This year’s Justice League movie might be another DC stinker, but it does still have one major thing going for it. It’s not Justice League 1997. There was, you see, an earlier attempt. Made 20 years ago as the intended pilot of a thank-God-it-was-never-made TV series, Justice League of America is, well, it’s barely even an attempt, to be honest. Never actually released, for a frothing succession of Really Bloody Good Reasons, it did actually find its way to the internet. Watch just five minutes, and you’ll never complain about a single element of any modern superhero movie again.
I know this because I have watched every single minute, partly so that you don’t have to, and partly because some days staring into the bleak, yawning abyss of human folly just seems like a heck of a good time (on this occasion, I was wrong about that assumption). Let me break down exactly why the 1997 Justice League of America movie is so delightfully terrible, point by point.
The whole damn set-up
You can immediately forget Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman. That dream died along with the likelihood of getting the character rights - though if you're interested in them, we do have a full account of the secret history of the Batman and Superman movies you never got to see. Instead, we have versions of Green Lantern, the Flash, Atom, Fire, and Martian Manhunter, most of who share a suburban house. Or maybe they don’t. It’s not entirely clear. But it doesn’t really matter, because Justice League of America is not a film with a plot where anything really matters, least of all to the writers.
And I say ‘versions of’, because these folks are not the superheroes you know. They’re more like a bunch of awkward, unfunny, everyday bums who sometimes remember that they have superpowers and rescue a cat. The whole thing feels like a superhero project that was given to a team that only knew how to produce failed, lame sitcom pilots, and so created a failed, lame sitcom pilot in which the writers sometimes remember that the characters have superpowers, and have them rescue cats.
The main plot? It’s all about how Ice discovers her powers and joins the team, but everyone seems to forget about that for the majority of the film. Also, Ice isn’t the magical Norse warrior of the comics, but a weather scientist who gets electrocuted and instantly gains the ability to freeze stuff. But again, she seems to ignore this for the majority of the film, until it becomes relevant again when everyone suddenly realises that it’s time for an ending, because this thing has to end somehow. Oh God please, it really has to end.
Along the way, the villainous Weather Man repeatedly ransoms New Metro city with meteorological disaster, while the Justice League really don’t do much at all to discover his identity. The city never pays him, and the League never stop him, nor does anyone really do much of anything. The whole thing is more a vehicle for unfunny character comedy, as the Justice League make crap jokes to a documentary film crew after the fact, a situation made even more confusing by the fact that no-one in the film seems to pay much attention to the Justice League at all, let alone care enough to make a documentary about them. Also, all of these sequences depict them unmasked, in their everyday identities, despite their many, bumbling efforts throughout to film to maintain secrecy. More on that later. It is all, frankly, a startling defiance of logic.
The origin stories
Superhero origin stories can be a tiresome business, I know. They slow things down, they’re often over-familiar to start with, and they generally make the first third of every cape movie a pretty dull exercise. But the fact is, they are an important part of the character journey. In fact they’re pretty vital in building audience empathy, and giving these tales a relatable starting point. And there are ways around the challenges, if you get creative. The Marvel Cinematic Universe does a great job of spreading Peter Parker’s back-story over two movies, for instance, and establishes his youthful inexperience in Spider-Man: Homecoming simply through his actions, rather than showing us every step of his path from spider bite to hero.
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Justice League of America’s creative approach? Just ignore all that stuff entirely, then cover it near the end, in 30 seconds of mumbled references to ‘there was a lab accident’, ‘he found a ring’, and ‘I just started burning stuff one day’. But by that point you really won’t care. You’ll anti-care.
The Flash is a jackass
The only thing faster than his legs is the relentless pace with which his lips flap out every unfunny, stream-of-consciousness thought in his mind, as if he has no internal filter whatsoever. He has no actual dialogue. He contributes nothing to the plot (such as it is). He just says… things, and then seemingly expects a laugh, whatever tumbles out of his mouth, as if the victim of some gone-wrong Pavlovian training. He’s Family Guy’s Randy Newman, singing what he sees, except that he says it all, and what he sees is apparently gibberish.
Does The Flash have a job or not?
