For its 27th feature (yep, 27, these things just keep coming) the folks over at the DC animated universe decided to opt for something a little different. Well, not that different. Batman is still at the center of the story, and the rest of the Justice League make at least a token appearance. However, this isn’t another tale of the superfriends battling a famous villain. Instead, the animation studio has drawn its attention to the creepiest realms of the DC Universe for Justice League Dark. Much like the Assault On Arkham flick from a few years back, this feels like a “proof of concept” project to prove the Justice League Dark can work at feature length like The Suicide Squad before a live action blockbuster hits production. And also like Assault On Arkham, the 76-minute movie is far too overstuffed with characters for them all to get the screen time that they deserve. Still, the fact that obscure DC faces like Swamp Thing, Deadman, and even John Constantine get the animated treatment they deserve is more than enough cause for a few geek-gasms.
The plot starts simple but grows increasingly complex thanks to all of the mythology in play. It starts with citizens all over the world suddenly becoming convinced that people around them are demons and then feeling compelled to kill them (like you do). The Justice League all do their part to intervene but recognize that there is dark magic in play that is beyond their grasp. Batman is conveniently given visions of the name “Constantine” and meets up with his old buddy Zantana for a little magic advice. She then reveals Deadman was responsible for the visions and together they travel to meet Jon Constantine for assistance. Eventually, it turns out that it’s all connected to a magic gem known as the Dreamstone created centuries ago by a sorcerer known as Destiny. Confused yet? Just wait. Not all of the main characters have even been introduced.
The biggest flaw of Justice League Dark is that the narrative is so convoluted and littered with mythology. Essentially the flick has been written for DC fans and the team have gone out of their way to cram in as many of the dark magic characters in the Universe as possible. The trouble is that the movie is also meant to introduce new fans to the world, so it’s all overcrowded with backstory and exposition that will irritate the old timers while not quite offering enough information to bring all of the newcomers on board. That’s a problem, but thankfully it’s far from a movie killer. It was inevitable and with a little luck, there will be another one of these Justice League Dark flicks that can take the baton from here and get into a more intriguing story unencumbered by all of the endless exposition.
Thankfully, beyond that Justice League Dark is easily the best movie that the DC Animation has produced within their own continuity (obviously, the adaptations of classic graphic novels remain the best since they come from such undeniably brilliant source material). While in theory, it might seem like Batman is tacked onto this tale to shift some more units, he actually fits in perfectly. Beyond the fact that he is, you know, dark, the script positions him as the Dana Scully to all of the magic madness, constantly looking for rational explanations in a world without any. That allows John Constantine (Matt Ryan, reprising his role from the ho-hum TV series to delightfully grizzled effect) to wearily lead this band of misfits into the fire and his sarcastic frustration towards all the strange scenarios is wonderfully entertaining. Other characters don’t always get the attention they deserve (particularly the underwritten Zantana who tends to feel like an exposition factory and Deadman, who can be downright annoying with all of his one-liners). But at the same time there is a certain undeniably joy to simply seeing characters like Etrigan spring to life in such a pure form. The filmmakers might not have had enough real estate to give all the characters their due, but they clearly respect this odd corner of the DC Universe and relish the chance to play in the sandbox.
Jay Oliva (The Dark Knight Returns) assumed directing duties again, which means the action scenes are spectacular (there’s a reason that he’s part of the storyboard team for all the live action DC features when he’s not cranking out these animated gems). The film has an R-rating again like The Killing Joke before it, and while that feels like a bit of a stretch for marketing purposes (there’s nothing particularly graphic here), Oliva certainly has fun getting gothic. He has a few decent scare scenes, and in particular, he takes great care bringing Swamp Thing to life in the form Alan Moore created. Sadly, Swamp Thing gets but two scenes to strut his green-ruling stuff, but both deliver the character in such an imposing, powerful, and creepy way that you can’t help but hope that somehow, somewhere, someday Swamp Thing will get his own DC animated feature. Who knows? It’s possible. Justice League Dark turned out damn well, so perhaps sales will be high enough to justify more of dark chapters in DC animation.
As always, the Justice League Dark looks and sounds great on Blu-ray. The animation might be somewhat limited out of budgetary concerns, but when the movie takes off into its many flights of morbid fantasy it can light up an HD screen, while a pounding orchestral score fills surround speakers. The movie would play well theatrically, even if that dream will never come true. Special features are sadly limited. Despite having only two scenes in the movie, Swamp Thing gets the most attention with a 20-minute documentary about the history of the character featuring creator Len Wein and some DC factory fanboys. It’s a nice ode to the great elemental, but only emphasizes how little he was used in the film for fans like myself. Sadly, none of the other Justice League Dark characters get the same treatment. There are brief (1 min or less) “Did You Know” factoids on a few characters, a 26-minute New York Comic Con panel about the film (that was sadly shot before the film was finished, so it plays like an advertisement for something you already own), and trailers for a few other DC features. The biggest special features of note are two Batman: The Brave And The Bold episodes with Deadman and Etrigan that are fun, but obviously far, far sillier than the movie itself.
Overall, Justice League Dark is definitely worth picking up for anyone who enjoys the DC animated features. Though it might be dogged by exposition and backstory, the flick shows off some long time cult favourite characters in this universe with such style and skill that by the end you’ll be hoping for a sequel. It’s definitely the best feature set within the DC Animation’s continuity, and that’s a huge relief since they tend to be the weakest releases from this company. This certainly falls into the ‘hard nerd” category of comic book features. You have to be willing to accept convoluted mythology at face value and not giggle when people start shooting lasers out of a crystal. But, if you actually know the names of the characters in Justice League Dark, you’ll be prepared for that level of stylized silliness. Even better, you’ll be impressed that these obscure characters were somehow treated with so much respect.