There is a side to the DC universe that doesn’t get as much attention—a dark and mystical underbelly with strange tales and even stranger characters. Some of these characters such as John Constantine and Swamp Thing preside in the Vertigo imprint of DC but they occasionally make forays into the regular stories. Justice League Dark is based on Peter Milligan’s New 52 comic run of the same name though it features a pared down roster from the source material. When shit gets too weird for the regular Justice League, who better to call in for help than all the freaks and the weirdos, right?
All over the planet there are outbreaks of people seeing “demons”, going berserk and murdering innocent victims. The Justice League decides that this is outside their sphere of influence and end up enlisting the help of British punk rock magician John Constantine. Batman acts as a go-between and the roster is rounded out by Zatanna, Deadman, Jason Blood (who has a demonic alter ego known as Etrigan) and occasional support from Swamp Thing. At first it would seem like they threw in Batman to make the story more appealing to casual fans, but he acts as the straight-man or audience surrogate—he’s basically there so that he can ask questions and have the magical characters explain the details. I enjoyed his role in the film because most of the time he’s in way over his head and it’s fun to see him struggle to keep up. Too often Batman is written to be infallible and it’s nice to see him squirm.
Although this isn’t the first DC animated film to get an R-rating they put it to much better use than the disappointing adaptation of The Killing Joke. It’s a pretty violent and bloody story with grotesque denizens of hell crawling around every turn. The material is adult but they do throw in jokes every now and again to keep things from getting too grim. It never feels forced and when things need to be serious it is allowed to play itself out. This is one of the better portrayals of Constantine I have seen and they even got Matt Ryan, the actor who played him on the ill-fated TV show to voice his character. The animation for the most part is alright with moments of excellence. I wish they would give these animated DC shows a little more style and pizazz, though this one fares better in that regard because of the mystical elements. Swamp Thing has a chance to shine as well, and I loved the animation used to show him fighting with his tendrils and morphing.
Jay Olivia directed Justice League Dark and he also directed the fantastic adaptation of The Flashpoint Paradox. He really seems to have a knack for distilling the essence of these stories and translating them into great animated films. Even if you are unfamiliar with the characters, it’s still engaging and they do throw out a bit of background info on some of the superheroes to fill in any gaps the viewer may have. I hope this does well financially so that we can have more films about these obscure characters. Maybe a Swamp Thing series or even a Doom Patrol movie could be viable if done right. A girl can dream anyway.