Jim Vorel and Kenneth Lowe are connoisseurs of terrible movies. In this occasional series, they watch and then discuss the fallout of a particularly painful film. Be wary of spoilers.
Jim: It’s sort of amazing, Ken, how bad movies for this series have a way of falling into our laps in the precise moment when they’re pop culturally relevant for whatever reason. I had never even heard of the 1997 CBS TV movie version of Justice League of America before finding it online a few weeks ago, and I had no idea it starred anyone of note when I recommended it to you. To be honest, most of my recommendation was based on the terrible costumes alone. Certainly, I had no idea that one of the protagonists in this godawful DC Comics adaptation is now playing a main role in CBS’s own Picard. Seriously, it’s even the SAME NETWORK. What are the odds?
Ken: One assumes Michelle Hurd’s agent knows a guy inside The Eye. I must congratulate you on this find, Jim, as it is another entry in the category of “movies made before their time.” This was just a year behind Blade. I think it’s one in an expansive set of data that all point toward the fact that the American public wanted superhero fare, but there was still tension between the earnest geeks who could deliver it and the studio producers who looked at the budgets and were like “You want HOW MUCH for CGI for a green ring that turns into an umbrella??”
Jim: That really is the most relevant takeaway here: This film was a victim of its window of release. It’s just too early to have been taken seriously by the people writing, designing, directing and acting in it. Like you said, this is 1997, and this version of Justice League was intended as a TV movie that would be a backdoor pilot for a Justice League series. But it’s only one year before Blade, and just a couple years before 2000’s X-Men delivers what is probably the first truly modern theatrical comic book film. You have to wonder how different this might have been if it had come a few years later. Although I suppose we did get the DCEU’s Justice League 20 years later in 2017, and it’s not like that went any better.
Jim: As a 1997 TV production, though? This kind of looks like Justice League presented as a high school play.
Ken: It’s pretty terrible. And yes, we need to get this out of the way right at the start: Jim, if you had to pick the face of the Justice League, who would you say it would be? Superman, the embodiment of Lawful Good heroics? Batman, the normal guy who fights evil out of sheer grit and stubbornness? Wonder Woman, the Amazonian ideal of righteous womanhood, progeny of the God of War? How many of them do you think the studio had the rights to, Jim?
Jim: Why should not having the rights to Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman stop you from making a Justice League film, Ken? JUST because they’re the three most recognizable characters in that superhero team? Who needs them, when you have a guy in a Martian Manhunter costume who’s on screen for about five minutes and doesn’t do anything but stand and talk?
Ken: There has also been, I think you’ll agree, a giddy embrace of the “multi-verse” theory of comic continuity of late. DC’s Crisis TV event and Marvel’s Spider-Verse have gamely put forth the theory that every version of these heroes you’ve ever loved or hated all coexist along the Central Finite Curve. Despite that, Jim, nobody has brought up this version, ever. I was totally unaware of it until you brought it to my attention. And I was 14 when it came out, so I really should have heard of it.
Jim: I was also amazed that I’d never heard anyone talking about this film. I just stumbled across reference to it online and looked it up. It seems like it’s fallen totally through the cracks. Perhaps that’s a function of how simultaneously dreadful and forgettable it manages to be. The budget feels more threadbare than the soles of The Flash’s running shoes.
Ken: There’s a lot to unpack here. Have you got any juicy details about how this thing came to be?
Jim: I do …not! There really doesn’t seem to be much information out there about this thing. I believe it aired one time, on December 28, 1997. That means it almost came out the same year as Blade, Ken. Unsurprisingly, it was panned by TV critics at the time, and there was no chance it was ever going to become a TV series. One can only imagine what a weekly series with this cast of schlubs (Michelle Hurd excepted) would have looked like.
Anyway, let’s get into it. Please explain to the readers how the structure of this film works, because that’s honestly more interesting than anything related to plot.
Ken: I’m so glad you asked me that. In a valiant attempt to pad the run-time of this movie, avoid the need for more CGI smash-ups that would clearly have bankrupted everyone, and to simultaneously SPOIL THE RESOLUTION COMPLETELY, the movie opts to cut between the ongoing plot and talking head confessionals of the main cast members. Outside their costumes. As their alter egos. Describing how tough it is to be Justice League members.
Green Lantern, software salesman!
Jim, absurd lengths are gone to in this movie to keep their identities secret, including one sequence starring not one but TWO Michelle Hurds that we will get into, I’m sure.
