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Friday, March 31, 2017

REVIEW: Justice League Dark: A Breakdown & Analysis



          You’ve heard of Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman.  But have you heard of John Constantine, Deadman, and Zatanna?  DC Universe Animated Original Movies presents its latest addition to its cinematic universe:  Justice League Dark.  Originally assembled in 2011 during the launch of the New 52, the Justice League Dark is a team of irreverent DC characters that deal in magic and the mystic arts.  When things get too dangerous and scary for the Justice League, the Justice League Dark steps out of the shadows to kick your demons away.

            In this review, I will break the film down into seven categories:  Story, Casting, Character Design, Animation, Score, Editing, and Action.  As with my previous review of Justice League vs Teen Titans, I have replaced the two categories of Costumes and Cinematography from my live-action movie reviews with Character Design and Animation as I feel that these are more applicable to the animated features, but explore the same qualities of Costumes and Cinematography.  As always, everything presented in this review are my own thoughts and insights.  My goal here is not to change anyone’s mind or to say that I’m right and others are wrong.  With that, I hope no one takes offense to anything said here and gets a chance to maybe gain some insight into this film. 




STORY:  What do you do when a threat arises that Batman and Superman can’t handle?  Yes, it does happen.  In the case of “Justice League Dark”, an ancient evil arises in the form of Doctor Destiny and while Batman has an obvious disliking towards magic and has difficulty admitting magic even exists, he recognizes that the Justice League isn’t equipped to combat this threat and seeks out a new team ultimately suited to the task.  Enlisting the help of occult characters John Constantine, Zatanna, Deadman, Etrigan the Demon, Black Orchid, and Swamp Thing, Batman inspires these characters to step out of the shadows and take their place as protectors of the earth.

            This story is written by J.M DeMatteis, and if you’re a comic fan and his name sounds familiar, it should since his primary occupation is a comic book writer and has previously written several issues of Justice League Dark during its run in the New 52.  This proves to be a major asset to this feature as DeMatteis expertly presents these new characters in a way that is both extremely informative for audiences who have never heard of these lesser known characters, but does not become boring for long-time fans.  The movie introduces the characters of John Constantine, Zatanna, Deadman, Etrigan, and Swamp Thing in a way that shows what they can do and that they do clearly all know each other and have a history, but it doesn’t harp on it to the point of being a full-blown origin story.  The film respects the audience by saying, “This is who this is, this is what they can do, now let’s move on to the next part of the movie.”  We aren’t forced to sit through flashbacks or harrowing tales of tormented childhoods.  The most fleshed out history we see is Etrigan’s/Jason Blood’s, but it is in service to the story as his past is directly connected to the main antagonist’s, Doctor Destiny.



            One of the strongest assets to this film is the R rating that they were granted.  Does this mean that the movie is loaded with swearing, sex scenes, and graphic violence?  No, absolutely not, but what it does is allow J.M. DeMatteis to create a true horror movie that uses certain triggers and tropes that create that sense of suspense and uneasiness in viewers.  Often times with animated features, things have to be “lightened up” so that younger kids can watch them and parents don’t have to be concerned about their kids having nightmares.  But because Justice League Dark deals with a team of characters that aren’t meant for younger audiences, the story would’ve been extremely hindered if it could not fully explore the scarier horror elements that it does.  The R rating is a service to the story and doesn’t abuse it by being needlessly vulgar or disgusting.

            J.M. DeMatteis creates a great balance between the suspenseful action moments and the quieter dialogue moments.  Everything flows smoothly and doesn’t overuse exposition to explain plot points to the audience, nor does it overuse action to create spectacle to keep people entertained.  The story relies on a strong mystery narrative that makes all of the characters involved active participants in the investigation and an integral part of the team.  While Doctor Destiny presents a critical and imposing threat to the team and to the world, it is not his power or presence that drives the narrative forward.  It is instead driven by these extremely interesting characters and seeing what their stakes are, why they’re committed to ending this threat, and how dealing in this world has a cost and how that cost affects them.  It’s not as cut and dry as other Justice League films where it’s “this guy is evil and we’re superheroes so we have to beat this guy”.

