You’d be hard pressed to find a comics or cinema fan not aware of the highly anticipated Justice League film due this November. What many of these fans might not know is that this is actually the second attempt at adapting DC Comics premiere super team – with the feature-length pilot for a CBS Justice League of America TV series pre-dating it by a whole decade!
The reason why most people are oblivious when it comes to the Justice League pilot is simple: it never aired in the United States (although it did see the light of day on some international networks). The rationale behind the CBS executives’ decision to bury the pilot is even simpler: it’s… uh, not very good (like, at all).
Granted, superhero fans today are spoiled when it comes to big budget adaptations of their favorite characters on the big and small screens, but even so – the Justice League pilot is an especially lackluster affair, even by ‘90s network TV standards.
From costume shop-quality costumes through to its bizarre, quasi-mockumentary format (seriously!), it’s almost as if the creative team involved were trying to tick every box on the “awful comic book TV show” checklist.
Whilst the storytelling and technical faux paus on display in this 86 minute atrocity border on limitless, we’ve rounded up the most egregious missteps here in this list of the 15 Things The Justice League TV Pilot Got Wrong.
Superhero costumes can be tricky to get right in live-action entertainment. With their reliance on form-fitting spandex and bright, primary colors, even the slightest misjudgement can end up making everyone involved look silly.
Unfortunately, that’s exactly what happens in the Justice League pilot, which actually errs on the side of being too faithful to the source material. The result is textureless outfits that – in contrast to the generally murky palette of modern DCEU get-up – feature eye-watering hues.
This also has the unfortunate side-effect of making our heroes’ costumes look embarrassingly cheap, like something you might see at a theme park (or even on the rack at a party store). Perhaps the biggest crime against superhero fashion is committed by Fire and Ice, who forego actual masks in favor of eyeliner! That ought to keep their friends and enemies guessing…
Look – even today, network TV shows struggle to match the big budget special effects employed by their film and cable TV rivals. But there’s no getting around the fact that the effects work in the Justice League pilot is especially sub-par, even when compared to similar shows from the period.
Heck, even Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman managed to pull off flying scenes that were respectable in the mid-90s, and still look halfway convincing to modern eyes.
By comparison, the effects in the Justice League pilot – particularly Green Lantern’s ring constructs, Fire’s flame-based powers, and the team’s undersea base – looked shabby then, and hold up even worse today. And let’s not even talk about the make-up used for Martian Manhunter…
At the end of the day, maybe instead of doing their best with the limited resources available to them, the gang at CBS shouldn’t have bothered trying at all.
To say that the tone of the Justice League pilot is uneven is putting it mildly. Ostensibly taking its inspiration from the 1980s incarnation of the team, the pilot attempts to marry the quirky humor of the comics of that era with a straightforward action hero vibe.
If done well, the end result could have been a fun, breezy adventure series years ahead of its time – we might even be praising it as the inspiration behind Marvel Studios’ box office-breaking output today.
Instead, the Justice League pilot calls to mind an ungodly, Frankenstein’s monster-like mishmash of action and romantic comedy, succeeding at neither. Possibly the kindest thing that can be said about the pilot’s tone is that it was clearly a well-intentioned (if wildly misguided) attempt to emulate the hugely successful formula behind Friends.
Then, that probably depends on how much the idea of the world’s greatest heroes hanging around their apartments and struggling to hold down steady jobs fits with your own expectations for a Justice League TV show.
When you hear the words “Justice League”, you immediately think of outlandish feats of derring-do and titanic battles, with the fate of the world hanging in the balance, right? Well, unfortunately, the creative team behind Justice League didn’t get the same memo, as the action scenes in the pilot stink (and that’s being generous).
On paper, it all sounds suitably epic. The pilot opens with the Flash wrangling a tornado using his super speed, and it closes with Ice saving the day by freezing a massive tidal wave. Not only do both of these sequences sound amazing, they’re also exactly the kinds of set piece you’d expect to see as a fan of the Justice League comics.
However, in execution, these big moments are unimaginatively staged and poorly realized (thanks to the aforementioned shoddy visual effects). Whilst some fans (rightly) criticize modern superhero fare for featuring superpowered brawls that overstay their welcome, the truncated, under-choreographed action scenes on display here prove that sometimes less isn’t necessarily more.
