of Justice League‘s premiere blockbuster adaptation – more than 20 years after the pilot was first scheduled to air on television – it’s still rather breathtaking to see how close we came to a completely different type of superhero genre.
The superheroes of Justice League of America are the Times Square knockoffs of the popular characters: close enough to be recognizable, misshapen enough to be unnerving. There’s Matthew Settle’s Guy Gardner, a Hal Jordan knockoff – the former character was, of course, not under license by Warner Bros. at the time – whose major challenge in life is dating while a superhero; Michelle Hurd’s B.B. DaCosta, a struggling actress who finds herself being pursued by a decidedly underage David Krumholtz (of Numb3rs fame); Kenny Johnston’s dimwitted Wally West, a homeless (!?) speedster who can’t seem to hold down a steady job; John Kassir’s Ray Palmer, a high school science teacher who can barely manage to recalibrate his television without getting electrocuted; and the nominal main character, Kimberly Oja’s Tori Olafsdotter, an earnest scientist whose blind hero worship of male colleagues grants her superpowers and members in the titular Justice League. Oh, and don’t forget David Ogden Stiers’s J’onn J’onzz, the Charlie to the Justice League’s angels and the shape-shifting ringleader of the whole affair.
In CBS’s Justice League, J’onzz has dedicated himself to training Earth’s greatest warriors, emerging as something of the den mother to this dysfunctional band of superheroes. These stakes, however, are considerably smaller than their big-budget progeny. Any complaints about budget and tone can be summed up in the film’s first scene of Ray Palmer in action, where the Atom utilizes his shrinking ability to crawl under an old lady’s porch and push her cat out into her waiting arms. At one point, Palmer solemnly confides in another character that he has helped save “hundreds of lives,” a number that seems almost laughably small given the apocalyptic events of most contemporary superhero movies. Can you image Steppenwolf in DC’s latest Justice League film threatening to destroy the town of Augusta, Montana (population 315)? Would this version of Batman even bother with the expense vouchers needed to save that town?
This hits on one of the most noteworthy parts of Justice League of America: it’s impossible to watch the pilot and not wonder how fans would react if this were released today. Sure, the superhero landscape is nowhere near the same; Justice League was released at a time where Louis & Clark and Batman & Robin were the dominant superhero properties, and the pilot’s confessional framing device seems like a direct nod to the success of MTV’s The Real World. Each character seems designed to play their role in a reality show more than a superhero action-adventure series; that’s how producers could justify changes such as Wally West’s gee-shucks lack of steady employment. Like their real-world counterparts, the Justice League members were doing big and important things and saving the world – if only those things happened to pay the bills. Perhaps that’s why the show actually has the most to say during its interstitial interview sequences. Why would anyone watch superhero melodrama done on a small-screen budget when they can listen to John Kassir joke about body parts shrinking unequally instead?
While the complete history of Justice League of America has yet to be written – given our love of meticulously detailed histories of failures, it won’t be long before the pilot receives its own documentary or oral history – some facts about the show are known to contemporary audiences. Despite never being aired in the United States, it isn’t difficult to find a copy of Justice League if you try hard enough; a recent piece by IGN notes that bootlegs of the show are “a common sight on the convention scenes” and points to the show’s international distribution in countries like Mexico and Puerto Rico as signs of its weak popularity. As a result, Justice League of America exists primarily as a superhero curiosity, a television pilot for those fans dedicated enough to seek out Roger Corman’s The Fantastic Four or the 1974 adaptation of Wonder Woman.