Thursday, May 31, 2012

Men in Black II (2002)

Every time you watch a summer blockbuster that's met with massive financial success, chances are that it'll get a sequel sometime down the road. It might not be right away, but the sequel will come eventually. Such was the case for Men in Black II, a sequel that was released five years after its hugely successful progenitor. The original Men in Black was a fun, entertaining, enjoyable movie despite a few minor flaws here and there, but its sequel is nothing but a disappointing mess. Even though practically the entire cast and crew of the first movie returned for this second go-round, Men in Black II is nothing more than a failed attempt to catch lightning in a bottle a second time. If you haven't seen the movie, I'll explain why I feel that way.

In the five years that have passed since the events of the first movie, Agent J (Will Smith) has become the Men in Black's resident hotshot. He also operates largely by himself, none of his long string of partners lasting longer than a few weeks due to J's ultra-high professional standards. While investigating the murder of an alien at a pizzeria, J discovers that the killer is Serleena (Lara Flynn Boyle), an intergalactic tyrant who has arrived on Earth searching for a powerful object called "the Light of Zartha." Believing that they're in possession of the Light, Serleena breaks into MIB headquarters and instigates a full-scale lockdown.

The only living MIB operative past or present with any knowledge of the Light of Zartha is K (Tommy Lee Jones). Unfortunately, he's retired from the Men in Black and has returned to civilian life as Kevin Brown, the postmaster of a small town in Massachusetts. And as a side effect of retirement, he's been "neuralyzed" and thus retains no memory of his time with the MIB agency. J convinces Kevin that aliens are real and that he was once a Man in Black, and succeeds in "de-neuralyzing" him and restoring him to the K of old. But when K realizes that he'd hidden the truth about the Light of Zartha from even himself, he and J must follow a path of clues that somehow lead them to Laura Vasquez (Rosario Dawson), a waitress at the pizzeria Serleena attacked.

Even ten years after the fact, I'm still surprised by just how big a disappointment Men in Black II turned out to be. The first movie wasn't perfect, but for everything it got right, its sequel got wrong. Men in Black II is so frustratingly inadequate that I'm actually having a hard time coming up with words to describe just how much the movie misses the mark. But let's soldier on and try to define just where Men in Black II went wrong.

Barry Sonnenfeld is once again at the helm for the sequel, his first directorial effort following the epic disaster that was his 1999 movie Wild Wild West. Sonnenfeld must have been in a serious funk after Wild Wild West's resoundingly negative reception, because it feels like he wasn't even bothering to try with Men in Black II. His direction really just felt like more of the same stuff he did with the first movie. There's very little in the way of innovation, making me think that Sonnenfeld figured if it worked in 1997, it'd work just as well in 2002. But it didn't, Mr. Sonnenfeld. It did not.

It's one of those cases where everything Sonnenfeld got right the first time, he only reaches "mildly acceptable" proportions this time around. And the things that went wrong in the first movie go even worse. I'm specifically referring to the CGI, which is ugly beyond words. The practical effects look nice, but the CGI is so awful that it makes the movie hard to look at. It not only looks incredibly fake, but its failure to blend in with the stuff that's really there makes it worse. If I wanted to see an hour and a half of people interacting with animated things that aren't really there, I'd watch Who Framed Roger Rabbit again.

The writing isn't much better either. Scripted by Robert Gordon and Barry Fanaro, the movie is jam-packed with jokes that just plain suck. The only humor drawn from a good portion of the movie is due to how awkward some of the setups are. Some of the jokes are indeed funny, but the fact that Gordon and Fanaro actually try playing some of the stupider jokes straight and expect us to think they're not lame is more sad than anything else.

The worst part of the whole thing is that a lot of the cast is just kinda there. There are a few good performances, but for the most part, the cast is mediocre at best. Will Smith, for example, is hit or miss. There's time where he's really funny and entertaining, but there's other times when you want him to just shut the hell up for two seconds. On the other hand, Tommy Lee Jones is fantastic as always. He's a lot of fun in the role, and I honestly thought he was the strongest part of the whole movie.

