Ever since DC’s top heroes teamed up to take down the invading starfish-shaped alien Starro in the pages of The Brave and the Bold No. 28, comic-book fans have dreamed about seeing the Justice League leaping off the page and onto the big screen in live-action form. Today, after numerous false starts and missed opportunities, Hollywood has finally succeeded in uniting the league for Zack Snyder’s Justice League, the latest installment in the DC Extended Universe that began with 2013’s Man of Steel, also directed by Snyder.
So far, early reviews are mixed, with some (including Yahoo Entertainment) suggesting that Justice League doesn’t live up to the high standards set by this summer’s blockbuster Wonder Woman. Nevertheless, these versions of the characters look positively super compared with the non-animated incarnations of the Justice League we’ve seen in the past. For Flashback (or, should we say, Flash-back?) Friday, we’re revisiting three less-than-super TV versions of DC’s all-star super team, as well as one film project that never came to fruition.
Legends of the Superheroes (1979)
What It Was: A two-part series of specials designed to seize on the popularity of the Justice League-inspired cartoon Super Friends and reunite Adam West and Burt Ward a decade after their retro-cool Batman TV series.
League Lineup: Batman, Robin, Green Lantern, the Flash, Hawkman, Captain Marvel, Black Canary, Huntress, the Atom
The Premise: In “The Challenge,” the heroes face off against the Legion of Doom — whose ranks include the Riddler, Weather Wizard, and Solomon Grundy — in a not-especially-thrilling series of comedic action sequences. “The Roast,” meanwhile, brings in Ed McMahon to emcee a not-especially-funny roasting of the League.
What Went Wrong: Vainly attempting to channel the charmingly campy spirit that animated West’s Batman series — as well as the Lynda Carter incarnation of Wonder Woman — both Legends specials end up being purely cringe-inducing. With little evident effort invested in the costumes, sets, or scripts, it’s left to the actors to heroically salvage what small moments of dignity they can. Not surprisingly, West is a natural team leader in that regard; he understands the goofy spirit of the specials, though the awful content threatens to defeat him at every turn. But even the Caped Crusader can’t triumph over such toxic creative choices as introducing a black hero named “Ghetto Man.” The League really should have been forcibly disbanded disbanded then and there.
Justice League of America (1997)
What It Was: A pilot for a proposed CBS TV series that could take over the superhero mantle from Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman, which wrapped up its four-season run on ABC that year.
League Lineup: Martian Manhunter, Green Lantern, the Flash, the Atom, Fire, Ice
The Premise: When New Metro City is subjected to a meteorological offensive by the villainous Weather Man, the Justice League emerges from the shadows to defend their hometown.
What Went Wrong: CBS took one look at the pilot and decided that not only was JLA not going to series — it wasn’t even going to air on American television. (It did eventually air in other markets, including the U.K. and Israel, and is widely available via bootleg copies.) To be fair, there are a few promising elements at play here, from the depiction of the JLA as a group of working-class heroes complete with money problems and relationship issues to the intra-team bickering that recalls the sense of humor that comic-book scribes Keith Giffen and J. M. DeMatteis brought to their popular mid-’80s incarnation of the League. Too bad the show’s makers possessed neither the skill nor the budget to depict superheroics in a way that wasn’t immediately laughable. It didn’t help that the cast all seemed vaguely embarrassed to be sporting their (admittedly ugly) costumes. Since they took no pleasure in being superheroes, we couldn’t either.
“Justice” Smallville (2007)
What It Was: The long-running Superman prequel series had been populating Clark Kent’s world with other heroes since Season 1. Midway through the sixth year, the show finally brought them all together — kick-starting a crossover tradition on DC TV shows that continues to this day.
League Lineup: Clark Kent, Green Arrow, Aquaman, Impulse, Cyborg
The Premise: Green Arrow’s wealthy alter ego, Oliver Queen, spearheads the team-up in order to gather intel on a top-secret Lex Luthor project.
What Went Wrong: First off, let’s get a little bit of justice for “Justice.” In the grand scheme of all things Smallville, this episode could have been a heck of a lot worse. Having already seeded the existence of these characters, it was a fun payoff for fans to see them united in the same episode at last. And at least “Justice” gives them an enemy worth fighting in the form of Michael Rosenbaum’s Lex Luthor. That said, this was also a case where the show’s “no tights, no flights” rule hamstrung the Boy of Steel’s involvement and trapped the other heroes in low-rent almost-costumes. Also, “Justice” loses points for featuring a shot of the Justice League power-walking away from an explosion in slow-motion. We already know that’s not cool, guys.
Justice League Mortal (2009)
What It Was: Before heading down Fury Road, George Miller came thisclose to directing a darker, grittier Justice League adventure brought to life via the magic of motion capture.
League Lineup: Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman, the Flash, Green Lantern, Aquaman, Martian Manhunter
The Premise: The Dark Knight creates an A.I.-enabled robot army to fight crime, only to see them inevitably turn on the Justice League instead. (A version of the script is viewable online.)
What Went Wrong: If you talk with Jay Baruchel, who was cast as businessman Maxwell Lord, nothing was wrong with Justice League Mortal from a creative standpoint. “It was going to be something special,” he told Yahoo Entertainment earlier this year, lavishing praise on the Man of Steel’s suit, as well as a Superman and Wonder Woman brawl for the ages. Chalk Mortal‘s death up to real-world enemies that ranged from the 2007 writers’ strike, which prevented Warner Bros. from working on a script it felt was in need of refinement, to the studio’s own possible uncertainty about how the film could co-exist alongside Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight universe. If nothing else, Miller’s Justice Leaguers at least survive in concept art and pre-visualizations, which will hopefully be collected in a planned documentary memorializing the League’s discarded inaugural cinematic adventure.
Justice League is currently playing in theaters.
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