Since its debut in the comic book format in 2011, Justice League Dark has established itself as the go-to team, regarding any mystical threats that might lurk into DC media. Emerging as one of the new titles in the New 52, the team rose in popularity. Resulting in animated feature films as well as rumors of a live-action adaptation.
The comic book series brought together some of the characters from DC’s magical lore as well others from sister imprint Vertigo. JLD’s first lineup was comprised of John Constantine, Zatanna, Deadman, Madame Xanadu, and Shade: The Changing Man. But the team would eventually also include Swamp Thing and even Wonder Woman.
The “Dark” in the title fits the group very well. Not just because of the nod to dark magic but also to the tone of the narratives. The team deals with somber threats, with hints of horror in its tales. However, the stories are never as adult and polemic as you would expect from Vertigo. For example, keeping it light enough for DC main continuity.
All in all, the creation of the supernatural group brought light to lesser-known characters, while its name gave them even more of a spotlight. If the animated movies are any indication, Justice League Dark came to stay. And its members’ interactions with the DC big guns, such as Batman prove just how impactful their stories can be.
DC Animated Movie Universe: a world of possibilities
Since 2007 DC has been releasing various animated features per year to much acclaim. But it wasn’t until 2014 that these movies started to form a cohesive and shared universe. It started with the release of Justice League: War.
Though technically the universe started with Justice League: The Flashpoint Paradox, the film’s status as the beginning is only due to the reboot Flash causes at the end of the narrative. Creating the timeline as we witness in Justice League: War.
While the animated universe gave Batman a lot of emphasis, as usual, it also provided stories about groups other than the Justice League. Besides the aforementioned Justice League Dark, The Suicide Squad and Teen Titans were also the main characters in their own movies.
Despite its timespan of six years, the development of this shared Universe feels like a shorter ride than it should have. The quality varies immensely. With some of the movies never hitting the level of excellence from prior incarnations of the characters. Such as Justice League: Crisis in Two Earths and Batman: Under the Red Hood.
However, some of the high points from the series come exactly from the things it did differently. For example, shedding the light on lesser-known characters such as the dark counterpart to the Justice League.
DC Goes Mystical
The premise of Justice League Dark sees civilians attacking each other due to a mysterious influence that causes vivid hallucinations. As people see demons in the place of strangers and even their loved ones, a string of attacks ensues. This calls the attention of the Justice League.
The league discusses the possibility of the threat being of a magical nature which causes scoffs from Batman. Little did he know supernatural entities would recruit him to help them solve this problem.
As the story is heavily influenced by the character’s dynamics we’ll start from their backgrounds and actions. But before anything else, I must express my rant toward DC’s deeply ingrained necessity of using Batman in everything they can.
We all know Batman sells and I’m a fan, but it is irritating when he is not well used as is the case in this movie. I get that having a Justice League member in the story makes us better able to connect with new characters due to a familiar face. Moreover, having someone who doesn’t believe in the supernatural can make for a good foil.
But none of that is what happens here. Instead, Batman’s participation falls short. When we get to the second half of the movie, we wonder what is he even doing there anyway. To the contrary of his brilliant participation in Batman: Assault on Arkham, which is really a Suicide Squad movie, his appearance here is unmemorable.
What’s even worse is that they could have used another JL member with ties to magic that could be of more use to the team. Yes, I’m talking about Wonder Woman. With the issue of Batman put aside, now let’s get into the other characters.
Meet the league
Probably the highest-profile name after Batman is the English occultist detective John Constantine. He made his debut and fame on the pages of his own comic book, printed by Vertigo, Hellblazer. Though his characterization is lighter than his comic counterpart, his sarcasm and crazy antics make him a beloved anti-hero here too.
In a way, the story sort of revolves around him and his acquaintances. And though a bit reckless, he is a powerful magician. Though he is disliked by people, or at least his attitudes, he is the de facto leader of the group.
Then there is Zatanna Zatara, an impressive magician and arguably the most powerful member of the group. Her characteristic spells enunciated by backward words as well as her stage magician look are her trademark. Although here, her clothing style is similar to the one in the New 52 comics.
It is interesting to see how the movie explains her fear about her powers and her wish to help others. There’s a defined conflict between underusing her potential and being safe while making people happy with goofy stage magic and pursuing a more rewarding and maybe dangerous path.
In succession, we have James Blood, a medieval knight in modern times bound to the demon Etrigan since his near-death experience. The dynamic between the two works a lot like the one between Bruce Banner and The Hulk. Though Etrigan’s powers can be really useful, unleashing him can bring unpredictable consequences.
Thus, Jason’s wish is to rid himself of the demon, not only because of the dangers but because he’s exhausted by the world. This rugged air makes him a compelling character. After all, living over 500 years on the planet is not an easy feat at all.
Finally, there is Boston Brand, aka Deadman. Formerly a circus trapeze artist, Boston is murdered during one of his performances. However, the Hindu god “Rama Kushna” takes pity on him and grants him the ability to possess living beings as a way to seek revenge for his assassination.
Deadman is also the one who initiates the reunion of the league, by recruiting Batman in a very ghost fashion with written words on the walls. Alongside Constantine, he elevated the humor of the movie.
What about the plot?
With its intriguing premise and its somber implications, Justice League Dark sets itself apart from prior installments from the universe. It has a frantic pace. With expositions delivered at the right moments to explain the rich lore and background of the characters.
As usual with DC movies, the flick is action-packed and the fights are well choreographed. The highlight of the action comes midway through the narrative when we are presented to the full extent of Zatanna’s abilities.
Speaking of the sorcerer, this movie features her complicated relationship with John onscreen. Their convoluted relationship goes from lovers to enemies and so on in the pages of comic books. Here it starts off with a lot of resentment, though it’s clear that loving feelings still exist, blossoming into something nicer at the end.
Overall, the movie strikes the right beats with its characters, plot, pace, and action. Unfortunately, it falls short in setting a compelling villain with strong motivations. There real threat behind all the events feels plain, like something we’ve seen a thousand times in the genre.
Nevertheless, this is somewhat understandable due to the short runtime animations have. Maybe it is something DC execs could discuss since I see no reason for the animated stories to have a shorter runtime than live-action ones.
Justice League Dark is a solid entry to the DC Animated Movie Universe. It manages to make well-developed introductions to mystical characters all the while striking the right story beats.
Its setbacks don’t hinder the fun or the merits of the movie. Instead, they serve as a window to common problems from the genre, that could be eradicated with a few characters. Overall, it is a great version of the team, and a future live-action incarnation would do well to take inspiration from it.