Justice League Dark review

Warner Brothers Animation and DC Entertainment bring us an all-new adaptation of a comic book in which they can randomly insert Batman–with a story by Ernie Altbacker and J. M. DeMatteis, directed by Jay Oliva, and sporting an overwrought, but still pretty cool score from Robert J. Kral.

I never know quite where to set my expectations when watching these animated superhero films. They’re not made for children, but they’re not very sophisticated for adults either–they seem to exist for an audience in a limbo somewhere in between. So if you are a childlike adult or a very mature child, this will feel just right for you.

Me personally? I get distracted by things like stylistically cheap animation, lazy special effects that aren’t particularly special, and fight sequences that play out like video game action. All that said, Justice League Dark does some things well, and if nothing else, it’s a nice 115-minute distraction for when you have nothing else to do and just want some idle passive entertainment that features a monosyllabic Batman and a cast of fireball-wielding demons and sorcerers.

Brand called shotgun, but the dead get relegated to the back seat every time

I’m a huge fan of John Constantine and I was ever-so-pleased to see Matt Ryan reprise the role after his all-too-short-lived stint as the character on live-action TV. And yet I hear Master Chef is in its 16th season–go foodies! Seriously, John Constantine and Chef Gordon Ramsey are basically the same smug insult-lobbing Brit wanker, so I feel there’s a serious injustice here. But I digress.

What else is there to say about a film in which the high point is when Batman fights a creature made of excrement using a hospital defibrillator? Is that somehow a self-referential moment? That this film needs a life-saving jolt because it’s put together from processed bits of nutrition–some of questionable merit? Or is that too much of a stretch of a metaphor?

Truth is, this is an entertaining movie and has a reasonably interesting and well-constructed plot. In addition to the the magical Justice League Dark, the regular Justice League gets shoehorned into the action–but without them being merely token. Batman’s participation in the Dark part of the League feels a bit forced, but to the movie’s credit, the Dark Knight pulls his weight, even in the face of supernatural odds which should be beyond him (did I mention there’s a monster made of poo that Batman defeats almost single-handed?).

The cast of characters is delightful and mostly works very well within the framework. They are all given something specific and purposeful to do, which helps justify this collection of very motley heroes who normally work best alone. In a movie with a finite runtime, the collaborative structure works really well. The comic was harder to swallow because nothing about any of these folks says “I’m a team player!”  The best arcs probably belong to Zatanna and Jason Blood, so if you’re fans of those two, you will likely enjoy this even more.

Meanwhile, Deadman and Batman (no, that’s not a misstype) provide some welcome humor into the mix. John Constantine is roguishly charming and irreverent as always, so the dynamic pays off.

The animation style strikes me as mostly lazy. There is a lot of computer-generated augmentation (such as the whole of the House of Secrets, unfortunately), and a lot of magic discs which actually look kind of cool except that they are completely overused. Villains don’t walk, they drift around on floating magic wafers and hamster balls, and everyone projects energy from the same sort of spell-casting Glow School of the Dark Arts. Especially lazy is a tornado with a not-terribly-menacing face that basically looks like a gray ice cream cone–and just as threatening.

Oh yeah: a whole lotta this goin’ on

Some of the voice work also didn’t really play well for me. Camilla Luddington as Zatanna just sounded too young and Enrico Colantoni as Felix Faust was too whimpery to take seriously as a villain. That sort of ends up working given some not-very surprising but reasonably interesting plot twists, but for the duration of his big battle, you feel like you’re watching Jafar’s little brother panting “nyah nyah nyah” at a bunch of costumed hoods. Finally, Roger Cross as Swamp Thing was weirdly articulate and not very powerful. There was something just entirely off about that character in particular. He adheres to no known continuity that I’m aware of and I’ve been a Swamp Thing reader for almost 40 years. Normally I wouldn’t twitch, since the cartoons often veer left, but this portrayal just felt wanting in a big way–especially since his impact on the finale was bizarrely stymied.

On the positive end of the spectrum, Batman is delightful (Jason O’Mara reprises the role admirably with lots of grunts and harumphs), Colleen Villard’s Black Orchid is a fun small, but effective addition, and Jason Blood held his own even apart from Etrigan, who played a sizable role in the narrative (Ray Chase voices both characters aptly).  And if you like to play voice actor match games, looks for Nicholas Turturro, Alfred Molina, Rosario Dawson, and Jerry O’Connell in choice roles.

Justice League Dark was released on January 24, 2017, and will be available from Warner Home Video this coming Tuesday, the 7th, on DVD and Blu-Ray.

Batman and John Constantine are always a great duo; Zatanna is icing on the cake

Overall: Demons walk the earth, magical artifacts summon demi-gods, and Batman runs interference between the mortal and the magical. It’s pretty standard fare, but with characters like John Constantine and Deadman even a fairly run-of-the-mill story gets bumped up a notch. As screenwriter, Ernie Altbacker manages to juggle a lot of heroes and villains–and a megaton of convoluted sorcery–into something coherent and highly watchable in spite of what feels like an animation crew half-asleep at the wheel. Look for all kinds of small but fun cameos–I particularly enjoyed the inclusion of Alan Moore’s Ritchie Simpson as a critical lynchpin in the action.

SCORE: 7/10