Jim: Exactly. So who is going to see this single camera sitcom-style documentary that is apparently being filmed with all of them, out of costume? It doesn’t make any goddamn sense, Ken. They’re talking in past tense about all the other sequences of the film, so it’s clearly happening shortly thereafter. And the talking head sequences are edited in seemingly at random—they just APPEAR suddenly in between shots that would otherwise go together. It makes me wonder, would they have used the talking heads thing for the TV series? Would this have been an early precursor to the likes of The Office and Modern Family, etc? Granted, The Office wouldn’t stick the talking head sequences between shots of an action sequence, as this movie insists upon doing.
Ken: It just feels like they knew they only had about 55 minutes of plot and needed, desperately, to stretch things further. Unfortunately for them, this cast’s charm offensive is a poor gambit, indeed.
Jim: Let’s run through the core cast, and give an overall impression of how each member is portrayed. The core team consists of the following heroes: Green Lantern, The Flash, The Atom and Fire, with a newcomer (eventually called Ice) who acts as the ingenue and audience proxy.
Ken: We should mention to those uninitiated in comics that these heroes actually do constitute some of the Justice League’s heavy hitters—NORMALLY. Here they’re literally helping scare cats out from under houses.
Jim: First up, Green Lantern (Matthew Settle). He feels like the de facto leader of the team while they’re out doing superhero stuff, by virtue of being the whitest of the white males. Superman being absent, they sort of just let him borrow Clark Kent’s spit curl hairdo. He’s a smarmy ladies man who attempts over-the-top romantic gestures but has a string of failed relationships and girlfriends who are suspicious of why he’s always bailing on them right when the handsome Green Lantern stranger shows up.
Ken: Second, The Flash (Kenny Johnston). Every team needs a dorky trash fire who can’t ever do anything right, and who the rest of the team regards like something they scraped off the bottom of their shoe. The Flash is that guy! He’s portrayed as a chronically out of work schlub whose super speed avails him not at all in his woeful day-to-day life.
Jim: I love that he can’t think of a single way his super speed might be used to make him a dollar or put a roof over his head.
Ken: In fairness to them, Barry Allen is often portrayed as a happy-go-lucky dope, but this goes way too far in that direction without any of the earnest heroism the dude is supposed to have.
Jim: Next up, The Atom (John Kassir). High school science teacher Ray Palmer once picked up a rock in the desert, and now he can shrink for some reason! This is the extent of the backstory we get for lesser-known hero The Atom, which is actually considerably more than is mentioned for either Green Lantern or The Flash. He is quite obviously the nerd of the team from the first moment you look at him, clad in sweater vest and bow tie and all. Awesome casting tidbit: I realized while looking up these actors that John Kassir, was actually the voice of the Crypt Keeper on HBO’s Tales From the Crypt. How sweet is that?
This guy is clearly the muscle of the team.
Ken: I couldn’t figure out what about him was familiar, but that blows my mind. Who knew he could have played a more iconic role than the Crypt Keeper?
Last up is the superheroine Fire. Michelle Hurd will be familiar to those following CBS’ Picard as the character Raffi, who has a fraught history with the former captain of the Enterprise. In this telling, Fire is a struggling actress. She has all the flying, green-flame powers of her comic book iteration, and these are never once used to just immolate the bad guy before he can do his bad thing. The subplot here is that she is pursued by a way, way younger man who creepily stalks her. It goes nowhere important.
Jim: Two things. First, despite the fact that you told me one of the cast members of this was in Picard before watching, I didn’t actually know which one. I’m pleased, then, that while watching I noted that Hurd gave by far the best performance. It’s the only one with any warmth or naturalism at all—she’s clearly on a different level from pretty much everyone else here. Second thing: The weird little dweeb following her around is actor David Krumholtz, who TV fans will recognize from years on the CBS series Numb3rs, but the only thing I can picture him as is the elf “Bernard” from Tim Allen’s The Santa Claus.
Michelle “Please don’t mention Justice League in my vicinity” Hurd.
Ken: This is relatively star-studded, by our standards. And yes, Hurd gives one of the few not-obnoxious performances in this. Come to think of it, her entire plot is about being a sexy and confident woman who doesn’t fall for a dumb, pathetic guy. So actually, one of the few bright spots in this damn thing. Jim, two plus years of this regular feature have clearly lowered my standards bar.
Jim: Which is not to say that other women don’t get objectified in this. Tori (Kimberly Oja), who becomes the superhero Ice, works at a bizarre meteorological institute of some kind (they have the strangest building, and I have to stick a screenshot in here to illustrate how weird it is) where her boss Dr. Eno routinely makes totally inappropriate comments about how hot she is. One of the first things he says to her in the script, in fact, is “You’re an attractive, intelligent researcher.” Because “attractive” was really relevant to her abilities here. Naturally, she’s flattered rather than repulsed by this, because it’s 1997.
But seriously, what the hell is this building.