I’m going to give Story 5/5 Stars.  What this feature does so well is that it creates a compelling mystery and is further enriched by these extremely interesting and fairly mysterious characters.  I can’t say that any one character steals the show like in past films where Batman has always taken the spotlight.  Nor would I say John Constantine commandeers the movie for himself.  The film makes the plot the primary objective with the characters as a secondary tool to tell the story which is what all great movies do.  If you try to weave a story around the characters you want to use and cool things you want to see them do, then you risk the story feeling hollow and pointless.



CASTING:  In 2015, DC Comics and Warner Brothers Television announced a new slate of live-action television series that were going to be adapted.  Amongst them was an NBC produced Constantine series.  While the show did not get picked up for a full-season run (a crime against quality television in my opinion), series star Matt Ryan developed a massive fan base as the much beloved character John Constantine.  After a small stint on Arrow’s fourth season, Matt Ryan again takes up the role of John Constantine, but this time in voice only.  Once again, he showcases to audiences why he is the definitive John Constantine.  Bringing with him all the wit, sarcasm, and general asshole personality traits of the character, Matt brings a genuine life to the character through his voice and is a real treat for fans of his and the character.

            Returning in his 7th outing as the Dark Knight, Jason O’Mara returns as Batman/Bruce Wayne.  Here we get to see Batman in an uncomfortable position as he hates dealing with things he doesn’t completely understand and that thing being magic.  O’Mara brings a great quality of strength and confidence to Batman’s voice, but is also able to pick up on the uneasiness that Batman tries to mask.  There are also great moments of tongue-in-cheek humor that O’Mara executes very well and gives fans those much-needed moments of levity.



            Also joining the cast are Camilla Luddington as Zatanna, Ray Chase as Etrigan/Jason Blood, Enrico Colantoni as Felix Faust, Roger Cross as Swamp Thing, Alfred Molina as Destiny, Nicholas Turturro as Deadman, and also returning from the Constantine tv series is Jeremy Davies as Ritchie Simpson.  Each member of the cast brings a humanity and depth to the character they are portraying.  Nicholas Turturro does a great job with Deadman, bringing in both the humor and arrogance of the character as he appears in the comics.  But arguably the actor with the most to play with next to Constantine or Batman is Camilla Luddington as Zatanna as she gets to banter and play back and forth with Matt Ryan’s Constantine.  I also do not want to downplay Ray Chase as Etrigan/Jason Blood as he brings the emotional weight necessary to properly adapt Jason Blood, but also brings the fury and energy needed to capture the essence of Etrigan.

            I give Casting 5/5 Stars.  This is truly one of the better voice acted features that DC has released in recent years.  Much like with Justice League vs Teen Titans, the actors they have selected for this movie really get their characters, they’ve delved into their roles, and aren’t afraid to have fun with it.  This is also helped by a great story and stellar dialogue.  Often times in these animated features, actors can sound robotic and bland as they just recite lines off of a piece of paper.  It’s when the voice actors immerse themselves in the roles that it really comes alive and brings weight to the piece. 



CHARACTER DESIGN: Much like in the 90’s when DC animation projects had a signature look during Bruce Timm’s reign on projects like Batman: The Animated Series, Superman: The Animated Series, and Justice League, this current generation of DC animation has been blessed with the gifted talents of Phil Bourassa.  His resume includes projects like Young Justice, Justice League: Doom, Justice League: War, Justice League: Throne of Atlantis, Batman vs Robin, Son of Batman, Batman: Bad Blood, and Justice League vs Teen Titans.  Bourassa has established himself as an artist with the ability to capture the iconic imagery that fans have associated with these characters for decades, but also adds his own little tweaks and improvements to give the costumes a great look in animation.

            With the DC Animated Universe, they have adapted the look of the New 52 costumes established in the comics, but when the New 52 launched in 2011, the characters of the Justice League Dark pretty much went unchanged as far as their appearance.  So, we still see John Constantine in his trademark red tie, white shirt, and trench coat.  Deadman is still in his red spandex unitard.  Swamp Thing is still his monstrous-looking self.  I would say that the only character who underwent a visual change was Zatanna.  We get to see her in her more classic, iconic fishnets and top hat look during her magic show performance, but then we see her in her New 52 appearance which is a bit more practical and realistic.



