The first thing is, getting to East Didsbury from Reddish on a Sunday afternoon. That wasn’t as bad as you might think: the 203 was late, naturally, but I had time to buy the paper and more or less get straight onto the 23A. On the other hand, this Cineworld, being newer, bigger, flasher than dear old comfortable Stockport is an arsehole. You can’t buy your tickets from a human being, it’s got to be a machine and mine is fucked up. Still, the one I am led to for a second go, by a human being, coughs up my ticket and doesn’t even ask for proof of age over my senior person concession.
Having said that, Screen 4’s bigger than anything I’ve recently been at in Stockport, plus it has banked seats. I’m about two-thirds of the way up, in an aisle seat. The background music is Take That (one of Mark Owen’s: I am very well-trained) to be followed by Al Green’s ‘Let’s Stay Together’. No disrespect to anyone but the leap in quality is immeasurable.
I’m one of five when I sit down, which is a massive improvement on Monday but still a disappointment for a big budget film on a Sunday afternoon on it’s third day. Half an hour of trailers etc. later (yup, Karen Gillan looks just as good and, hey! a new Ardman/Nick Park: one for 2018 already), we have swelled to an unmanageable 28, the unmanageable one being the two-year-old toddler sat almost directly in front of me.
Oddly, for there is literally nothing here to spark such a recollection save the day of the week, I’m transported back to a Sunday morning a great many years ago, when my Dad took me to the Cartoon Cinema for a non-stop round of Warner Brothers cartoons, all Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies. They were on a loop. You came in when you arrived, you left when you recognised when you came in. I had a whale of a time, as you can imagine. What on earth’s brought that back I can’t possibly imagine, but I haven’t found that memory for a very long time.
The film? Oh yes, this is supposed to be about the film, isn’t it? By my tally, this is the fifth time I’ve been to the cinema this year, and they’ve all been films based on comics. Four superheroes, two each DC and Marvel. For the life of me, I don’t know how to respond to this film, nor how to rank it even among this year’s quintet.
It really is strange how much I feel nothing about this film, and I the oldest in the cinema, certainly the only one actually on this planet when Brave & Bold 27 was published, somewhere maybe round the time my Dad took me to the Cartoon Cinema. I’ve waited a lifetime to see this film. But, well, no.
Actually, it started slowly, introducing the cast, one-by-one, with special reference to the newcomers: Aquaman, The Flash, Cyborg. It was ponderous to say the least, and in my head i also gad the word ‘portentous’.
But after that, any kind of critical appraisal drained off, and I just sat and watched it. It did not disappoint and it did not enthrall. The performances were decent: no-one stood out as either terribly impressive or terribly awful. It was neither slow-paced nor fast-paced (although the Zack Snyder tradition of ultra-slow motion to show just how clever the CGI stunt is has not merely gotten old, it’s whiskers are completely white).
The story was neither a coherent progression nor a series of disjointed fragments, though it leaned in both directions. It was neither too short nor too long, but that doesn’t mean to imply it was the right length, just that it felt you could have taken scenes out and put other scenes in and the film would have neither suffered nor improved by it.
It was just what it was, a film without any personality whatsoever. I didn’t enjoy it, I didn’t hate it, I wasn’t bored by it, I… got nothing from it, not even the sense of something rotten and malodorous to the core that pervaded Batman vs Superman. It was just bland. And it was still better than Batman vs Superman.
There were a number of things in the film that I could comment upon viz-a-viz their relationship to the original source, but I can’t be bothered, except in one case. The villain, Steppenwolf, was taken from Jack Kirby’s Fourth World series’ (there was even a one-off mention of Darkseid, one of the most awesome characters ever created: guys, when you get to the one that brings him in, you gotta be aiming and reaching a galaxy higher than you’ve been doing to date). The film revolved around one of Kirby’s most potent symbols, Mother Box. But it perverted it, reversing its purpose 180 degrees. Don’t do that again.
And so it was. The film ended up not even being ‘Meh!’ or being a waste of time. Stick to TV, DC, when it comes to films, you have no idea.
Of course DC were not going to go without a Justice League title for that long, and with the new policy being to have annual summer crossover events to demonstrate that DC’s Universe was indeed a Universe with all the dots connected, a new Justice League title was planned to start after Legends, during which the new JLA line-up would come together.
The man responsible would be editor Andy Helfer, who would quickly draw in artist/plotter Keith Giffen, who was so keen to work on a Justice League project that he would daily stick his head round Helfer’s door, hiss ‘Jussssticccce League’ and vanish, until the day Helfer told him to come in.
