If the latest capers in Hollywood are any indication, fans of DC Comics may be loyal to a fault. However, the home-release animated films still provide a light at the end of the tunnel, and Justice League Dark is no exception.
Although it’s title comes from the New 52 comic that ushered fan-favourite John Constantine back into the mainstream DC lore, this latest escapade by DC/WB animation is refreshingly lacking in comic-book gimmicks, instead delivering a healthy balance of style and substance. And as appropriate for a Constantine-centric story, no time is wasted in setting up a chilling mystery for him and his long-suffering friends to unravel.
Much like his various companions, fans of Constantine’s character have also had much to endure. After the ending of Vertigo’s Hellblazer at issue #300, folding John back into DC Comics came with some trial-and-error. While the televised NBC series starring Matt Ryan expanded the fandom and helped us forget the dreary Keanu Reeves movie, the show was robbed the chance to spread its wings, being cancelled after it’s initial 13-episode commission. Fortunately, the era of social media and fandom came to the rescue, with #SaveConstantine leading to a new wave of media starring everyone’s favourite scheming magician, with Ryan reprising the role for a cameo on Arrow, as well as for this film and CW’s upcoming Constantine animated series.
There’s no hyperbole in saying that Matt Ryan’s take on Constantine elevates the film from a fun escapade into something that tugs on the heartstrings. Ryan’s vocal delivery is full of the charm and flair fans have come to expect of his performance, with a complex emotional range that only deepens every chance he gets to reprise the role. Even through brief sarcastic quips the bravado and the tragedy of the character can be read. He’s well-complimented by his co-stars, such as Roger Cross’ guttural and deadpan tones as Swamp Thing and Enrico Colantoni’s colorful and oddly hilarious take on Felix Faust. Jason O’Mara’s Batman also deserves recognition, as he wisely doesn’t copy Kevin Conroy, but still remains in the ballpark of how the Bat should sound, all while still managing to put his own idiom into it. Although the presence of Batman and the film’s title present a misnomer, it is Constantine’s film, catered to the knowledge and enthusiasm possessed by the weird clan of little hellblazers in DC’s fandom. In fact, DC and WB benefit greatly from knowing their audiences for home video, as their storytellers to get to the heart of matters without having to saddle viewers with everyone’s origins and backstories. There’s just enough setup to be worth the payoff.
Although the voice cast rock the project, the animation deserves mention as well, particularly with how apt characterization is. The heroes and anti-heroes each have distinctive body language, facial expressions and each their own magical styles. It is a sleek package, rarely feeling mechnical. In an era of big-budget CGI spectacles, it cannot be forgotten that part of what makes this film, as well as its predecessors, special is the calibre of animation. Even without the panache and nostalgia of Bruce Timm’s style, WB’s modern animators keep the pace up and find new ways to wow their audiences.The result is some of the most creative, daring set action pieces in DC canon yet. (Seriously, if you want to see Batman fighting a crap-demon, watch this movie).
If there’s any complaint that could be had about how this film looks, it is perhaps that they took the “dark” part a bit too literally. The murky tones are a much less tacked-on aesthetic compared to the live-action Batman vs Superman, but DC ought to play fair. This film gave us a gorgeously-detailed Swamp Thing, and seeing Zatanna in her New 52-era corset doesn’t hurt, either. Don’t be afraid to show off and really let us see these things, gentlemen.
Being the second DC animated feature to earn an R-rating, director Jay Oliva and his crew have taken advantage of the room to grow. Where The Killing Joke thrived on filler and shock value for its own sake, Justice League Dark is mature enough to not use controversy as a crutch. The creative and personal integrity of DC’s storytellers pay off here, with this film serving as a genuine product by fans and for fans. However, the R is more for thematic elements, as it lacks details like Constantine’s signature chain smoking and pottymouth. The film is something of a victim of logistics, apparently getting it’s rating from the MPAA too late into production to include more adult themes. It’s an exciting and impressive film nonetheless, but it could have gotten away with more if planning were slightly more efficient.
Overall, the typical superhero action might be scarce in this film, but it packs a punch all the same. Although most DC properties aren’t exactly religious experiences, there’s plenty of macabre fun to be had.
Justice League Dark is available now for digital release and coming to Blu-Ray and home video on Tuesday, February 7th.