Like Smith, the supporting cast is hit or miss as well. Tim Blaney is funny as Frank the talking dog, while Rosario Dawson does her best despite her poorly written character. Our villains du jour, however, are less than impressive. Lara Flynn Boyle doesn't make for a very intimidating villain, no matter how hard she may be trying, and her whole performance is average at best. But at least she does a better job than Johnny Knoxville, who plays Serleena's two-headed sidekick. Knoxville is annoying as hell here, to the point that it made me want to go watch clips from Jackass just to see him get beat up.

That pretty much sums up how I feel about Men in Black II: I'd rather watch something else instead. It's not an overwhelmingly terrible movie like others I've seen, but it's still pretty bad. Considering how well the first Men in Black turned out, the sequel being such a letdown makes it even worse. I remember when I saw the movie theatrically, my first thought was, "That was the best they could do?!" And revisiting it ten years later, I'm still thinking the same thing. There was so much promise here, but the movie shot itself in the foot and in the process killed the franchise for a full decade. And thus, I can't give Men in Black II anything higher than two stars. At least the third movie turned out to be watchable, because I simply couldn't handle two crappy Men in Black sequels.

Final Rating: **

Friday, May 25, 2012

Men in Black (1997)

During the '80s and '90s, numerous comic book publishers cropped up as the industry's speculator market grew. One of them was Aircel Comics, a Canadian publisher that became a subsidiary of Malibu Comics before ceasing to exist altogether when Marvel bought Malibu in 1994. Before Aircel closed their doors for good, they did make a memorable contribution to pop culture in 1990 when they published a three-issue miniseries titled The Men in Black.

Created and written by Lowell Cunningham with artwork by Sandy Carruthers, the comic still remains pretty obscure to this day. But the reason I call it Aircel's memorable contribution to pop culture is because of the movie it inspired. Columbia Pictures acquired the film rights and in 1997 turned the comic into one of the biggest movies of the year. And with the third Men in Black movie hitting theaters today, I figure now's as good a time as any to review the original movie.

James Edwards (Will Smith) was an ordinary New York City detective until he nabs a suspect blinking two sets of eyelids and brandishing what he could only describe as a "ray gun." His report of the incident is met with extreme skepticism by his fellow cops, so James is surprised when he's approached by a mysterious man who takes it seriously. Answering to the name "K," the man (Tommy Lee Jones) reveals that the suspect James collared was actually an alien, going on to reveal that he himself is actually an agent for a secretive organization known as the Men in Black. This organization monitors and patrols extraterrestrial activity on Earth while using advanced alien technology to prevent ordinary humans from discovering that they aren't alone in the universe.

Impressed by both James's ingenuity and determination, K offers him a spot amongst the Men in Black's ranks. He accepts the job, having all traces his identity — right down to his fingerprints — erased from existence and given the new name "J." But it's soon discovered that J has joined the Men in Black at a rather bad time. Disguising himself as a farmer named Edgar (Vincent D'Onofrio), a monstrous alien bug has arrived on Earth to search for an object that, if he obtains it, will spark a war between two alien races that will leave our planet in ruins. So as you may have surmised, it's up to J and K to stop the Edgar bug and prevent the end of the world.

Men in Black was huge when it was released fifteen years ago. The movie was a money-making juggernaut, its theme song playing all over the radio and in heavy rotation on MTV. Only Titanic managed to have a bigger 1997. But a decade and a half later in 2012, the movie strikes me as being something of a relic of the '90s. A lot of the jokes still do work, but I remember the movie being a lot funnier when I was a teenager. But Men in Black is still a really good flick that is worth seeing.

At the helm is Barry Sonnenfeld, a veteran cinematographer who made his directorial debut earlier in the decade with the cinematic adaptation of The Addams Family. Sonnenfeld's direction is good, though his style doesn't exactly scream "effects-based summer blockbusters with a $90 million budget" to me. He handles the movie as if it were your run-of-the-mill modestly-budgeted comedy. But that's not necessarily a bad thing. Sonnenfeld still crafts a heck of a movie regardless, keeping things lighthearted and fun.

However, the special effects at Sonnenfeld's disposal are something of a mixed bag. The practical effects created by Oscar winner Rick Baker are impressive, very well done and a real treat to see. Unfortunately, the occasional instance of CGI effects leaves something to be desired. You would think that even by 1997 standards, the CGI would have been a little more sophisticated. While it worked well in the scene where J and K interrogate an alien disguised as a dog (though making the dog's mouth move was all that was necessary), the rest of the CGI is give or take. Though it doesn't take away from the movie as a whole, it's just one of those little things that will bug you once in a while.