The main problem with the world building in the Justice League pilot is that there isn’t any. Rather than taking place in Green Lantern’s home town of Coast City or the Flash’s ‘hood Central City – or any of the other fictional cities in the DC Universe – the show is set in “New Metro.” This wouldn’t be such an issue, except that New Metro turns out to be the most generic place on the face of the earth.
Not only does the pilot’s main environment lack any real character, but there’s no real sense of the team operating in a living, breathing world. In addition to dearth of references to the wider DC Universe (more on that later), the majority of the action in Justice League takes place on the same small sets. This lends the would-be grand adventure an almost suburban feeling, particularly when combined with the previously discussed underwhelming tone of proceedings.
The cast in the Justice League pilot aren’t actually bad actors – in fact, the performances across the board are actually fairly solid. That said, while Kimberly Oja sketches out a decent line in “wide-eyed newcomer” as Ice and Michelle Hurd brings likeability to Fire, several of our players seem miscast in their roles.
John Kassir leans too heavily on the “geeky scientist” side of the Atom’s character, lacking the physique or youthfulness to capture Ray Palmer’s adventurous traits. Kenny Johnston makes for an affable blue-collar Flash, but his bulky frame and slightly dopey line readings don’t really call to mind the razor-sharp, lithe Barry Allen.
Then there’s David Ogden Stiers as the Martian Manhunter. Stiers is something of a TV legend, thanks to his portrayal of Major Charles Winchester in M*A*S*H, so there’s no denying his acting chops. But it has to be said (and there’s no delicate way to put it): he’s too overweight to play the traditional uber-ripped Martian Manhunter.
Elsewhere, Matthew Settle is charming and brash enough as Green Lantern, while Miguel Ferrer as villain the Weather Man is his usual dependable self in a criminally underwritten part (again, more on that later!), but no one was taking home an Emmy for their work here.
Superman! Batman! Wonder Woman! Expect to see none of these icons in the Justice League pilot. Unable to secure the rights to DC’s Trinity, CBS instead opted to run with a second-string roster for the League, based on the line-up that appeared in the cult-classic ‘80s comics.
This would have been fine, had the Justice League pilot managed to replicate the “big action, bigger laughs” feel of those books, but as we’ve already covered, this wasn’t the case. This means we’re left with a team made up of no-name heroes, with no unique hook to make us want to watch them.
Think about it: if you can’t tune in to see the Man of Steel or the Dark Knight in action, you’re going to expect something pretty special from the heroes who do appear, in order to pick up the slack. Sadly, that’s not the case with the Justice League pilot, which does little to make characters like Fire or the Atom household names.
It’s been hinted at in passing already, but it can’t be emphasized enough: the Justice League pilot has zero scope. Seriously – those hunting around for large-scale adventures and majestic heroes should look elsewhere.
We’ve already made note of the cheap-looking, tiny sets and sub-par action scenes – both of which contribute strongly to watered-down quality to the show – but the absence of any sense of scale in the Justice League pilot mostly comes down to the bland direction by Félix Enríquez Alcalá.
A quick scan of Alcalá’s CV reveals that he’s since worked on a several high profile shows – including House and Battlestar Galactica – so it’s very disappointing to see just how uninspiring his take on the DC Universe’s premiere superteam turned out.
There’s barely any attempt to frame shots or stage the action in a way that conceals the budgetary constraints of the show, or to lend our heroes any mythic weight. In Alcalá’s defence, however, even the greatest director on the planet would probably “phone it in” when confronted with sheer number of problems attached to this production…
The dialogue in the Justice League pilot isn’t just bad – it’s genuinely cringeworthy. No superhero joint would be complete without at least some cheesy lines (it’s part of the fun), but the script for this show is a veritable fromagerie!
Whether it’s the Atom and Flash discuss how to get stains out of their costumes (seriously!) or Green Lantern whining about how being a superhero impacts on your relationships with the fairer sex, the Justice League pilot is a dead cert to make you groan.
Beyond the corniness of the dialogue, there’s also the awkward attempts by screenwriters Lorne Cameron and David Hoselton to make the team sound relatable. Whilst it makes sense to humanize these fantastic characters, listening to the Flash rattle off the pathetic details of his unemployed life is something most fans can do without.
A good pilot doesn’t just provide a stand-alone introduction to a series’ characters and world, it also sets the stage for the wider series going forward. In what won’t come as much of a surprise to anyone who has made it this far down the list, the Justice League pilot fails to lay much in the way of groundwork.
True, this first outing sets-up Ice as the rookie member of the team – presumably something meant to be explored further in subsequent episodes – and there’s the suggestion that the Weather Man villain will return to plague the team again.