Ken: This is Miguel Ferrer, by the way, the guy who created RoboCop in RoboCop. He’s unquestionably the most recognizable guy in this.
Jim: There’s no doubt he’s the biggest star here, and you’ve got to love Ferrer. He’s played so many great, weird villain roles over the years. So many, in fact, that it’s sort of hilarious to me that they do a mystery angle at all of who the villain is in this Justice League movie. You hired MIGUEL FERRER, guys. The audience knows he’s essentially always a bad guy.
Clearly not the secret bad guy of the film.
Instead we have this weird red herring character the members of the Justice League are investigating when we the audience pretty much already know Ferrer is the villain. It’s like if you hired Michael Ironside in a movie that contains a secret villain—we all know where this is going.
Ken: We’ll save our last Justice League member for the big reveal, obviously, since it’s the only clever thing this movie does. The plot is supremely basic, so here goes: New Metro is under siege from a bad guy named The Weatherman. He uses a doomsday weather device to cause cataclysms that the Justice League rushes to respond to, all the while demanding millions of dollars in ransom. Tori suspects one of her labmates at Not-Star Labs, but when she goes to investigate, she is hit with some weird icy burst from a suitcase and develops freezing powers that she can’t control.
The Justice League members go sniffing around the lab trying to discover the identity of the bad guy and run into Tori, discover her powers, induct her into the League, and then they all defeat Miguel Ferrer. Everything else going on here is a talking head sequence like we mentioned before or a subplot that is lame.
Jim: That is literally all there is to it. The whole thing is about 80 minutes long before credits, and it’s all extremely cheesy. It feels like everything was chosen to make it as easy to grasp as possible. I mean really, “Fire”? “Ice”? They didn’t want the audience to have to dig into any comics lore here to understand what these people do.
The Weatherman is also extremely bland. This is what passes for one of his dastardly villain speeches at one point: “I want you to keep one thing in mind about the weather—it can change at any moment.” That’s an actual quote.
Ken: The only thing remotely interesting about him is indeed his doomsday device. At least good on the movie for leveling a credible threat at its super-team. Unfortunately, as I may have mentioned, one of the things they do to respond to it is, at one point, to have The Atom shrink so he can scare a cat out from under a house for an old lady. The cat was safer under the house, Ray.
Jim: There’s clearly no budget for real displays of superheroic derring-do, so they resort to sequences of them saving individual people, or cats. In fact, the film goes through pains to keep the Justice League members out of their costumes for as long as it can. For long periods of time they’re all just hanging around in their apartments, and there are DEFINITE Friends vibes. Green Lantern is Ross, Flash is clearly Joey. You know it was in their heads, writing this.
Ken: This is all revealed, by the way, to be thoroughly unnecessary. Jim, tell us about who really leads this superhero team.
Jim: Why, it’s none other than that most beloved of all DC superhero icons, the Martian Manhunter!
You know? The Martian Manhunter?
Ken: And where does he live, Jim?
Jim: He lives …uh …under the sea? In a giant submarine. Shaped like a whale. I assume it reminds him of his home on Mars, what with all the whale submarines there.
A mechanical whale under the sea. Perfect for a martian.
Ken: I assume it has a couch for the Flash to sleep on when he loses his job and tries to crash at Green Lantern’s apartment, to the annoyance of all. Just saying.
I will say this much in defense of the folks involved, however. You and I, who aren’t as deeply into comics, do not give a fuck about Martian Manhunter. No normal person should. But from what I’ve seen of his portrayals in other media, this old, wise, staid, somewhat lonely but very benevolent version of the character is actually on point. Further, his costume and makeup resemble the character very closely and he also has the power of shapeshifting, which he uses at one point to impersonate Ferrer’s character. The movie even maintains the intrigue of this until he’s revealed later, and he never shows up in talking head sequences (probably because the makeup was a nightmare and they didn’t want to get the actor in it again).
Jim, somebody somewhere genuinely cared about the Justice League in this. That’s the most painful part of this, really.
Jim: But simultaneously, they weren’t capable of DOING anything with Martian Manhunter in the story. He’s just the sage old leader who waits at home in his mecha-whale—as aliens do—and occasionally gives exposition. The shape-changing thing was a hilarious idea, because it technically allows his character to be present in a few other scenes, with other members of the cast acting as if they’re the physical vessel of the Manhunter. I wonder if actor David Ogden Stiers thought this was all beneath him, or whether he was just too old and creaky to do any action stuff. In the comics, Manhunter is, like, as physically strong as Superman. You’d never know that here.
Ken: Let’s talk about the one scene where J’onnnnnn J’oeoeoeoe’nnnz (or however you spell his name) actually uses his powers to help the team. Or rather, one member of the team. Readers: I do not care about nor like Martian Manhunter. Don’t @ me.