While Sonnenfeld's direction is serviceable and the practical effects are good, part of what makes Men in Black really work is its writing. Written by Bill & Ted co-creator Ed Solomon, the script is very good and very funny practically from start to finish. Solomon does stray away from Lowell Cunningham's original comic book in many spots, such as having the Men in Black monitor only extraterrestrials as opposed to a wide variety of paranormal entities like in the comic, but he does pull some stuff straight out of the source material and makes it work within the more comedic tone of the movie. The gags are constantly funny, even when it's the goofiest of puns, and the plot is always moving along at an engaging pace. Solomon knocks it out of the park, but there's one element that makes the movie even better.

That element: the cast. All of the actors in the movie are fantastic regardless of how big or small their role is. Tommy Lee Jones provides my favorite performance, playing the seen-it-all veteran and straight man. His responses to all the wackiness going on around him make for some of the movie's funniest moments. Knowing that he supposedly ad-libbed much of his dialogue makes it even better.

Will Smith is also really funny, but my only real problem is that he's still stuck in "Fresh Prince of Bel-Air" mode. Smith had just begun his transition from TV star to movie star, with Bad Boys and Independence Day under his belt when Men in Black was released. He's still playing the cocky, wisecracking smart-ass that he played on Fresh Prince, a role he played in pretty much all of his movies during the '90s and early '00s. I will say that Smith does play that character well, which is probably why Smith's performance is so good.

There's also a good bit of acting from Vincent D'Onofrio as "the Edgar bug." D'Onofrio is perfectly slimy, playing his character as if he actually were a six-foot cockroach wearing human skin as a costume. He makes for a fun villain even if the lion's share of the movie's focus is elsewhere. And because Jones and Smith take up much of the movie, certain players go underutilized. I'm actually specifically referring to Linda Fiorentino and Rip Torn, who play a coroner and the head of MIB respectively. Fiorentino is fine despite her limited screen time, and Torn is funny even though he's barely in the movie at all.

Men in Black may be totally '90s, but even a decade and a half later, it's still a great comedy. Some of the jokes may seem a little dated and the effects might not be perfect, but it still holds up well. Fifteen years and a crappy sequel might have lessened a bit of its quality, but Men in Black is an entertaining, engaging, and downright fun movie. It's definitely worth a shot, especially if you're into '90s nostalgia or comic book movies that stray away from the usual superhero stuff. And I'm going to give Men in Black three and a half stars on the scale. It's not a perfect movie, but it's definitely a fun 90-minute ride.

Final Rating: ***½

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Super (2010)

I love superheroes. Not once have I ever tried to deny that. Superheroes have captured my imagination since I was a little kid; seeing the eternal battle of good versus evil packaged in brightly colored costumes made me wish I could be join the ranks of the Super Friends one day. I gave up the idea of being a superhero long ago, since I realized once I started growing up that it was pretty much impossible. But there are people out there who have actually chosen to become real-life superheroes. Some who've taken up that mantle merely perform good deeds for the underprivileged or form their own neighborhood watch programs, while a few take it to the next level and engage in acts of outright vigilantism.

And while superhero movies have seen their fair share of spoofs and satires, the idea of real-life superheroes with no abilities and no expensive gadgets has proven fruitful for some filmmakers. It brought us Blankman and Orgazmo in the '90s, along with Kick-Ass and Defendor within the last few years. And among the recent crop of satires is Super, a small independent film with big ambitions. And though this is a really bad pun, Super actually is a pretty super movie.

The story focuses on Frank Darbo (Rainn Wilson), a short-order cook whose life since childhood has pretty much been one depressing moment after another. The only thing that brings him happiness is his wife Sarah (Liv Tyler), a recovering addict who Frank is hopelessly devoted to. So when Sarah falls off the wagon and leaves him for a local drug dealer named Jacques (Kevin Bacon), Frank hits a psychological brick wall at 100 miles an hour. He grows more and more despondent, unable to accept that Sarah left on her own volition.