Though it was never publicly stated at the time, Helfer and Giffen wanted to go back to the original concept of the Justice League, starting with a ‘Big 7’ line-up that would replicate the original team. But with Superman, Wonder Woman and The Flash undergoing relaunches and upgrades in the post-Crisis era, that was clearly not possible, although Batman’s editor, Denny O’Neil, took pity on the duo and authorised them to use the Caped Crusader.
Even so, Helfer and Giffen were faced with a seemingly insoluble problem: that until the every eve of Legends itself, they had no idea exactly what characters they would have for their new Justice League.
It’s a comics shibboleth that a good story can only be good for its character. A good Flash story will not make a good Batman story, any more than it will make a good Green Lantern story. The same thing goes for team books: once upon a time, Gardner Fox could write dialogue you could put in any character’s mouth, be they Wonder Woman or Green Arrow. But not any more: team characters now had personalities, which meant that teams had to have dynamics, had to have some underlying purpose that distinguished them from the next crowd of brightly coloured zeebs, milling around.
What Helfer and Giffen needed was a format, a format that would work irrespective of the characters they would actually have to play with, a format that could not be the bland, unformed, uncommitted approach that would normally be implied. Like so many others in those days, they took their inspiration from Alan Moore.
Moore was riding at a commercial high, having taken American comics by storm with his Swamp Thing, and even more so with the immense, game-changing Watchmen. Part of Moore’s creed in the latter was that the kind of intensive personality required to put on Halloween costumes and go out in the streets fighting crime, hand to hand, was not conducive to playing nicely with others, and that teams were psychologically improbable, given the egos involved.
Helfer and Giffen couldn’t take that thesis at face value as it would destroy any idea of a Justice League, but they could adapt it. Yes, superheroes had extreme personalities, yes, they did not automatically subordinate themselves to others in team conditions. On the other hand, there was rich material there for an essentially comic approach to a team: outwardly serious and purposeful, but behind the scenes a mass of clashing egos and demands, a clubhouse in which the players could let off steam among their peers in a way that their public persona prevented them from doing.
Editor and plotter had their idea: all they needed was a line-up, and they would be fit to go as soon as Legends finished. Marc DeMatteis was brought in to write dialogue, a stream of conciousness gig from a writer usually associated with spiritual themes, and newcomer Kevin McGuire, blessed with an enviable flair for expressions – a must for this gig – as well as a clear, smooth line, to pencil over Giffen’s layouts.
Even at this early stage, it’s clear that what Helfer/Giffen were planning was a superhero sitcom, but to begin with, they worked with a strict, and dramatic underpinning, and with structural plans that led to a big change after only seven issues.
The League’s third incarnation debuted as simply Justice League – no America, no nothing. The initial line-up was a mish-mash of characters from all over, few of whom had any connection with the original League. The Martian Manhunter was again central, and Black Canary returned (albeit, in that redesigned cover-all costume that was far more practical and non-sexist, but nobody liked it). And Batman, newly wrought as grim’n’gritty and obsessive, to try to keep everybody in order.
But the rest of the team consisted of Captain Marvel (albeit for only two issues), Doctor Fate, Blue Beetle, Mister Miracle (with Oberon) and, as in-house Green Lantern for this recension, Guy Gardner. And the new, female, Asian, started as a villain Dr Light was offered JL membership by a mysterious figure who seemed to be quite authoritative but who had no official connection with the new League. As yet.
It made for a busy six months, as the League members jockeyed for position amongst each other, Batman throwing his weight around effectively, Guy Gardner throwing his weight around ineffectually, Black Canary getting all feminist, Blue Beetle already starting out as the lightweight, play-it-for-laughs figure, a role into which he was irrevocably sealed by the introduction into the League of Dan Jurgens’ Booster Gold.
This was courtesy of that mysterious background funder, millionaire philanthropist businessman, Maxwell Lord. Max was determined to take control of the League, to extend their remit and their facilities, though the fact that he was less than open about it hinted at ulterior motives, that would come out at the end of the first year.
But what Max was doing, behind the scenes, and with the cooperation of the Martian Manhunter, was building this League for a new role, an official role, a global role, which was revealed in issue 7, as the series was renamed Justice League International, and the team came under the sponsorship of the United Nations, with Headquarters in every major city (even Russia) in the form of Embassies.
This led to the very funny issue 8, ‘Moving Day’, which was a non-action issue focussing on the JLI moving into its Paris Embassy, Booster hitting (extremely unsuccessfully) on an attractive French lady who turns out to be their chief of staff, and Beetle coming out with the first recorded, (in)famous “Bwaa-ha-ha!”