Jim: I presume you are talking about when he takes on the appearance of Fire to help Michelle Hurd convince her underage stalker of a would-be boyfriend that they are actually different people. Can’t have her secret identity getting out! Unless, of course, anyone watches the documentary they seem to be making where they’re all speaking to the camera in street clothes and with their real names superimposed on the screen.
Fire is spreading!
They pull the underage paramour into a room, Martian Manhunter comes in having Shang Tsung-ed himself into Hurd’s appearance in costume as Fire, and they tell him to buzz off. We later learn he is dating a 16-year-old! This is also a great time to just mention that the absurdity of superhero masking actually working on people is extreme in this movie.
Jim: Never underestimate the power of a domino mask that covers 20% of your face in concealing your identity from a loved one.
Ken: Atom and Flash are wearing full masks and nobody knows Barry, so I’d say it’s reasonable to assume he’d go unknown. But even with a full mask covering, the Atom has his same nasally voice. And we know John Kassir can do voices, Jim. Likewise, Fire and Green Lantern essentially have no face coverage and in Hurd’s case especially you are not going to find two people with that beautiful ‘do of hers.
Jim: Green Lantern is the top offender here. He runs off, changes into Green Lantern, and picks up his own girlfriend and she’s all “If only I could meet a REAL man like YOU.”
Identity: Thoroughly concealed.
Ken: Two seconds later! Close enough to smell the awful cologne that you and I KNOW his character would be wearing!
Jim: Just another reason he feels so much like the Superman proxy here; the fact that everyone should recognize him.
And while we’re on the topic: Can you imagine how pathetic and cheap the Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman renditions would have been if this film did have the rights to them, Ken? I’d love to see what this design team would have done with Batman’s costume.
Ken: One shudders to think.
The last real conflict of the movie comes up with Tori-who-will-be-Ice not having mastery over her powers. (Oh, and her love subplot with Ray, but whatever.) She comes through for the team by freezing a goddamn tidal wave and saving the city.
Jim: It’s all very by-the-books. The costume they give HER in the film’s closing moments is particularly awful as well.
Whenever I think about any aspect of this film, Ken, I always come back to wondering what the TV show would have been like. Would Miguel Ferrer have been a regular guest? Is that why they show him attempting to escape with a little laser in the end? They would need to have built up a rogues gallery of villains and one-timers. I guess they would have been hoping to make it something like Lois & Clark, but the production values of that show make Justice League of America look like The Room.
Ken: I have fond memories of Lois & Clark and actually think it’s one of the best Superman TV shows. It’s certainly less stupid than Smallville, for which I have nothing but scorn. Readers, you are still not allowed to @ me.
Justice League: The film that makes you say “I sure wish Dean Cain was here.”
There were a lot of attempts to try to capitalize on superhero stories on TV, if you remember. The 1990s were the golden age of cartoon comic adaptations, for one. Fox at one point also tried to do something live-action based on the X-Men (Generation X), and it didn’t work at all. It sort of feels like this genre was burgeoning.
Jim: We were still in the Bruckheimer-esque era of Batman films as well. More serious comic book cinema was coming around the corner, though.
Blade diced my brain into confetti and ninja-kicked it into a cloud of gore when it came out. It’s wild to think that this dud was actually made public mere months before that.
Jim: Any other particular, individual moments in this that stand out for you, Ken? I think the sequence with The Atom limboing under a laser tripwire really sums up the lightheartedly stupid tone here. Like, Star Lord might do something like that in Guardians of the Galaxy, but here they have to slam it home by literally playing limbo music on the soundtrack while he does it. They have no sense of proportion and don’t know when to quit.
Ken: I think the thing that sums up how lame this is comes early in the film when the team is hanging around and their TV doesn’t work. They get a repairman to come out and he fixes the TV with a stick of gum. They do this later in the movie with a stuck security door in their undersea base that is being lasered by Ferrer. AND IT WORKS. Jim, they have an undersea base. Why are they not hanging out in their undersea base?
Jim: Undersea base sets are expensive, and don’t remind anyone of the popular TV comedy Friends. And reminding people of popular TV situation comedy Friends is how you sell a goddamn superhero show, Ken.
Ken: I’ve never hated a show more while it was on the air, except for Seinfeld, Jim. Let’s forget we ever watched this one.
Jim: Let us instead take away the knowledge that Michelle Hurd was far too good for this, and has since been rewarded for her patience.
Ken: That’s the silver lining I’m taking from it for sure. Until next time Jim, don’t hit on Michelle Hurd.
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer, and you can follow him on Twitter. Kenneth Lowe is a contributing writer for Paste, and you can read more of his writing at his blog.