And then one night Frank has an epiphany. After a bizarre dream about "The Holy Avenger" (Nathan Fillion), the star of a cheesy show on a religious TV network, Frank believes he's been called by God to become a superhero. With a little advice and input from an excitable comic book store clerk named Libby (Ellen Page), Frank creates a costume and becomes "The Crimson Bolt." He hits the streets to fight crime, using a pipe wrench to bash in the heads of everyone from pedophiles to drug dealers to people who cut in line at the movies.

But a misguided attempt to rescue Sarah from Jacques's clutches ends with Frank limping away with a bullet in his leg. He's taken in by Libby, who puts together that he's the Crimson Bolt while patching him up. Overjoyed that she knows an actual superhero, as low-rent as he may be, Libby convinces Frank to let her become his sidekick, "Boltie." And while it left him injured, Frank's bloody encounter with Jacques proved to be a learning experience for him as well. Knowing now what they're up against, the dynamic duo of the Crimson Bolt and Boltie arm themselves to the teeth and take another shot at Jacques.

Although it's been compared to Kick-Ass by more than one reviewer, Super is a quite different creature. Their stories do have some vague parallels, but they differ wildly in their overall styles and tones. Super is far rougher around the edges and boasts a darker, less whimsical sense of humor. It's dark to the point of making the movie really uncomfortable to watch. A lot of times I didn't know whether to laugh or cringe or do both. And if you go in unaware of this, it can actually become a distraction. Its dark tone can take you right out of the movie if you enter it with the assumption that Super is just another lighthearted farce in the vein of Kick-Ass. But Super still manages to be a wickedly amusing flick regardless of that.

Super was written and directed by James Gunn, his first feature-length effort since he brought us Slither in 2006. Super is a far different movie than Slither, but Gunn definitely knows what he's doing. His direction is slick and stylish despite the presumably modest budget. It especially shows in the dream sequence, where Frank imagines tentacles from Japanese hentai cutting open his head so the literal finger of God can touch his brain. This sequence is not only weird almost to the point of being disturbing, but it's also very imaginative and surprisingly well made. Gunn's homages to the "Biff! Bam! Pow!" elements of the '60s Batman TV show are also really cute a fun little shout-out to the king of corny superhero storytelling.

Gunn's screenplay is also quite good. Although Super is often compared to Kick-Ass, the movie's tone hovers between Kick-Ass and Defendor. Gunn writes the movie as a thoroughly black comedy, making it both very funny and off-putting at the same time.

As far as the characters go, Gunn paints Frank as psychologically disturbed yet sincere and genuine. Frank's grip on sanity is obviously fragile, but the way Gunn writes him, you can't help but root for him all the way through. Libby, on the other hand, is a total live wire. She's decidedly crazy and is having the time of her life being that way, which makes her all the more fun to watch.

It helps that the characters are played by an incredibly talented cast. In the lead role is Rainn Wilson, who is fantastic as Frank. He plays the role as awkward, naïve, but staunch in his convictions. He actually struck me as being similar to Rorschach from Watchmen, only less angrily psychotic and more innocent. It's a fun but of acting that I enjoyed a lot.

Ellen Page is also a lot of fun in her role. The character of Libby is impetuous, quick to violence and poor judgment. Buts he's also full of life and an intense amount of energy, and Page has no problem bringing that to the table. She's far from the cool, laid-back snarker from Juno, and delightfully so. Page's performance is very, very entertaining and engaging, and the character probably wouldn't have been the same without her.

And as our resident villain, Kevin Bacon is great as Jacques (or "Jock," as Frank is prone to calling him). Bacon's performance is full of cockiness and bravado, but also a sliminess that makes him a villain worth disliking. He doesn't play Jacques with the same viciousness he brought to Sebastian Shaw in X-Men: First Class, but Bacon doesn't need to. He plays Jacques just right, which is all I can ask for.

I wasn't for sure what I was getting into when I first sat down to watch Super. But I will gladly call the movie an entertaining piece of business. James Gunn and his cast and crew have built a heck of a movie that fans of superheroes and black comedies can both enjoy. Super isn't an effects-driven, mile-a-minute blockbuster thrill ride like The Avengers, but it's still worth a rental or catching on cable. Thus, the movie gets three and a half stars on my usual scale. And if I may quote Super's main character, "Shut up, crime!"