            As Justice League Dark is a different kind of animated film by not only delving into lesser known magical characters, but also shifting the balance from being a very action-heavy feature, it is more dialogue and story driven by the mystery the characters are participating in.  Because of this, the film benefits from having simpler character designs that are less detailed and involved.  It really strikes the chord with the audience that these guys don’t have all the glitz and glamour of Superman, Wonder Woman, and Flash.  These characters wear these clothes whether they’re fighting demons, strategizing in the House of Mystery, or going out for drinks in a bar.  And Bourassa’s adaptations of the look of these characters is spot on, perfectly capturing the visual essence of what makes these characters, these characters.

I give Character Design 4/5 Stars.  While these characters are brilliantly realized and brought to life in this film and lend themselves to being animated very well, the issue that I have is that many of the characters end up looking the same.  As in John Constantine’s face looks very much like Superman’s face or Flash’s face.  Zatanna’s face looks very much like Wonder Woman’s.  I realize that an artist has a very unique style, but I feel that Phil Bourassa could integrate some variations and variety into his character statures and facial structures.  Adding a slight beard to Constantine is a good start, but I just feel as though he could do more to show clear distinctions between his characters.



SCORE:  Stepping up to the plate is Robert J. Kral in the role of composer for Justice League Dark.  As previously stated, Justice League Dark is really more of a horror movie than it is an action adventure.  Yes, there’s plenty of action and suspenseful moments that warrant an action-based piece of music, but the core element that sets this film apart is that it was birthed in the horror genre.  So with that, Kral plays to that perfectly.  Using a unique sound to the DC Animated Universe, the score for Justice League Dark not only captures the mood and pace of each scene, but uses music as all classic horror films do to create a sense of uneasiness and tension.  It draws the audience into the story and almost makes you forget that you’re watching an animated movie.

            Back in 2015, Bear McCreary composed the score for the abandoned Constantine television series and I have to say that I have always loved that main theme.  With the use of guitars, strings, piano, and other unique sounding instruments, McCreary was able to create a sound that was so uniquely Constantine.  What really brought a smile to my face with this feature is that bits and pieces of Kral’s score for Justice League Dark take inspiration from McCreary’s work on Constantine.  You hear subtly similar beats and sounds that creates a sense of lineage to that series.

            I give the Score 4/5 Stars.  While this score is unique within the DC Animated Universe and does play very well into the context of the film, there really weren’t any big, memorable tracks that make me want to purchase the album and listen to it on its own just to hear those singular tracks.  To give you an idea, scores that I’ve been extremely impressed with from this animated universe have been Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, Justice League: Flashpoint Paradox, and Superman/Batman: Public Enemies.  These were albums that not only played well into the films, but could also be listened to by themselves. 



EDITING:  As I’ve explored with past animated features, editing is a key component to how successful the film is to telling a good story.  When faced with the challenge of only having 75 minutes of runtime to tell your story, establish character development, and integrate some enticing action, many directors can end up feeling overwhelmed and rushed.  It can cause the story to linger too long on parts that aren’t very important, or speed through things that are important and not give them the amount of time needed to properly establish what is going on.

            With a whole new cast of characters, the filmmakers and the audience’s primary point of concern is the introduction of these characters, what the main plot is, and how each character services that plot.  So the film does not make the mistake that I feel Justice League: Throne of Atlantis did in spending too much time establishing the threat to the point where new protagonists and changing of locations became very muddled and confusing.  Instead, Justice league Dark stays focused from start to finish.

            With a mystery story, it’s important that the audience can recognize where they are and where they’ve been because if you have to revisit a location multiple times within the course of the story, your audience needs to feel that sense of familiarity.  By doing this and focusing on the story and where the plot requires the characters to be, the editing masterfully performs at creating a consistent and flowing pace that is comfortable for the audience.  They also don’t jump into the poor practice of some horror films of overusing rapid cuts to create fear and uneasiness. 



            I give the Editing 5/5 Stars.  I feel that this film was extremely well paced and easy to follow.  Each scene had the time it needed, no more, no less.  If I had to say that any scene could have been trimmed down, it would have been the fight between the JLD and Felix Faust, but other than that, I found the film to be a delight to watch.  I never found myself bored from a scene going on too long or feeling disoriented because they didn’t spend enough time in certain parts.



