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The Justice League that almost happened

If you thought Justice League was a mess, it's important to remember things could've been far, far worse. 

Back in 1997, the same year Joel Schumacher's Batman & Robin nearly ruined comic book movies forever, CBS took a shot on a pilot for a TV series based on a handful of characters ripped from the pages of DC Comics. But Justice League of America makes Batman & Robin look like The Dark Knight

The premise is simple. In fact, it's a little too simple. It centers on Green Lantern (Matthew Settle), The Flash (Kenny Johnston), The Atom (John Kassir), and Fire (Michelle Hurd), who are all characters that have been associated with Justice League in the comics. The kicker here is that they're all roommates and regular people with ordinary problems. It's as if CBS asked for DC's Super Friends meets NBC's Friends. In fact, it'd be shocking if that exact phrase didn't come up during a pitch meeting.

It's a weird amalgam of an action-drama and a sitcom, except the special effects are embarrassing even by '90s standards and the comedy is downright painful. There are also extremely awkward interview segments with the characters scattered throughout, giving the whole thing an odd framing device and a quasi-mockumentary feel that's more jarring than anything else.

A lot of the problems come from botching the iconic characters at the core. Green Lantern, who is now a software salesman, is based on Guy Gardner from the comics, but it's not clear why. He dresses more like the Kyle Rayner version of the character and he's as dull as Hal Jordan from the Super Friends cartoon. 

The Flash is struggling with unemployment despite his super-speed, The Atom is a science teacher who can shrink himself small enough to fix an old-school TV, and Fire is a struggling actress who definitely dresses up as a banana for a commercial audition. Although that might all sound a little like The Incredibles, it's not. The writing and performances are so bad, you'll hate each of the individual characters in different ways.

Then there's Martian Manhunter, surprisingly played by David Ogden Stiers from M*A*S*H. Although Stiers is clearly the best actor on the team, he's also the portliest. His face is always covered with what looks to be a discarded version of what Jim Carrey wears in The Mask, and Stiers' underwhelming Halloween costume can't conceal his unavoidable gut. However, Martian Manhunter is still probably the best part of the show if you can get beyond the bad look. 

In the pilot, the team recruits a new member: Ice (Kimberly Oja), who starts out as a meteorologist at the Meteorological Institute in New Metro (yes, that's the name of the city on the show). After a freak lab accident gives her the ability to freeze things, she works with the other heroes to take down the villainous Weatherman, played by the late Miguel Ferrer. Since the show didn't get past the pilot, it's not clear if the plan was to feature a new villain in each episode, but Ferrer does his best in one of his trademark bad guy roles.

But the biggest problem with Justice League of America is that it's not sure if it's a sitcom or something more serious. While modern shows like Arrow, Supergirl, and Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. find subtle ways to use humor as a balance for the darker moments, this show goes way too far into family-friendly cheesiness to ever make anything seem dramatic. 

Justice League of America never hit the air in the U.S., although people in places like England, Mexico, Germany, Brazil, India, and Uruguay may have caught it. The pilot still has life thanks to YouTube and bootleg screenings at comic book conventions, but it mostly serves as a cautionary tale about half-heartedly adapting beloved comic book characters when you have little to no budget or vision. 

Although Zack Snyder's Justice League didn't do great at the box office and critics weren't kind, it's a legitimate masterpiece when you compare it to this show. True, we were all into different stuff two decades ago. But it's difficult to believe anyone would've ever been into this.