Justice League Dark reassembles the leads from the most recent DC animated films and adds Matt Ryan to the roster as John Constantine.
Ryan will already be familiar to Hellblazer fans for his live action portrayal of Constantine on NBC and the CW. Here, his character takes centre stage while the other heroes – Batman included – are relegated to supporting roles. But don’t expect a detailed explanation of Constantine’s powers or an elaborate depiction of his back story.
Justice League Dark presupposes audience familiarity with its protagonists and invests little time in introductions. We get brief flashbacks depicting the origins of Deadman and Jason Blood/Etrigan. But such concessions are a scarcity, and the rest of the film throws us in at the deep end and expects us to stay afloat.
Die hard DC comic fans may tread water, but newcomers will likely drown in the confusion.
While Constantine commands most of the focus, he’s ably supported by a retinue of familiar faces from the Justice League Dark comics. The clash of personalities lends itself to some amusing dialogue and there’s plenty of humour scattered throughout.
The story moves breathlessly from one magical set piece to the next. It’s so pacy that it can sometimes be difficult to keep track of what’s happening. But the plot essentially amounts to our heroes trying to keep a powerful object known as the Dreamstone out of the wrong hands.
Unfortunately the nature of the threat they’re battling is vague and ill-defined for the majority of the film. We don’t actually discover the identity of the main villain until the last twenty minutes of the movie, and preceding that revelation are one too many red herrings to throw us off the scent. Consequently we get numerous scenes of our heroes battling bizarre monsters, but little impression of the underlying stakes. This might have worked in a plot-driven mystery narrative like Mask of the Phantasm or Under the Red Hood, but Justice League Dark is a fantasy-horror film driven by action. The mystery element gets buried beneath the violence and frenetic pacing, leaving the viewer with a storyline that emphasises confusion over intrigue.
I’ve always struggled with magical battle scenes because I find it difficult to keep track of who has the upper hand. In a fist fight, I can judge how evenly matched the combatants are. But when characters are discharging energy beams from their palms and conjuring Lovecraftian horrors to fight on their behalf, it can be difficult to gauge the progress of the battle. As a result, I found the action scenes in Justice League Dark to be visually spectacular, but lacking in suspense or dramatic weight. The big exception is the finale, where the true villain steps to the fore and the stakes are raised accordingly. Not all the heroes survive the denouement, and those that do get by on their wits rather than vaguely-defined magical prowess. The final act in general is uncommonly strong for this type of film, but not enough to make up for the shortcomings in the first two thirds.
The quality of animation is of the standard you’d expect from recent DC animated films. It’s at its weakest during the more static conversational scenes, but comes to life during the action sequences. The look of the film compliments the dark, magical tone to create a shadowy ambience reflective of the source material. I’d say the movie’s occult atmosphere is its strongest asset. Too many adaptations ignore the mystical side of the DC universe, but this film embraces that material with relish.
The magical and occasionally gothic imagery is where the animation truly shines. Etrigan and Swamp Thing are particularly well served in this regard. Many of the creature designs are delightfully grotesque and imaginatively realised. On the subject of tone and imagery, it’s worth mentioning that this film is rated R (15 here in the UK), so there’s a decent amount of blood on display. However like last year’s The Killing Joke adaptation, the R-rated content is comparatively tame. So there’s nothing too off-putting to offend the more squeamish viewers.
Batman himself has no personal stake in the film’s events beyond his usual mandate of protecting the innocent. He has no emotional investment outside of that, nor does he undergo any substantial growth or character development. He’s just there, tagging along for the ride. If you’ve seen previous JLA films and TV episodes where Batman participates in battles against super powered adversaries that clearly outclass him, then you’ll be familiar with his tactics of throwing explosive batarangs and dodging energy blasts with his grapple gun. And that’s precisely what he does here. O’Mara’s performance is solid as always, but it’s hard to shake the feeling Batman was shoehorned in purely to boost DVD sales. And in a film that’s already a little overstuffed to begin with, the Dark Knight’s inclusion only bloats things further. But then if Batman hadn’t been in the movie, fans would have been deprived the experience of seeing him battle a toilet monster composed entirely of faecal matter (no kidding, this actually happens).
Overall, Justice League Dark is a tricky film to recommend. It’s strong on atmosphere, spectacle and action, but light on coherent storytelling and emotional drama. It’s most likely to appeal to fans of the Justice League Dark comics, Hellblazer and especially those with a craving for more of Matt Ryan’s Constantine. But for anyone desiring an emotionally engaging story, or just a good Batman or JLA film, this movie is likely to disappoint.
Compared to other animated adaptations of the same subgenre, such as the HBO Spawn series or the Hellboy animated films, Justice League Dark doesn’t have an awful lot new to offer. The fact they used the same voice actors and character designs from earlier films, combined with the lack of proper introductions for some of the newer characters, makes this feel like a midseason episode in an ongoing TV series. That could be a good thing or a bad thing, depending on how much you enjoyed the other recent DC animated films. For me, it was just ok. An adequate addition to the DC library that is neither one of the best, nor one of the worst, but instead falls somewhere in the middle.
Action packed, pacy and atmospheric fantasy-horror mired by a confusing plot and lack of emotional depth.