Staying on the Flash for a moment, his personal subplot – the whole League have these, and they take up far too much time, presumably to fill in for the fact that there isn’t really a main plot – is centred on his not having a job. A dull character trait, given that it’s based entirely around inaction rather than action, but surely there’s some scope for superpowered hijinx, as his speed causes all kinds of hilarious, workplace scrapes? Some funny japes, as he fruitlessly attends job interviews, unable to sell his true worth due to the need for superhero secrecy?
No. He just keeps commenting on not having a job. And then sometimes we see a scene of him having a job (he is briefly a very fast postman), but like most super-business in JLA, nothing exciting happens on camera. And then in the next scene he will not have a job, and comment on how he is not a postman any more. This is mostly what the Flash does.
Is the Green Lantern a womanising jerk or not?
The Green Lantern’s never-actually-explored subplot? He has a bad time with girlfriends. We know this because he grumbles about women a lot in a non-specific way, and because we’re told that he dated Fire , and she grumbles about him in a non-specific way. That, dear friends, is character development.
What never becomes clear is whether or not the Lantern is actually just a great big prick. He certainly sounds like an asshole when he talks about his exes, but then we see him with his current girlfriend, and the film treats the situation more positively, as if he’s just having trouble dealing with the need for secrecy and the trouble that causes for intimacy. Just like lovely old Peter Parker often does.
But then a mild, budget-friendly disaster strikes, and he expresses his need to leave his beleaguered girlfriend while also totally sounding like a bit of a dick. The jury is out.
Did the Green Lantern just let everyone except his girlfriend die?
So golfball-sized hail is hurtling out of the sky and threatening to kill everyone. The Lantern? He has a chat with his girlfriend, helps her out, but seemingly forgets that everyone else is in the vicinity, leaving anyone he’s not sleeping with to their imminently squishy fate. The jury is back in. He’s an asshole.
Why is Fire into a 15-year-old?
Fire ’s subplot – or in this case, only plot, because she literally doesn’t do anything else at any point in the movie – is that, in her civilian guise, she accidentally picks up the affections of a lovesick teenager (I can’t be bothered to remember his name, but he’s played by Wednesday’s boyfriend from Addam’s Family Values, so he’s immediately the best thing in JLA). He’s like, 15, tops. She’s a grown-ass woman. Obviously this is going nowhere. Except that it has to go somewhere, and then it has to keep going there, over and over again, via darker and more twisting roads, because the movie gives Fire literally nothing else to do at any point. Ever. For the entire film, Fire is either in the background, grumbling non-specifically about the Lantern, or dealing with this kid. And when I say “dealing with”, I mean “flirting with a lifetime on a register”.
It’s obvious he’s interested. It gets awkward. She invites him over to talk about it, which he obviously interprets as a date, because he’s a kid. It should get even more awkward, but then Fire notices that he’s brought an omelette pan to make her breakfast, and apparently she likes omelettes enough to forget the foul, bitter taste of inappropriate conduct with a minor. She quickly remembers her misgivings, admittedly, but hey, those sweet, sweet omelettes, right? They betray us all from time to time. But then the kid pulls out a set of earrings, and it turns out that Fire likes earrings as well, so she accepts the gift and leaves.
This story is not over.
Why does The Flash like fishing so much? Does he, even?
All it takes is a fishing advert on TV – during one of the film’s many, many ‘exposition through news report’ scenes - for Flash to pipe up, like an out of control puppy offered a biscuit, in no conscious command of its motor functions, about how much he too loves fishing.
This is not a core Flash character trait, and nor is it ever mentioned again. Why does this even happen? Why does anything the Flash does even happen?
I get that this thing is taking the approach of ‘shit, awkward, semi-romantic sitcom with capes’, but look at this shit. This shit is weird, and it is never addressed.
Why does the Green Lantern pick-pocket someone when the Flash could do it?
In one of the rare instances of superheroes actually doing borderline superhero stuff, the gang tries to infiltrate a party at Ice’s lab. They do this, in part, by stealing Some Guy’s pass. In a stealthy move of ultimate cunning, the Green Lantern lifts it from Some Guy’s suit breast-pocket using some kind of magic green snake-laser… thing. Because stealth. In broad daylight. In a crowd.
Meanwhile, the Flash, who could have dashed past and taken the pass literally too fast for the human eye to register, does nothing. Probably busy trying to remember whether he has a job today or not. You do, Flash, You have one job, and this is it.