But other than that, there’s no sense of a wider plan for the direction of the show overall. What the pilot really needs is a suggestion of a shadowy threat facing the team, as well as a better developed “will they / won’t they?” romantic sub-plot. Without these, there’s not a whole lot enticing viewers back for future episodes – although considering that the pilot flopped, this one’s a moot point, really.
Part of the fun of superhero movies and TV shows is spotting the various easter eggs and references to the source material included for hardcore fans. Unfortunately, the Justice League pilot suffers from a distinct lack of nods to the wider DC Universe and its history, which is a real let-down.
Perhaps the only real shout out to the comics is a photo of a fighter jet owned by Green Lantern, alluding to Hal Jordan’s career as test pilot (although he goes by Guy Gardener, the Lantern of the show is actually a composite of several Lanterns from over the years).
That’s it, that’s all we get: a framed picture of a plane. No hints at the existence of other heroes or their secret identity alter-egos, no mentions of other fictional cities in the DC Universe, and no suggestions of previous adventures taken from the comics. Would it really have been so hard to slip even a couple of these into the script?
If a team of heroes is only as good as the villain it faces off against, then the Justice League of the pilot isn’t very good at all. Essentially an adaptation of the Weather Wizard from the Flash comic books, the Weather Man is the epitome of a generic bad guy – there’s nothing unique or compelling about his motivations or personality.
Even worse, the creative team behind the pilot seemed embarrassed by the very concept of a colourful antagonist for the team to fight. This is kinda inexplicable, given the hyper-flamboyant tights worn by the League members, but the end result is a less-than-intimidating villain wearing street clothes.
If you’re looking for additional proof of how much the Justice League pilot downplays its main baddie, look no further than the way the Weather Wizard has been given the much less exciting moniker, the Weather Man. Honestly, what’s he going to do: inaccurately predict the weather forecast for the week ahead? This evil monster must be stopped!
The Justice League pilot doesn’t exactly light the world on fire in the plot department. For starters, the Weather Man’s evil plan is back-breakingly basic – he just wants to hold New Metro to ransom, or else he’ll unleash his weather machine on the city. Yeah, it’s pretty much a weak attempt at a Bond villain’s scheme (or maybe even Doctor Evil), and sets a low bar for the rest of the script.
There’s also a bizarre sideplot involving Fire being stalked by an eager young fan (which isn’t played as creepy, for some reason), as well as the several narrative threads revolving around our heroes’ struggles to hold down steady jobs.
This reaches its apex (or nadir, depending on how you look at it) with Fire waddling around the screen dressed in a giant banana costume, at which point you’d be forgiven for turning off your TV in disgust.
Whenever comic book characters are adapted for film or TV, it stands to reason that some changes will have to be made in order to make them work for a different medium and audience. Even so, the extent to which the characterizations in the Justice League pilot vary from their four-color counterparts is so extreme, they’re practically unrelated.
Take the Flash. Not only does the show feature the Wally West version of the character, only to sub in the Barry Allen version’s secret ID, it also makes him a bit of doofus. Or how about Green Lantern, who possesses a weird mixture of traits taken from several different Lanterns from the comics, giving him a much less distinctive personality in the process.
Perhaps the most outrageous flub is the pilot’s interpretation of the Martian Manhunter, which doesn’t even jibe with elementary school science, let alone the character’s original backstory.
According to the comics, the Manhunter’s main weakness is fire, but in the Justice League pilot, not only is the big guy not phased when attacked by a heat ray, he describes 300 degrees as “like a beach day” where he’s from. Because, y’know, Mars isn’t colder than Earth, or anything…
Another “surprisingly ahead of its time” aspect of the Justice League pilot gone horribly wrong is its inclusion of mockumentary-style, to-camera interviews intercut through the episode.
Ever since The Office popularized the mockumentary format in TV comedy, there have been plenty of imitators with little interest in accurately simulating its “real-world” mechanics (looking at you, Modern Family). But way before any of these – heck, before The Office itself! – the Justice League pilot was completely throwing any sense of verisimilitude out the window entirely!
Think about it: who is filming these interviews? How come they know our heroes secret identities? Why isn’t the rest of the show shot like a documentary? These questions and more immediately come to mind as soon as the first interview cut-away rolls around, but those looking for answers shouldn’t get their hopes up.
What else did the Justice League pilot get wrong? Let us know in the comments!