Synopsis – Beings with supernatural powers join together to fight against supernatural villains. This team of supernatural beings include John Constantine, Zatanna and Jason Blood also known as the demon Etrigan.
My Take – Finally! The actual darker segment of the DC universe has finally hit the screen! Well I mean small screen, in animated form, mainly as their live action counterparts remain in development despite having names like the genius Guillermo del Toro & director Doug Liman attached to it. With each of the new Justice League animated films, which seem to loosely follow one another in a franchise that initially based itself off of The New 52 (a connection it has certainly loosened off on particularly since DC had a soft reboot in the form of Rebirth), I approach each new one with apprehension. But with DC Animated regular director Jay Oliva (Justice League: The Flashpoint Paradox, Batman: The Dark Knight Returns) at helm, what can go wrong right? Exactly! I might even say that this is one of their strongest titles we’ve seen so far. This latest addition to the DC Animated Film Universe has come into the scene after being met with a mixture of excitement and skepticism from fans of varying intensities. Regardless of how you feel about DC’s attempts at finding a home on the big screen in recent years, it’s a fairly common consensus at they have always had a very strong place in the animated worlds with even their weaker titles still receiving praise from fans who cherish the classic characters and storylines. In the wake of the inconsistency of the live-action, universe building marathon, it’s refreshing to see a simpler, more straightforward, yet still effectively intriguing story-telling pace set by DC‘s animated feature titles. This film continues the trend of its predecessor, excelling at brief but complete introductions to some of DC‘s more obscure characters, bringing them out of the shadows. The use of the overly popular Batman is very fitting here and die-hard and new fans should find a bunch to like.
The story follows Batman (Jason O’Mara) who goes undercover after he suspects that the recent pandemic of heinous and violent crimes committed by previously law abiding citizens involves magic. Knowing that the Justice League is not occupied to combat such a threat, Batman goes to Zatana (Camilla Luddington) for her help in finding John Constantine (Matt Ryan), an alcoholic English con man who may or may not be the world’s most powerful sorcerer. Forming an alliance with Boston Brand / Deadman (Nicholas Turturro), Jason Blood / Etrigan the Demon (Ray Chase) and Swamp Thing (Roger Cross), Batman and the rest of this new team must find the suspected evil sorcerer Felix Faust (Enrico Colantoni), and find a way to prevent the impending doom. This one marks the fourth film in a string of newly designed Justice League installments, not to mention the three Batman-focused outings, and I’m happy to say that this latest one may just be the best of them all. Like the rest of these DC Animated Film Universe films, it’s based on a lot of New 52 continuity and stories but remains mostly original. This allows for less baggage as no one is waiting to breakdown the comic book adaptation. This allows the artist to create new material, which I think this is missing from the DCEU films i.e. to tell simple yet well told story with enough intrigue and heart to keep one’s interest. The film also introduces horror to DC. There’s supernatural elements filled with occult imagery and tinged with religious overtones. This coupled with jump scares and a few ghost and it almost feels like a new James Wan film. That’s not the only horror influence. The violence is appealing to gore-hounds. For any DC animated film to be these bloody needs applauds. It pushes boundaries more than ever before but it works for these characters! After the very weak R-rated ‘Batman: The Killing Joke‘, this film is like the darkest DC Animated Film yet, not only does this one use the R-rating to its advantage but there’s no feeling that the creators are trying to be edgy. Everything comes off natural and never feels forced into being something it’s not. The addition of magic into this universe doesn’t throw off the storytelling, which is refreshing. All of the characters are given the usual DC treatment leaving them each with their own unique qualities, personalities and overall enjoyment levels. It’s refreshing to see a whole batch of new characters introduced into this film universe and none of them feel like a repeated or copied version of someone we’ve already seen. Also make no mistake; even though Batman is plastered all over the cover, this is first and foremost the John Constantine Show. In fact at times you’ll forget Batman is even in the film, but to the film’s credit they find ways to make him useful. He’s basically our point of view character. The Justice League Dark more or less already know each other, so when they refer to past adventures, we as the viewer are just as dumbfounded as Batman. Think of this similar to Assault on Arkham, a film marketed around Batman but has very little to do with Batman. The Dark Knight does indeed take a very upfront, starring role in this film but once John Constantine is introduced, he takes a step to the side. His main purpose is to keep the audience as well as the film grounded in a more objective perspective that is contrary to the very magical and supernatural happenings of the paranormal aspect of the DC Universe. His involvement is brought about due to his connection to Zatanna. It is implied that they have a history which comic book fans can attest to and he seeks her out in hopes of finding Constantine. I’m confident that those who complained about Batman’s presence in this film will be pleasantly surprised by his contribution and lack thereof. This film is all about exploring the supernatural side of DC that’s often overlooked. For those unfamiliar with these characters they mostly get back stories, which are really the only time the film ever, slows down, but it’s a necessary evil to get newer viewers up to speed.
You don’t however get any origin of Constantine. I suggest you do what I’m about to do and watch the cancelled NBC Constantine series. The action sequences were amazing, especially the second last fight. That really got me pumped up. Earlier there used to be a lot of cut- aways during a fight sequence. The difference here was that each individual fight was done for a longer time before interjecting it with a scene. That increased the intensity of the fights by a notch. Using Batman as the bridge between the Justice League and Justice League Dark was smart. He’s the only non-horror DC character with the darkest story and world. This is played up in this film when he meets a group of grim reapers and he scares them off. Yes, Batman scares a group of grim reapers! That’s how scary this man is! Seeing John Constantine is always good. After the sad cancellation of his show, it was a joy to see him pop up on The CW’s ‘Arrow‘. But this is the type of Constantine that fans are craving! The film brings the best out of him with the signature snark and his magic getting to shine in animated form. Same goes with seeing Swamp Thing. There’s only been one live-action version of the big green bad-ass so anytime this beloved DC iconic appears, you should be happy. But I could not help but feel that Swamp Thing was a little under used given that he was one of this film’s big selling points. A majority of the films plot is steered by Constantine, Zatanna, Batman, Deadman and Etrigan the demon. And For those not familiar with Etrigan, he is a fun Demon character that quotes really rubbish poetry before going into battle; he gets a majority of the films funny lines! The voice acting is spot on from Matt Ryan‘s reprisal of Constantine to Alfred Molina as Destiny to Camilla Luddigton as Zatanna. Jason O’Mara does a good job as Batman and although not as good as Kevin he is a good replacement. Let me get rid of the gripes I had about the animation. First of all at around 17 minutes into the film, Deadman is opaque and transparent even when he hasn’t been made visible by Constantine. Second, sometimes the expressions of the characters didn’t change with the dialogue. I know it is nitpicking but you’ll begin to notice after some time. If that would happen to a live actor, I would call it a wooden performance. My favorite aspect of animated film and television adaptation of comic books is that no matter how realistic they seem to feel, the cartoon aspect maintains the whimsy and fun of reading the comics themselves and provides artists, voice actors and story writers to completely explore and establish their takes on beloved characters, plots and environments. Ever since the film Son of Batman began this new franchise of DC animated films in 2013, fans like myself have been treated to a new age of mature, yet fun and serious, yet fantastic stories driven by strong voice acting and great animation. On the whole, ‘Justice League Dark’ is a solid introduction to the Dark Universe of DC & assures that if you’re a fan of animated films, you won’t be disappointed with this one.
Directed – Jay Oliva
Rated – R
Run Time – 75 minutes