Final Rating: ***½

Sunday, May 6, 2012

The Avengers (2012)

When I say "the Avengers," your mind probably goes in one of two directions. One direction will take you towards the British TV show from the '60s, which was adapted into a movie starring Uma Thurman and Sean Connery in 1998. Or if you're like me, you automatically associate "the Avengers" with the team of superheroes that call the pages of Marvel Comics home. Created in 1963 by industry legends Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, the Avengers have long been an important part of comic book history. And though the team's roster has changed dozens of times over the last several decades, it's the one comic where you're guaranteed to see Marvel's A-list (and a number of their top B-list) superheroes team up and fight a common foe.

When Marvel announced a few years ago that they would start producing their own movies based on characters whose film rights hadn't been sold off to other studios, it was also decided that these movies would follow in the footsteps of their comic book counterparts and have them coexist in a shared universe. The whole thing was set to build to a big payoff in the form of an Avengers movie. And after five movies that introduced the major players, the Avengers movie has finally arrived. I've been looking forward to it since 2008, and let me assure you that it was totally worth the wait.

As the movie begins, we discover that the espionage agency SHIELD has retrieved the Tesseract, the mysterious artifact that the Red Skull had tried using as a weapon of mass destruction during World War II, and has been conducting experiments on it. During one of these experiments, the Tesseract spontaneously opens a wormhole out into deep space. From this wormhole emerges the exiled Norse god Loki (Tom Hiddleston), who steals the Tesseract and uses a number of brainwashed SHIELD personnel ― including consulting scientist Dr. Erik Selvig (Stellan Skarsgård) and master archer Clint "Hawkeye" Barton (Jeremy Renner) ― to make a daring escape from the facility.

Facing a powerful opponent armed with an even more powerful weapon, SHIELD director Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) reactivates the dormant "Avenger Initiative." He sends agent Phil Coulson (Clark Gregg) and super-spy Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johannson) to bring Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) and Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) into the fold to study Dr. Selvig's research and track the trace amounts of gamma radiation the Tesseract produces. Fury himself approaches Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), who is still getting accustomed to life in the twenty-first century, and asks him to lead the mission to arrest Loki and retrieve the Tesseract.

Loki is found in Germany, but he almost immediately surrenders without a fight. He is apprehended and taken into SHIELD custody despite the protests of Thor (Chris Hemsworth), who tries desperately to talk his adoptive brother out of attacking the world he considers his second home. But Loki is seemingly content to remain incarcerated by SHIELD, secretly sowing the seeds of dissent and discord among his captors. As they bicker among one another, the still-brainwashed Selvig is using the Tesseract to build a tool for Loki that would open another wormhole. Waiting on the other side are the Chitauri, a race of aliens from a distant planet looking to claim Earth for their own. And though their wildly different personalities and methods cause them to come to blows on occasion, the team known as the Avengers must assemble together to fight a battle no single superhero could withstand alone.

If there is anything, anything at all, that I can say about The Avengers, it's that the movie is 100% pure fun. From beginning to end, The Avengers never ceases to be one of the most entertaining movies I've seen in a while. If the movie is the culmination of several years of planning and effort, then this final payoff is absolutely worth it. It is two and a half hours of unrelenting, unadulterated awesome.

The man in charge of things is the one and only Joss Whedon, who is no stranger to the world or Marvel Comics (having written 24 issues of their Astonishing X-Men book a few years back). The Avengers marks only his second go at directing a feature film, and I thought Whedon did an admirable job behind the camera. He utilizes some slick cinematography and fantastic special effects to make The Avengers a tremendous experience. Even the occasional quiet, dramatic moments feel like they have a sense of urgency. Whedon knows exactly what to do to keep the viewers engaged in what's happening on the screen.

Whedon also serves as the movie's writer, having rewritten a previous script by Zak Penn (who gets a "story by" credit). Whedon's writing style is often polarizing, due in large part to his fondness for snarky, sarcastic dialogue and killing off popular ancillary characters just to mess with the audience. I'll admit to thinking that much of Whedon's writing is guilty of thinking it's cooler than it really is, but Whedon's Avengers script is quite good. He really nails what makes each of the characters awesome in their own ways. You would think that a movie that combines so many dissimilar characters from so many movies would cause some people to get lost in the shuffle, but Whedon makes a point of letting everyone get a few moments to shine.