And speaking of stealth…
Why is this deemed stealthy?
No-one will see him here.
Seriously, why does Fire keep flirting with this 15-year-old?
We’re two-thirds of the way through the film now, and she still doesn’t seem to have made a decision on ‘Child husband: Yes or no?’.
Shot of actual heroism not included
But hey, no time for such petty, morally lightweight questions right now. The Weather Man has incited rain to create a mud slide and wipe out some people’s homes. Time for Fire to get into action and use her superheated prowess to dry that sucker up and save the day. And she does. We know this because the whole event is heroically described to us, after it has happened, but before we are even told that any of this is happening at all. The stand-out, set-piece stunt of the movie? The Justice League standing around on a small hill, doing resolutely fuck all, but congratulating each other for something that apparently just happened.
The secret base
Eventually the League remember about Ice’s ice powers, and bring her into their underwater base deep beneath the bay. A cool place to keep a secret, superhero hideout, except that the entrance is a publicly accessible door under a publicly accessible bridge. And they don’t keep that door locked. And they all casually wander in there in full costume in broad daylight.
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Literally no-one in New Metro can be bothered paying the slightest bit of attention to the Justice League of America. No-one cares. Apart from the documentary crew, for some reason. At this point it’s starting to feel like this movie is actually about a bunch of cosplayers who dropped acid and never came down again. In fact yeah, new head-canon. That’s now the official reading.
Fire’s identity gets busted because someone recognises her earrings, not her face
Despite the fact that she doesn’t wear a disguise. She just puts on a green leotard. Face, voice, everything else, all on show, all exactly the same as when off-duty. No-one in this city is paying attention to the Justice League. No-one. Case in point: the kid who has a mammoth crush on Fire only recognises her in hero guise when he sees her on TV wearing the earrings he gave her. The ones he gave her, and which she inappropriately took. From a child.
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Eventually Fire does break off whatever this sordid romantic dance is spiralling into, but having now had her not-secret identity rumbled, she has to get the Martian Manhunter to morph into a clone of her so that the kid can see the two of them side by side and realise that they must be different people. Because that’s the only way you could convince a person of this. Because they are obviously the same person.
The Flash’s plan to save the city
Okay, the movie is nearly over, and so the plot has made a comeback. The Weather Man is triggering a tsunami, because the city didn’t pay him and the Justice League didn’t stop him (again). As such, the League head off to do things. Lantern goes after the Weather Man himself, and totally fails to shut him down (again), while Fire and Atom fly away to do something I really can’t remember at this stage - though I'm pretty sure they briefly just look at the tsunami, and talk about how bad it would be if no-one did anything about it. Ice does nothing, because everyone is so pissed off that she couldn’t train from terrified noob to bona fide superhero within the last half hour that they pretty much tell her to go and play on the freeway. The Justice League are utter pricks.
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As for the Flash’s part in this grand, dramatic crescendo? Like an idiot, he decides that the best use of his time is to evacuate the entire population of the city, one at a time, with piggy-backs. But then he realises that there are more than four people in the city, and gives up, because it’s all too much effort.
The Justice League are literally useless
Seriously, none of them do anything remotely constructive during this last sequence, and Ice inevitably saves the day by freezing the tsunami/stock footage/highly variable SFX when it is inches from drowning the city.
The Justice League really are also total jerks
Cut to the next day/later in the day/whenever/who cares because this thing has no sense of pacing or any ability to relate the passing of time. Ice is at home, kicking back and dealing with the emotional fallout of a crazy, crazy couple of days. But then the Justice League turn up on her doorstep, because apparently they like her now, because she was useful when they were not. She rightly tells them to go and fuck themselves.
But the film needs a happy ending, so the Justice League literally break and enter Ice’s home, Atom shrinking himself to walk under her front-door, before letting the rest of the ball-tripping Comic-Con casualties in. If this is the way they treat their ‘friends’, what manner of dark crimes have they committed in the name of petty vengeance and unemployment-driven boredom?
Anyway, they tell Ice they want her to join the Justice League, and she says yes, like a great big idiot. There's also a vague implication that they might have had to kill her if she hadn't joined, but it's probably fine.