The DC Animated Universal Original Movies line has been going strong for 10 years now, from Superman: Doomsday back in 2007 to the recent release of the first R-rated Batman movie ever, Batman: The Killing Joke. Now, in 2017, comes the release of the line’s second R-rated animated feature film, Justice League Dark, which may just be my favorite of the bunch.
Before we get into why this movie excels, let’s pause for a refresher on what it’s about: When super-powered threats put the citizens of Earth in danger, the superheroes of the Justice League invariably fly in to save the day and set things right again. However, when threats of a magical nature arise, the members of the Justice League might not be the best equipped to deal with them. Magic is one of the few weaknesses of Superman, so the Big Blue Boy Scout is out; the other members also run into trouble against powerful magicians. In those rare cases, it’s time to call in some more mystical heroes.
That’s exactly what happens in Justice League Dark. Citizens start to turn on each other because they’re seeing horrifying demons in place of their fellow friends and loved ones. This quickly leads to some very dark and disturbing events which Superman (Jerry O’Connell), Batman (Jason O’Mara), and Wonder Woman (Rosario Dawson) do their best to patch up, but soon realize they’re in over their heads. So after some supernatural intervention on the part of Deadman (Nicholas Turturro), Batman rounds up John Constantine (Matt Ryan), Jason Blood and his demonic side Etrigan (Ray Chase), and Zatanna (Camilla Luddington) to use their magical expertise and sort things out. A few surprises are in store for the team (and comic book fans) on both the heroic and villainous side of things, but what follows is an unpredictable and all-out magical journey to restore sanity to the citizens of the Earth once more.
Now part of that plot is why Justice League Dark stands out as an excellent animated adaptation. Yes, it’s based on the DC Comics team created by Peter Milligan and Mikel Janin, but the very fact that it features some relatively obscure superheroes and supervillains who rarely get the spotlight is a solid draw in itself. Director Jay Oliva and writer Ernie Altbacker make the best of this rare opportunity by not only delivering characters in the prime of their magic-wielding abilities, but also giving them plenty of opportunities to interact with each other in deep and meaningful ways.
Though the team members are sought out by Batman, he ultimately plays a secondary character, stepping in with a well-placed Batarang or a dismissive grunt on occasion (to hilarious effect). Constantine is really the damaged heart of this group despite the fact that he’s selfish, sharp-tongued, and notoriously difficult to work with. Everyone shares some screentime (and history) with the sorcerer: Zatanna has a dramatic romantic past with him, he and Jason Blood share an awkward moment during a poker game against the Demons Three, and Deadman makes a curious acquaintance in Constantine’s magical House of Mystery. Even the relatively short screen-time of Swamp Thing (Roger Cross, who also pulls double duty as the voice of John Stewart’s Green Lantern) comes with an ill-fated connection to Constantine. We don’t get to spend a lot of time with these heroes, which is a shame, but the time we do have is well used.
The show-stealers have to be Constantine and Zatanna, aided in a huge way by Ryan and Luddington’s performances. Ryan continues to prove that he’s the best flesh-and-blood interpretation of the Hellblazer antihero; long may he reign as the animated character’s voice even if live-action roles aren’t in his future. Zatanna, however, plays a huge role in Justice League Dark and gets to show off an incredible amount of power in some of the most exciting action sequences in the DCAUOM. It’s a shame we haven’t seen this character come to life on the big or small screen in the post-Smallville era, but hopefully Warner Bros.’ planned Justice League Dark/Dark Universe live-action film will sort that out.