And while a lot of movie mash-ups ― Freddy vs. Jason, Alien vs. Predator, Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man ― tend to struggle somewhat with merging otherwise unrelated continuities, Whedon effortlessly makes The Avengers feel natural. Sure, he had five movies worth of buildup to work with, but the fact that he made a movie where Iron Man, Thor, the Incredible Hulk, and Captain America seamlessly coexist like they do in their comics is something awesome. Whedon also makes it worth all the buildup by making everything as big and as bold as a movie like this deserves. He never lets it get over the top, but makes the story feel like a grand epic. And I am happy to report the whole thing works.

But it's not just Whedon's efforts behind the camera that make The Avengers what it is. He also has a tremendous group of actors in front of the camera to bring these characters to life. Each and every member of the cast is on their A-game, with not a bad performance among them. Robert Downey Jr. returns to the role of Iron Man for the third time (well, fourth if you count his cameo at the end of The Incredible Hulk), and he continues to show why he was the perfect choice for the character. Downey gives Tony Stark the right amount of brash cockiness yet charming likeability, and the movie is all the better for having him around.

Chris Hemsworth also brings a fine performance to the role of Thor, making the character engaging while adding the necessary pathos that's needed to play a godlike being that must fight his brother. Chris Evans also does a great job as Captain America, as he once again plays Cap as the brave, strong soldier that his counterpart from the printed page is.

And while Edward Norton is missed, Mark Ruffalo is great as Bruce Banner. I don't really want to compare Ruffalo to Norton because that's unfair to both actors, but Ruffalo really shines here. He plays Banner as being haunted by yet acceptant of his mean green alter ago. The only crazy thing about it is that the actual Hulk might actually overshadow Ruffalo. Created via CGI and a motion-capture performance from Ruffalo, the Hulk almost completely runs away with the movie. He provides some of the movie's best moments, so I can't complain.

Scarlett Johansson and Jeremy Renner also make fine contributions as Black Widow and Hawkeye, while Samuel L. Jackson is once again fantastic as Nick Fury. I also thought that Clark Gregg, who returns to play Agent Coulson one more time, was amusing as always. And as our resident villain, Tom Hiddleston actually manages to outdo his performance in Thor. He makes Loki such a vile, cold-hearted monster that it's going to take something huge to top him in Avengers 2. (And if that scene in the middle of the credits is any indication, then the Avengers 2 villain could actually do it.) But Hiddleston's performance here is really good, and though he gets a little hammy at times, he's still a damn good bad guy.

And while I'm here, I should probably mention the 3D effects. The Avengers was shot in 2D and converted into 3D in post-production, a technique that in my experience has been hit or miss. But in the case of The Avengers, it's a big hit. It looks just as good if not better than some movies that were natively shot in 3D. The 3D makes a real difference in some scenes as well. Having seen the movie in both 3D and 2D, I can say I thought there were more than a few action sequences that benefit from the added depth that 3D brings. The movie is still effective in 2D, so if the glasses give you headaches, go ahead and see the 2D release. I'm just saying that I thought the 3D added to the fun.

And really, that's all The Avengers is: fun. From the moment the Marvel Studios logo appears to when the final images of Earth's mightiest heroes flicker on the screen, The Avengers never once ceases to be anything other than genuine entertainment. And there's not a single thing wrong with that. So yeah, as you may have imagined, the work that was put into building the Marvel Cinematic Universe and crafting this movie was totally worth it. And thus, I'll gladly give The Avengers four and a half stars on the scale. I've said it before, but I'm really hoping that the movie's record-setting opening weekend would cause DC Comics to take the hint and start building to a Justice League movie. That'd be awesome.

Final Rating: ****½

Friday, May 4, 2012

Justice League of America (1997)

Today is the day; after four years and five movies worth of buildup, the cinematic adaptation of the Marvel Comics superhero super-squad known as "The Avengers" has finally hit theaters in the United States. Marvel has really been banking on it being a huge hit, but what you might not know is that The Avengers is not the first movie to feature a comic book company's resident team of superheroes.

Let's go back to the year 1997, when a pair of movies based on DC Comics properties — Batman & Robin and Steel — were released to extremely negative critical reaction. I guess DC figured that television would be a better recourse, because that same year they teamed up with CBS to create a TV show based on their premier team of heroes, the Justice League of America.

