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Review: “Justice League Dark” Crafts a Potent Witch’s Brew

by on February 8, 2017

Justice League DarkIf you throw a bunch of mismatched stuff into a pot in a kitchen, sometimes you get an inedible mess and sometimes you get gumbo. Justice League Dark makes the ambitious choice to throw video game battle sensibilities, horror movies, and the mystic side of the DC Universe into a big pot and brews up a potent and entertaining gumbo of a film filled with good, nasty fun. Emboldened by the R-rating of The Killing Joke, Justice League Dark pushes into that same territory, opening up a new angle for the DC animated universe, introducing a number of new players to the game, and moving fast and light to yield a highly entertaining final result that packs in a lot more than its 76-minute running time would suggest.

Very strange crimes committed by otherwise ordinary citizens grabs the attention of the Justice League, but the supernatural becomes a factor when Bruce Wayne comes out of a blackout to find the name “Constantine” written in his bathroom mirror. He visits his old friend Zatanna, a powerful magician hiding in plain sight as a stage performer, to seek out the mysterious John Constantine: a mystic operator whose disheveled exterior hides a dark past, a certain moral flexibility, and a deep sense of cunning that is often more useful than the magic he occasionally wields. Before long, a new team of mystical superheroes is formed to seek out the magical threat facing them, as the three are joined by the spectral Deadman; the tortured Jason Blood, who is bound to the powerful demon Etrigan; and eventually the Swamp Thing, the extraordinarily powerful plant defender of the Earth.

The movie is a more superhero-oriented take on the 1990’s mini-series The Books of Magic, using a basic story to send a neophyte on a magical mystery tour of a side of the DC Universe that stands side-by-side with flying aliens, immortal warrior women, underwater civilizations, and space cops armed with magic wishing rings. Batman serves as the audience stand-in, so that his introduction to these mystic superheroes can serve as the audience’s introduction as well. This means that the movie has to stop dead semi-regularly so someone can explain to Batman who or what it is that we’re looking at (or not looking at, as in one amusing case where it seems everyone except Batman can see a brace of ghostly apparitions), but Batman’s presence and his skepticism over the whole thing manage to make the plot device work more often than it should. Like The Books of Magic, some of these incidents and characters make a deeper impression than others. The movie largely belongs to John Constantine, who may have some of his rougher edges (and, unfortunately, his trademark cigarettes) removed but maintains the sensibilities that make him a self-described “nasty piece of work.” I’m personally not a fan of making him quite as explicitly magical, since the character’s original appeal was that he didn’t have any magical powers to speak of, but I also understand why the changes move him closer to the superhero side of the DC Universe and he still retains substantial elements of his original incarnation.

Justice League DarkOther characters don’t fare quite as well. Zatanna and Deadman are largely relegated to supporting roles, which is unfortunate as they are personal favorites (again, mostly due to the way they were portrayed in The Books of Magic). I was not fond of the movie’s tendency to treat Zatanna as little more than Constantine’s floating ex-girlfriend until one plot twist in the middle of the movie that drops intriguing hints about her past and the true extent of her powers. She mostly goes back to being Constantine’s floating ex-girlfriend afterwards, but there’s definitely a hint of something more interesting and worth exploring under her exterior. I am also not going to lie: I love the Bettie Page bangs in her character design. Deadman serves as plucky comic relief, often voicing thoughts running through our heads in a streetwise Brooklyn accent. Unfortunately, the fascinating Etrigan the Demon and Black Orchid (the keeper of John’s wonderfully unexplained House of Mystery) do not get the screen time that I think their characters warrant. The Etrigan backstory reaches for the tragic and mostly gets there by the end, but only through a last-minute plot twist. Unfortunately, the real loser in the cast is Swamp Thing, who feels very shoehorned into the plot. As a result, he doesn’t achieve the majesty that his position requires. He seems to suffer from the same problems as Superman in the first season of Justice League: a character who’s there to underscore the scale of a threat, but who is undermined by his actions (or lack of them) in the face of that threat.

Justice League DarkAs the newcomer to this world, Batman gets the best opportunities for understated comedy, often reacting to the latest weird statement or occurrence with the same grunt under his breath. He gets a lot of chances to use that grunt, because a lot of seriously weird, messed-up stuff happens in Justice League Dark. Director Jay Oliva and screenwriter Ernie Altbacker (based on a story by Mr. Altbacker and J.M. DeMatteis) have clearly done their homework, borrowing liberally from numerous horror movie tropes to punch up a typical superhero quasi-origin story with spooky thrills both subtle and grotesquely overt. Revealing them would ruin too many wonderful surprises, but suffice it to say that I don’t think DC Animation has ever managed to flush out anything like the monster that attacks this new splinter League while they seek answers at a hospital in the middle of the movie. The mystic battles manage to express character traits through fighting styles, and fully exploit the opportunities of magic for lots of visual glitz.

I definitely appreciate that the volumes of exposition delivered on-the-fly devotes surprisingly little time to the rules of magic, even though those rules are clearly there (and articulated in one of the bonus features). Superhero comic fans often complain that magic provides a too-convenient get-out-of-jail-free card, but the way it’s played in Justice League Dark makes it clear that there are rules and boundaries and a price to be paid for wielding magic, just as there are rules and boundaries and a price to be paid to being a superhero. I must also call attention to Robert J. Kral’s excellent soundtrack, which melds pinprick suspense with the usual superheroic bombast in just the right measures to accent individual moments in the movie. Some of the creative elements work better than others, though, such as the way the climactic fight is deflated by inadvertently looking like people swatting around a giant glowing hamster ball.

Justice League DarkAs we have come to expect, Justice League Dark comes well-recommended in audio and visual dimensions. This is especially important because the color palette of the movie exploits darker shades and shadows very heavily, but the Blu-ray video never washes out the details (as even some of the stills of the movie can). Bonus features are quite satisfying, with a long look at the history of Swamp Thing (with commentary by co-creator Len Wein); several shorter behind-the-scenes featurettes covering characters, story elements, and casting; the bulk of the Justice League Dark panel at New York Comic Con 2016; and two bonus episodes from Batman: The Brave and the Bold highlighting Deadman and Etrigan. There is the usual sneak peek at the next animated feature, Teen Titans: The Judas Contract, as well as re-runs of the previews for Justice League Doom and Justice League: Gods and Monsters. Finally, the combo pack contains a DVD and digital copy of the movie; special-edition packs also include a John Constantine figure to match the ones that came with earlier Batman-oriented movies.

Justice League Dark‘s success in my mind might be affected by my affinity for these corners of the DC Universe (especially due to the aforementioned Books of Magic mini-series), or the way it delves into previously unexplored corners in ways that wouldn’t have been permissible even a year or two ago. The movie does a wonderful job balancing the familiar and the unexpected, along with its numerous influences, to keep us off-guard and thoroughly satisfied with its mystic gumbo.

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