DC Comics’ Vibrant Supernatural World Comes to Life
The supernatural side of DC Comics is ripe with vibrant characters, iconic stories, and exciting ideas that have largely been ignored by the brand’s live action film adaptations and much of its animated films and series until now. In Justice League Dark, the DC Animated Movie Universe dives headlong into the supernatural realm, bringing many of its greatest characters to life in a film whose strengths are the direct result of how fantastic those characters are in their pure, unadulterated forms. While the storytelling may leave something to be desired, the thrill of experiencing these iconic characters should entice both longtime comic fans and uninitiated viewers alike.
Justice League Dark, the latest in DC’s ever-growing line of interconnected home video animated films, sees a mystical threat in the DC Universe cause a group of its most powerful supernatural heroes to band together. As the group assembles, including Batman, John Constantine, Zatanna, Deadman, and Etrigan the Demon, they investigate an escalating series of supernatural occurrences that only they are equipped to stop. In the process of unpacking the mystery at hand, they grow closer to one another.
As the third R rated animated DC Comics film since 2014’s Assault on Arkham and 2016’s The Killing Joke, it’s clear that the creators behind Justice League Dark wanted their first big foray into the supernatural side of DC to make a mark. However, it’s not entirely clear why this had to be rated R. Aside from some extra blood, a little cursing, and a monster that is literally made out of poop, it doesn’t seem all that necessary. It’s not like the darker, edgier ideas of the story wouldn’t have worked with a PG-13 rating. In fact, it almost feels arbitrary, like the rating would gain some extra attention for the film. And those R rating-causing moments are rather forgettable, especially when the action itself doesn’t feel all that different from your standard PG or PG-13 rated animated film. You won’t be left shocked by the supposedly “mature” storytelling decisions of Justice League Dark, mostly just left wondering the reasons behind the choice.
What really works best about Justice League Dark, and the best of DC Comics’ animated films, is that each character is perfectly on point. Longtime fans of any of the heroes featured will be thrilled to know that the characteristics and tone of voice for each has been fantastically brought to life here. From Constantine’s abrasive, roguish charm to Swamp Thing’s intimidating gravitas, the heroes and villains of Justice League Dark feel like the comic book characters leaping off the page. That’s combined with some strong animation that is far smoother and higher quality than some of the more recent DC animated film, which makes the action and character designs far more enjoyable.
Getting to know each lead character should be a treat for even the newcomers who are less aware of these more obscure characters, as JLD nicely balances fleshing out their backstories and personalities with moving the story forward at a consistent pace. The group as a whole has really fun chemistry in both conversations and action sequences and it’s that dynamic that makes JLD so enjoyable.
While Batman (voiced by Jason O’Mara, the go-to voice of the character for DC’s animated films now) may be the most well-known character and the one who sets the film’s plot in motion, he quickly takes a backseat to the rest and acts more as a point of view character for the audience. As we travel deeper in the world of magic in the DC Universe, the focus slowly shifts to John Constantine (voiced by Matt Ryan, who played the character in the short-lived live action TV series) and Zatanna (voiced by Camilla Luddington).
As Constantine, Ryan nails the voice and characterization of one of DC’s greatest antiheroes. All the loathsome yet heroic contradictions of Constantine are found here and it’s a treat to watch him play off the many different personalities that surround him, with Zatanna becoming an especially important part of his dynamic growth as a character. While supporting characters like Etrigan and his human half Jason Blood (voiced by Ray Chase) and Deadman (voiced by Nicholas Turturro) have less to do, they still add a fun and exciting dynamic to the group. Really, when DC animated films nail their characters and bring action scenes that are impossible in live action, the shortcomings of the story can often be forgiven. In comparison to most of the DC Animated Universe films that have been released, starting with 2014’s Justice League War, the characters found in Justice League Dark are by far some of the most interesting and dynamic yet.
However, at 75 minutes, Justice League Dark doesn’t quite have enough time to let its dramatic scenes breathe or give its characters a little extra wiggle room to develop, but the pinch is felt most of all in the closing minutes. After its wild finale, JLD wraps up a little too quickly and many of its characters could have used some extra time to find some closure. Rather, the animated film wraps up more like a single episode of an ongoing series, instead of a standalone movie. While that may be alright if sequels were guaranteed, the abrupt ending sells the film and its characters short. Most notably given the short end of the stick is Swamp Thing, whose brief appearances could have used a few minutes of closure instead of his unresolved and less-than-satisfying final moments on screen.
While an animated film about some of DC Comics’ more obscure characters may not entice potential viewers with a lack of interest in the world of superheroes, Justice League Dark was most certainly made with diehard fans in mind. For both the devoted fan and the casual viewer looking for something slightly out of the ordinary when it comes to superheroics, JLD will be a largely satisfying, if somewhat flawed, journey into mystery.