And what could go wrong? The Justice League's ever-evolving roster has featured some of the most famous superheroes to appear in DC's pages, so you'd think that the idea of a TV show where Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, and others team up would be awesome. But if you thought that, you'd be wrong. It turns out that the show never got past the pilot stage. And to further hammer the failure home, that pilot has never aired in the United States, nor has it ever been legally released in any home video format. The only way you can find it at all is through bootlegs and YouTube. And I'm pretty sure that the reason it wasn't aired or picked up as a series is because it's terrible.

Welcome to New Metro, a sprawling city protected by the team of superheroes known as the Justice League of America. The Justice League's five members — the Flash (Kenny Johnson), Green Lantern (Matthew Settle), Fire (Michelle Hurd), the Atom (John Kassir), and the Martian Manhunter (David Ogden Stiers) — have successfully defeated every villain they've faced despite their problematic personal lives. But they've never gone up against an enemy quite like the Weatherman (Miguel Ferrer).

The Weatherman has developed a way to manufacture natural disasters, threatening to use it against New Metro unless he is paid a hefty ransom. The key to defeating him lies with Tori Olafsdotter (Kim Oja), a meek scientist who works at a local meteorological institute. She accidentally stumbles upon a bizarre device in the institute's laboratory that shorts out and gives her the ability to create and manipulate ice. It turns out that this device belongs to Tara's boss, leading her to put two and two together and realize that her boss is the Weatherman. Tara takes this information to the Justice League, who allow her to join their ranks with the codename "Ice." With their new member in tow, the Justice League sets out to defeat the Weatherman and save New Metro from potential destruction.

You know, I'd heard a lot about this pilot before I actually watched it. And everything I'd heard was resoundingly negative. Now that I have actually seen it, I can verify that every negative thing that's been said is absolutely true. This pilot is so bad, so utterly wretched that I can't say I'm surprised it wasn't picked it up as a series. And if it had been picked up, it probably would have been cancelled pretty quickly. There's no way that a show that followed up on this pilot could have been successful without some major retooling. It's the Murphy's Law of television pilots, in the sense that it gets every possible thing wrong.

At the helm of this sinking ship is Félix Enríque Alcalá, a director who has spent pretty much his entire career working in television. And the truth of the matter is that he does absolutely nothing to make me care at all about anything going on here. It's as if he realized this thing was going to suck and figured he wouldn't bother putting forth any effort to make things better. Alcalá just gives us some generic mid-'90s television direction in all its unimpressive glory. There's no style at all. And the whole thing is just plain boring, too. The movie is so plodding, so unbearably slow that after only an hour, I felt like I'd been watching this piece of crap for days on end. I just wanted this horrible garbage to end, but the end took forever to arrive.

It doesn't help anything that the production looks like crap. The effects are laughably bad, unconvincing and goofy-looking in large part because of the obviously miniscule budget. I mean, I know this is just a pilot for TV and that they probably would have redone it had the show been picked up. But are decent effects too much to ask for?! I could probably whip up something in Microsoft Paint in ten seconds and come close to replicating these effects.

There's also the costumes, which look like cheap Halloween costumes. I've seen cosplayers at comic book conventions with better costumes than the ones here. Green Lantern's costume is actually turquoise instead of green, while the Atom looks like his costume is just spandex with Styrofoam shoulder pads. Fire's costume is especially bad, as she's just wearing a green leotard with her hair pulled to the side and a dab of green makeup smeared under her eyes. The fact that she gets to wear green and the character with "green" in his name wears some other color is bad enough, but it gets worse than that. People pick on the perceived lack of difference in Clark Kent and Superman's appearances, but Fire doesn't even try. Her costume is so transparent that the kid who's stalking her civilian identity puts two and two together after seeing her as Fire on the news for a tenth of a second. The movie tries to say that he noticed her wearing the earrings he'd given her, but you'd have to be a damn fool to not see through that flimsy excuse for a costume.