It was a fresh, smartarse, funny and lively approach, and it was also a very popular one. So much so that two years into the Third League’s life, DC would capitalise on the series’ popularity by spinning off a second Justice League title.
Just as the original had been spun out of Legends, the spin-off was born out of another summer crossover, Invasion. The justification was that the League had bulked up so much in leading the fight against Earth’s multifarious invaders that it had too many members to function efficiently, so a bunch of them were sent off to base themselves at the Paris Embassy, where they operated as Justice League Europe.
Within a couple of issues, the original series would change its logo (and much later, its official title in the indicia) to Justice League America.
The JLE operated to a broadly similar formula, with Gerard Jones scripting off Giffen’s plots, relying to a large extent on the superficially inherent absurdity of Americans in France, ignorant of culture, inheritance and the language. There was a four part crossover between the two teams, but on the whole, the European branch of the League – led by Captain Atom, at least until Armageddon 2001, tended to have more serious adventures.
Though the story in which they relocated to London, after completely destroying the Paris embassy, was spectacularly hilarious, featuring as it did a wonderful take-off of Basil Fawlty as the traditional British hero, the Beefeater.
The Helfer/Giffen League lasted five years, most of which it spent as a successful, indeed hip series, in on the joke. The number of Leaguers passing through, at one point or another, was legion. Max Lord himself even developed a superpower, that of being able to ‘push’ people’s minds along in the direction he, but not they, wanted, although we always wound up with a nosebleed as a consequence.
But the rot was inevitable, and visible as early as this League’s second year, when Earth was menaced by the might of Manga Khan, shopper supreme. Khan, a would-be megalomaniac who’d taken courses in unnecessary shouting and expository speeches, headed a consortium that wanted to trade with Earth, and if Earth wouldn’t trade, they’d take what they wanted anyway. A good and silly idea, executed with silliness and lots of jokes, it was nevertheless a perfect demonstration that a superhero sitcom could not go very far.
The problem with comedy is that it always has to top itself, to be fresh and new. It always needs new subjects, new things to poke fun at, satirise etc. The funnier things were, the funnier the next thing had to be. Booster and Beetle as money-chasing morons. The Wally West Flash as a weak-willed, girl-crazy moron. The original Hawkman’s pomposity and disgust in face of the looser League standards. These things could work for a time, but they would always have to be accelerated, and since superheroes are, in themselves, an inherently unrealistic and absurd construction, there is not far to go before the line is crossed between satire and silliness.
This probably reached its nadir in G’Nort. G’Nort Esplanade G’Neesmacher was a Green Lantern. A dog-like Green Lantern. A dumbbell of a Green Lantern. A Green Lantern by virtue of a powerful, influential and indulgent Uncle who got him a ring and a completely empty space sector to protect. Unfortunately, the state of the space sector exactly reflected G’Nort’s head and, during the Manga Khan story, he was found in Earth’s space. And he stayed around.
Then again, maybe it was the island of KooeyKooeyKooey, and Beetle and Buster’s vacation hideout for supervillains scam. Or maybe the short-lived Justice League Antarctica. No, it was definitely G’Nort.
The silliness was unsustainable, not that Helfer/Giffen cared. The Justice League, in both of its branches, was still part of an essentially serious Universe that DC was anxious to promote as cohesive and inter-connected. The Third League deliberately played at odds with every serious portrayal of its characters in their own titles, and got away with it because of its extreme popularity. But the disconnect would, indeed could, only get greater. JLE introduced an other-dimensional Walt Disney figure, which was viable in itself but who was called Mitch Wackey, thus drawing attention to the febrile lack of rationality that was making the two titles increasingly difficult to sustain.
Nothing lasts forever. After five years, Helfer/Giffen/De Matteis were burning out. The bloom was off the rose of their comedy. Sales were falling back, the Justice League was a joke, and an increasingly non-functional joke.
As a parting measure, the creative team ended their run with a fifteen part crossover entitled ‘Breakdowns’, alternating between A and E. Actually, it was a sequence of three five-issue stories, as nobody had the stamina for a story running the full-length. Silly figures like Mitch Wackey were destroyed, brutally, the Silver Sorceress was killed – primarily, it seemed, because no-one liked her costume’s colour scheme – and the League(s) lost their UN sanction and funding. The Third League was over, but the series continued. There would always be a Justice League, and now we would be looking at the Fourth.