ACTION:  Director Jay Oliva has made a name for himself as one of the favorited directors of the DC Universe Animated Original Movies universe.  With past credits including Young Justice, Justice League: Flashpoing Paradox, Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, Justice League: War, Son of Batman, and Batman: Bad Blood, Jay Oliva has proven himself time and again that he knows how to bring a sense of reality to the world of animation.  He does this best through his abilities with action sequences.

            Until I had seen some of Jay Oliva’s work in the early 2000’s, I never believed that extremely well-choreographed fights could be adapted into animation.  Oliva has a crystal clear sense of movement and body language that I have yet to see other directors in animation achieve as well as he has.  For example, The Flash does not walk or move with the same stature or gate as Superman.  In this film, each character has their own unique movements that are completely different from any other character within the feature.  While Zatanna and Constantine are both human characters that use their knowledge of the mystic arts to weild magic, both characters wield it and weaponize it in completely different forms of body language.



            While this feature is more of a horror film, the action is spectacular.  Everything from mystical fights in the modern day, to sword clashing battles in the days of Merlyn, to battling the elements of nature, Justice League Dark delivers a feast of action packed moments that not only show that characters like Constantine, Zatanna, Deadman, and Swamp Thing can hold their own in a fight, but they may actually even possess more power than the members of the Justice League themselves.

            I believe that the two show-stealing action sequences of the film are the JLD vs Felix Faust fight and the final battle in the climax where we not only see the heavy hitters go after Destiny full force, but we also get to see the full power and range of characters like Swamp Thing and why he’s a force to be reckoned with.  What pleased me the most with the action in this feature is that each character got their own unique “color” and supernatural runes to identify their character.  This not only creates a degree of separation between what each character can do, but also gives the audience different visual stimuli so that the action sequences don’t get stale or boring. 

            I give the Action 5/5 Stars.  While the film follows suit to what past Justice League films have done in the past as far as spectacle, it does something new and unique that breathes a breath of fresh air into the medium of animated features.  Yes, watching characters like Superman or Wonder Woman fight and pound villains into concrete is entertaining, it’s always a nice change of pace to see different power sets and different visuals while watching these big team up epics.  But what I’m happiest about is that this film showcases what these “unknowns” can do and why these characters are as cool as they are.  They may be lesser known, misfit characters of the DCU, but they should not be written off and this film shows why.

STORY:  5/5
CASTING: 5/5
CHARACTER DESIGN: 4/5
SCORE: 4/5
EDITING: 5/5
ACTION: 5/5
OVERALL SCORE:  4.6/5 STARS



FINAL THOUGHTS:  I’ve found with animated features such as these that when the creators keep the scale of the story smaller and focus more on the characters that are involved, we generally get a more enjoyable experience.  With any comic company you look at, the characters are so rich that THEY are the reason fans love seeing the story unfold, not necessarily because of the scale of the story or threat they’re facing.  With Justice League Dark, the film focuses more on this group of resistant heroes, why they’re hesitant to get involved, but why they ultimately do and how the characters interact is where the heart of the story is.  It’s not because of the powers they possess or the scale of the battles they fight.  Watching rich characters like John Constantine, Zatanna, Deadman, Etrigan, and Swamp Thing interact and unfold is what makes this film so fun and enjoyable.  That is what makes this film one of the most rewatchable within the DCAU, as opposed to other dispensable features like Justice League: War or Throne of Atlantis which were very much these action extravaganza films that have very little character development and shirked on creating quality and compelling dialogue simply to make them smash ‘em up movies.


            I would highly recommend Justice League Dark to anyone out there who is a comic book fan or fan of animated movies.  It’s fun and enjoyable from beginning to end and I think it will leave most audiences intrigued with these characters and wanting to learn more and may even inspire them to go out and pick up a few comics based on these characters.  That is what I think the real goal of these movies should be.  Obviously, with the R rating, I’m not saying that this is a kid-friendly film that parents could sit and watch with their children.  This is very much geared to more mature audiences, but for that reason, makes it very entertaining.

Written and Edited by: Witt Reese. Co-Edited by: Jack Flowers. Published by: The Nerd Hub

All Images courtesy of DC Entertainment

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