And you'd better believe that the script is awful too. Written by Lorne Cameron and David Hosselton, this thing is like a bottom-of-the-barrel Friends knockoff combined with a bad Power Rangers parody using DC Comics characters. Whose idea was it to take a superhero team, an idea that could lend itself more to an action/drama format like Smallville, and make a badly-written sitcom out of that? The Justice League of the comics goes up against dangerous global threats on a regular basis, but here, they've got a busted TV and a villain who's a lame substitute of the Weather Wizard, a member of the Flash's comic book rogues gallery.

And I also got the impression that neither Cameron nor Hosselton ever bothered to read any comics or got familiar with the characters. I can't say I'm really familiar with how all of the characters are depicted in the comics either, but the ones I am familiar with are grossly misrepresented. For example, Ice is a meek, mousy ball of nerves who got her powers in a lab accident here, as opposed to the charming girl next door in the comics who was born with her powers as an extension of her Norse heritage. And there's also Green Lantern, whose changes got the most of my attention. His secret identity is explicitly stated to be Guy Gardner, the second of four human Green Lanterns in the comics. But not only is his costume the wrong color (which I've already mentioned), but they give him a personality similar to fellow Green Lanterns Hal Jordan and Kyle Rayner. The Guy Gardner of the comics is notoriously hotheaded and macho, and the only time the pilot comes close to matching that is when he threatens the Weatherman with a chainsaw constructed from his ring's energy at the end of the movie. But by then, it's too little too late.

I also wonder just how much the low budget affected the script. I say this because there are moments in this that seem like they were supposed to be big sequences yet are whittled down to nothing (or less than nothing). They establish that the Weatherman is trying to pummel New Metro with a massive hailstorm, but it's dealt with in ten seconds like it's no big deal at all. It gets worse when they tell us that the Justice League averted a mudslide orchestrated by the Weatherman, yet they never show us any of it. They tell us the whole thing happened in a news report after the fact, and they barely show the news report at that! If it was a budgetary issue that caused the mudslide to be left out, why not just delete the whole thing altogether?!

I also just plain didn't understand all the reality show "confession cam" moments. I know MTV's reality show The Real World was a huge hit around the same time, but did Cameron and Hosselton really think a Justice League show needed to borrow elements from it? The scenes have pretty much no bearing whatsoever on anything. They aren't funny, don't advance or even reference the story, and frankly feel like they're only there to pad out the running time. Padding is probably why they're there to begin with, what with the aforementioned non-existent mudslide scene.

The only thing left for me to talk about is the acting. And folks, the acting is awful almost all the way across the board. The cast is unimpressive and lifeless. With the exception of Miguel Ferrer, who I almost always enjoy even when he's stuck with lousy material, everyone in front of the camera is awful. They run the gamut from annoying to laughable to just plain bad. It's rare that I see a group of actors so thoroughly miss the mark, but this is one instance where everyone (with, as I said, the exception of Ferrer, who even then is only okay at best) is absolutely terrible.

I'm still amazed at just how bad this thing is. I watched it for free and still felt like I paid too much to see it. I can totally understand why the pilot never got picked up, but I do imagine where the show would have gone, though. Would the Justice League have fought more villains created just for the show? Or would they have battled comics villains like Darkseid or the Legion of Doom? Would any more DC heroes pop up? That's something that actually bugs me, because I have to ask why Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman are nowhere to be found. They aren't even referenced. I have to guess that it's due to some kind of legal complications, because if I were making a pilot for a TV show featuring DC's number-one superteam, I'd want DC's top three characters on the show. I can understand why Superman may have been unavailable, since Lois and Clark had just ended and perhaps they didn't want him on another show so quickly. But no Batman or Wonder Woman? Really? That's a real disappointment.

But the entire pilot is a 90-minute mess. It's not only boring, but it becomes frustratingly bad when you start picking it apart like I've been doing here. The more I analyze it, the more it transitions from being a forgettable movie to being so bad that it took serious effort to keep from turning it off in disgust halfway through. If you are absolutely in desperate need to watch something made for television with the Justice League name on it, just stick with Bruce Timm and Paul Dini's Justice League and Justice League Unlimited cartoons that ran from 2001 to 2006. As for this pilot, it's unmitigated crap that is only worth tracking down for the curiosity factor alone. Now if you'll excuse me, I've gotta go see The Avengers. Here's hoping that its guaranteed success will be enough to convince DC Comics to make a Justice League movie that's better than this.

Final Rating: *