Justice League: Dark
"Justice League Dark" casts a spell on the DC Universe Animated Original Movie line and moves it forward with a mystifying, action-filled, and interpersonal animated adventure set in a horror movie. The Justice League is unable to get ahead of a global magical pandemic and Batman is drawn into the gathering of rag tag team who may be the only hope at stopping an ages old adversary. "Justice League Dark" continues the long-running DC Universe line of movies into new territory of the supernatural as it closes in on its 10th anniversary.
"Justice League Dark" raises the bar up another rung but is still within the periphery of last year's in-continuity films "Batman: Bad Blood" and "Justice League vs. Teen Titans" except pushing the level of violence just a little bit higher. The movies always had that darker edge to them since they are for a PG-13 audience but Dark's story, the supernatural element, the twists, the new threats, and the type of action does influence the tone towards earning the R rating. On the flip side, there is no wanton gratitude swearing, language or nudity. The returning characters are still the same and not affected by the new rating. It is simply rated so because of the type of violence needed for certain scenes like impaling. Despite this, there is still a lighthearted component brought by Constantine and Deadman's cutting sense of humor. This all adds to a tight, compact, compelling, and entertaining 76 minute story movie. "Justice League Dark" all in all hints at another strong year of excellence in story telling.
"Justice League Dark" begins with Wonder Woman, Superman, and Batman encountering ordinary people committing horrific acts of violence towards others under the claim they see demons all around them. In reality, they are killing innocent bystanders and family. A meeting of the Justice League takes place as the world is plunged into mass hysteria. The cases suggest the culprit is magic, but Batman is not convinced. Batman returns home and discovers the word "Constantine" written all over his bedroom walls. finds himself part of an investigation to find out what's the cause of these bizarre incidents. After six minutes, though, the classic Justice League story template is basically thrown out the window and the narrative shifts into the horror genre. The film could have easily imploded from the task of introducing and filling the audience in on nine new characters but the pacing is as sharp as last year's films and the movie never falter's in that department thanks to the use of interpersonal dynamics such as Zatanna already having history with Batman, Constantine, and Deadman or the bad blood between Constantine and... pretty much everyone. The only character that was really short changed of screen time was Black Orchid but she's mostly present as a component to the big twist at the end.
The opposition to the heroes are as entertaining. In terms of the demons that appear, it's a mix of classic DC Comics and classic horror movies. Total shocker, right? For the demons, character designers Phil Bourassa and Dusty Abell really came up with some messed up looks. Not one demon is like the other. Then there's the famous Demons Three from the comics. And the excrement demon -- which might seem like a head-scratcher to the uninitiated but a classic trope, essentially a golem. And Deadman's assessment is spot on. The battles against this demon and Felix Faust later in the movie prove to be the biggest and most entertaining set pieces. It's refreshing to see the entertainment value isn't crammed into the final act against the real villain but equally spread across the movie and the foot is hardly on the brakes so to speak. The selection and specific use of different magic spells, colors, incantations augment the scenes even further. Instead of telling a straight forward arc for the main villain like in the previous films, it was a pleasant surprise to see a frame job angle and twist to Destiny's arrival and subsequent defeat.
Since it isn't the standard Justice League movie, the rules are rewritten and not everyone makes it to the finish line. Etrigan and Swamp Thing's final fate are left open ended for, hopefully, future movies to explore. That said, I appreciated some callbacks to past films like "Justice League: War" when Batman encounters John Stewart late into the movie. In terms of easter eggs, I swear I saw the Helmet of Nabu in the House of Mystery... When the Justice League or Batman will have a movie centered on them again is a question mark. If you know about the House of Mystery, part of the ending might be anti-climactic. The rating is something of a distraction. It could have been a PG-13 movie if you think about some the content we've seen in the past like Thomas Wayne shooting a bullet through Zoom's head in "Justice League: The Flashpoint Paradox." Overall, the ending might be a shade of melancholy but still carries forward the recurring theme of family and yearning of it in these in-continuity movies. It was a pleasant surprise to see Robert Kral back doing the score. He definitely contributed to the overall tone and atmosphere with a soundtrack fit for the supernatural backdrop. Producers James Tucker and Alan Burnett, director Jay Oliva and writers Ernie Altbacker and J.M. DeMatteis succeeded in telling a complete story, finishing the right sub-plots, and leaving us wanting more from the rest and giving us things to stew on and debate for the next year or so.
