Studio: Warner Bros. Animation
Director: Jay Oliva
Writer: Ernie Altbacker, J.M. DeMatteis
Producer: Sam Register, James Tucker
Stars: Matt Ryan, Camilla Luddington, Jason O’Mara, Ray Chase, Enrico Colantoni, Roger R. Cross, Jeremy Davies, Rosario Dawson, Alfred Molina, Jerry O’Connell, Nicholas Turturro
Batman assembles a team of supernatural superheroes whose magic powers are needed to stop a string of nightmarish crimes.
The world of live-action superhero movies has a fairly fascinating graveyard of projects that never made it to the screen. Something such as Tim Burton and Nicolas Cage’s aborted “Superman Lives” is already common knowledge among comic book cinephiles. But dig up some dirt on Quentin Tarantino’s “Silver Surfer,” Michael Jackson’s “X-Men,” or Oliver Stone’s “Elektra” if you really want to scratch your head with wonder over a “what if?”
Guillermo del Toro’s “Justice League Dark” has a tombstone not far from those plots. Point of order, del Toro has at least four cancelled titles to his name for each one actually produced (seriously, take a look at the long list of might-have-beens on his parallel universe résumé). Still, for several years the visionary filmmaker and “Hellboy” helmer couldn’t escape a Comic-Con Q&A without someone asking after his hotly anticipated adaptation.
Although del Toro’s live-action “Justice League Dark” died on the vine before making a lateral move in development limbo, there is an excellent consolation prize in R-rated cartoon form. “Justice League Dark” is Warner Bros. Animation’s most enjoyably escapist feature film in ages, packed with plenty of prime moments for fans of DC’s lesser-known subset of occult characters.
Batman may be the headline draw for mainstream appeal, but if anyone can be considered the standout in this ensemble, it’s cynical conjurer John Constantine. Diehard devotees of the short-lived television series can finally rejoice. While dreams of a second season may be dashed, actor Matt Ryan triumphantly returns to voice Constantine and it couldn’t be better. From his persistent personality and snarky one-liners to his unlikely heroics and fractured friendships, Constantine is the true glue holding “Justice League Dark” together, and much of that is to Matt Ryan’s credit.
Brief background for the unfamiliar, “Justice League Dark” in its initial comic book form was an assembly of DC’s magic-wielding and monster-like heroes. Nearly twenty team members rotated through the roll call over the course of 40+ issues, while the animated movie properly pares that down to only a necessary nucleus of Constantine, Swamp Thing, Zatanna, Deadman, and Etrigan. Don’t worry if you just said, “who?” “Justice League Dark” ensures entertainment for seasoned vets and newcomers alike.
Everyday citizens are inexplicably becoming convinced that friends, neighbors, and family members are actually demons in disguise. In Washington, a woman drives through pedestrians she thinks are craven creatures. Believing she birthed a beast, a mother in Gotham drops her baby from a rooftop. In Metropolis, Superman saves a frightened father from slaughtering his family, but not before next-door neighbors are murdered first.
Nightmare crimes based in black arts are outside the Justice League’s jurisdiction. So when Deadman drops in with the trail’s first clue, Batman starts collecting a misfit mob of magicians and monsters who might manage to unravel the mystery.
“Justice League Dark” is a packed 75-minutes, feeling neither rushed nor as if developmental seeds are dropped and not sown. Tons of terrific content plays perfectly into an overall arc, including a flashback to Deadman’s circus daredevil origin, Jason Blood’s sword and sorcery one, the Batmobile outracing tornados, and a supernaturally summoned creature created from a hospital’s sewer system. Yes, that’s right. Deadman and Batman actually battle a ‘poop monster’ and it is surprisingly cool.
What’s fun about formatting the story in this fashion is how different styles are explored in singular scenes. Not in animation, which is consistent, but in energy. Some setups are despairingly grim, such as the prologue of ordinary people driven to horrible homicides, while others are playful, like Constantine and Jason Blood playing poker with the Demons Three.
Something is always happening whether it is wry humor (a David Copperfield goof is less than timely, but jokes redeem themselves when Constantine blames a sudoku error for setting off a suburbanite and Deadman wishes the overweight body he possesses would eat more fruit), high stakes fights, even flirtations with romance. Coming across in this balance is a sense of Saturday morning sass as well as after school action. Basically, “Justice League Dark” is everything I loved about animated adventures as a kid, but with a dark edge of horror appealing to more mature tastes.
“Justice League Dark” could scale back to PG-13 territory without losing that edge. Outside of a singular utterance of “sh*t,” and some admittedly bleak themes of violence, I don’t recall any material that felt unnecessarily adult or overtly objectionable. The movie certainly isn’t as dourly draining as the disappointing “The Killing Joke” adaptation (review here), at any rate.
Picking nits is the only way to fill out the ‘Con’ column. Some of the voice work is tonally out of synch. Superman doesn’t have enough screentime for Jerry O’Connell’s milquetoast delivery to grate too much, however. And although Enrico Colantoni overplays Felix Faust, it’s clear he is having as much fun as everyone else appears to be having, including the viewer.
The only way “Justice League Dark” could be cooler is if Aquaman, Hawkman, Cyborg, Martian Manhunter, and Flash had speaking roles instead of a collective cameo. Otherwise, what’s not to like? I’ll simply say it again so it isn’t forgotten, “Justice League Dark” does not disappoint with its supernatural superheroics and easily stands in the top tier of all-time most satisfying DC animated movies.
Review Score: 90