Monday, May 26, 2014

Movie Monday: Justice League of America

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Sure, WB announced there's going to be a Justice League of America movie in 2018, but did you know there already was a live-action JLA movie, from 1997?

Yes, back during the Clinton Era, CBS commissioned a live-action Justice League of America pilot movie, with the hopes of it becoming a series. And as any comic fan knows, that never happened. Maybe we can figure out why:
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Justice League of America opens with a talking head segment (a recurring motif throughout the show) featuring Meteorologist Tori Olafsdotter (Kim Oja) discussing how she ended up being part of this unusual bunch of people. We the city of New Metro get attacked by a tornado, which is the work of a super-powered terrorist named The Weather Man (Miguel Ferrer), who is actually Tori's boss.

The citizens of New Metro are saved by the members of the Justice League, which include Fire, Green Lantern, Flash, and The Atom (respectively, Michelle Hurd, Matthew Settle, John Kassir, and Kenny Johnston):
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Tori finds a secret room at work, and discovers some sort of strange device. She spills water on it, which causes it to malfunction and strike her with blue electricity. That night she discovers her touch turns everything to ice, including a lake in an attempt to save a drowning man.

The JLA see this, and kidnap Tori(!), believing she is the Weather Man. But after being convinced of her innocence, they let her go. Tori thinks the whole thing was a bad dream.

As the Weather Man/Tori plot unfolds, we are given background to all the JLAers, who each struggle with Friends-like problems: B.B. DaCosta (Fire) is a struggling actress, Guy Gardner is having troubles with his girlfriend, Barry Allen looks for work, any work, and Ray Palmer realizes he is crushing on Tori. As I mentioned before, amid all this are scenes of the heroes talking to the camera, both by themselves and in a group:
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Tori learns that her boss is the Weather Man, and takes that info to the JLA. They bring her to their secret underwater base, and introduce her to their commander, none other than the Martian Manhunter (David Ogden Stiers--yes, Major Winchester from M*A*S*H):
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The JLA tries to train Tori how to use her powers more effectively, and after The Weather Man attacks again, it is Tori who saves the day by turning a tidal wave into ice. Later, Tori is asked by the heroes to join the team, using the code name Ice. She agrees, and takes the solemn vow to fight for justice:
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As The Weather Man plots his escape from prison, Tori suits up and now the Justice League of America is more powerful than it's ever been, ready to fight fo truth and justice:
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...off to series!

Well, no. Of course, CBS saw this and flatly rejected it. Justice League of America was shelved, never to be to be aired in the United States. The cast, mostly unknowns, all went on to careers of various levels of success. John Kassir was the voice of The Crypt Keeper on Tales From The Crypt, so both he and Stiers had careers in full swing when this pilot came along, and they kept right on going after JLA died a quick death.

There are a lot of reviews out there of this thing, and almost all of them are overwhelmingly negative: the effects are bargain-basement, the jokes are weak (one, involving the Atom, is horrendous), the subplots come straight from Friends and a dozen other sitcoms, and of course the premise isn't really Justice League at all: with Manhunter acting as their behind-the-scenes mentor, this is really more akin to X-Men than any version of the Justice League I've read.

And while all of those criticisms are essentially correct, I find I just can't hate this thing the way other people do. I feel like Justice League of America is in there trying, and its heart is in the right place, but it's simultaneously too ambitious and too derivative to really work. Trying to pull off five different sets of super powers on a late-90s TV budget must have been nearly impossible, and of course the costumes (especially the Atom's Linebacker-esque duds) are awful. But I liked the chemistry the actors had with one another, and, H'ronmeer help me, I actually dug just seeing a live-action Martian Manhunter! Because of his appearance, he's always going to be a longshot for live-action, and it took guts to try and pull it off here. Stiers, despite his distinctly non-superhero physique, has the quiet gravity to play the very serious Manhunter, and it would have been interesting if the show had gone on to see if they would ever let him leave the underwater HQ.

Is Justice League of America worth tracking down? It's available on bootleg DVDs at every comic con, as well as being online, so it doesn't take much. After a decade of multi-billion-dollar comic book franchises, there really isn't much here worth discovering, since it's all been done much better in the movies and on TV. But seen in its proper context, I think Justice League of America still has some charms that make it a cut above all the other failed superhero pilots that are collecting dust on network shelves.


2 comments:

Caffeinated Joe said...

Have heard a lot about this over the years, but have never watched it. Part of me does want to just experience it. Another part doesn't want the Justice League I loved from the 80s to come off so hokey.

rob! said...

Like I said in the post, it's not worth spending a lot of time trying to see. But it's not without its charms.

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