The voice cast is a diverse, eclectic mix just like the characters they play. Jason O'Mara, Rosario Dawson, and Jerry O'Connell deliver reliable performances to ease the audience into the movie. Fan favorite Matt Ryan reprises the role of Constantine and takes the starring role. Ryan seems elevated and perhaps some of that is Constantine getting to hang with other name characters. It's amusing that Batman and Constantine butt heads a little as O'Mara is a Welsh and Ryan is Irish. Google it. Camilla Luddington gets high praise for recording Zatanna's spells backwards. Nicholas Turturro was a joy as the constant source of levity with a (I guess it's 'classic' now) Brooklynese accent. Ray Chase does a solid interplay of voicing both the stoic Jason Blood and the rhyming demon Etrigan. I was amazed to read that Roger R. Cross did both Swamp Thing and Green Lantern John Stewart. His flexibility and range is put on display here. Enrico Colantoni was a pleasant surprise as Felix Faust. He could have been the one note villain, but the flair he brought to the table was refreshing. Jeremy Davis also reprises his role of Ritchie Simpson from the "Constantine" television series and slips easily back into the role but perhaps that's what helps fool the audience a little. Alfred Molina as Destiny may well be the weak point. He didn't have enough scenes to really make an impression on me as he did on the "Wonder Woman" movie. Wes Gleason is only really stretching his wings as a voice director in DC animation but he's proving to be a powerhouse.
The home entertainment release of "Justice League Dark" features a solid selection of primers on the main cast of characters in its special features section. "The Story of Swamp Thing" is an 18-minute history of Swamp Thing in comics through the lens of co-creator Len Wein (and thankfully no mention of that animated series from back in the day). The "Did You Know" are a series of half to one minute sound bytes, including DC Enterntainment's Mike Carlin commenting on Constantine's journey from panel to screen, Jay Oliva's break down of magic in the movie, Carlin clarifying Black Orchid, and James Tucker sharing an anecdote about casting for Deadman. The "Did You Know" gets straight to the point but does leave you wanting more. The longest of the special features is a recording of the New York Comic-Con 2016 panel for "Justice League Dark." Coming in at 26 minutes, 41 seconds - it's great for archival purposes. The sneak peak at this Spring's release, "Teen Titans: The Judas Contract" is 11 minutes, 41 seconds and is a mix of stills, storyboards, comic panels, finished footage, and voice recording sessions. It becomes very clear this movie is going to be a love letter to the Perez run on New Teen Titans and not just the Judas Contract story arc. The preview also builds hype for the film by laying it on thick that we're getting flashbacks to the Teen Titans' early days with new characters we've haven't seen yet, Starfire's origin story, Dick Grayson's days as Robin, the origin of Starfire and Grayson's relationship -- full circle for fans who have been following their recurring appearances and foreshadowing in past movies. It is bittersweet seeing scenes with the late and great Miguel Ferrer who just recently passed away. Rounding out the special features are previews of past releases "Justice League: Doom" and "Justice League: Gods and Monsters," bonus episodes "Dawn of the Deadman!" and "Trials of the Demon!" from the Batman: The Brave and The Bold animated series, and trailers for the DC All Access App and previous release "Batman: Return of the Caped Crusaders." It was a treat to see the new "Wonder Woman" live action movie TV spot play before the menu screen that just released on Super Bowl Sunday. The limited edition gift set comes with a well done Constantine figurine. But of course, like a broken record, I point out that there's no commentary track, making of featurette, character design featurette, or making of the score featurette. Still a solid set of special features for the uninitiated or those in need of a refresher course.
"Justice League Dark" is a contender for the strongest of the Justice League movies and perhaps overall movie in the DC Universe Animated Original Movie line. In the aftermath of "Justice League vs. Teen Titans," Dark kicks open the door on the magical aspects of the DC Universe and infuses the continuity with intriguing and rousing new characters. The movie finds its balance in straying from the norm and finding a balance in past and present, action and interpersonal dynamics. The film's dark premise never gets overindulgent and explores another angle of humanity and the need for family. "Justice League Dark" a very highly recommended purchase. Ahem, Swamp Thing movie please!
Main Feature: 4 out of 5
Special Features: 4 out of 5
Average Rating: 4 out of 5