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November 14, 2017

Looking Back at The Misguided ‘Justice League of America’ Pilot From 1997

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 WifeMadam 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.

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