Adapted from the DC Comics’ series of the same name, Justice League Dark (2017) marks the 27th installment of the DC Universe Animated Original Movies, and is but the second of these to find itself released with an R rating. So don’t let the fact that it’s animated fool you, this one is not for the kiddies. There’s of course nothing wrong with that, as we adults certainly need our own cartoons, but it does continue the recent trend by Warner Bros. of releasing DC movies that aren’t really accessible to/fun for children (I’m including the incredibly dour Batman v Superman (2016) in that too). Were it not for the fact that I had to tell my 5-year-old once again that he couldn’t watch an animated Batman movie with me and once again see that disappointment on his face, it wouldn’t bother me in the slightest. So long as they keep putting out family-friendly features like Batman: Return of the Caped Crusaders (2016) in between these adult-themed, R-rated outings, though, I say keep on keeping on, Warner!
Justice League Dark finds Batman joining forces with the mystic subset of DC heroes to put a stop to an ancient, evil force’s attempt to turn ordinary citizens into murderous maniacs. When the Justice League proper prove unable to explain this recent rash of wholesale murders, the magic-skeptical Batman cobbles together a “dark” Justice League comprised of Zatanna, Deadman, John Constantine, Jason Blood/Etrigan the Demon, and, all-too-briefly, Swamp Thing. Being thus the least capable to square off against magic users, this gives Batman little to do throughout most of the proceedings (which is why he isn’t the star of the comics upon which this is based, I suppose) and focus shifts quickly to John Constantine, though Batman does try very hard to be useful.
The strength of Justice League Dark lies in its willingness to show super villains’ actions as precisely the sort of nightmarish deeds they would be in reality, as citizens turn on each other when faced with visions of demons in their midst. It’s a bloody, horrific affair throughout, as a result, and not pulling punches in this results in a film that shows violence for the horror it is. This is “dark and gritty” done right, as the darkness is deeply rooted in the themes of violence and the unknown, rather than some aesthetic overall intended to make family fare appear more mature than it is. This is an adult superhero story that emphasizes adult concepts rather than just throwing a bunch of sex, swearing, and hollow superhero threats into the mix in the name of edginess.
Where Justice League Dark stumbles though is first in it presentation of Deadman, who serves as the annoying-rather-than-funny comic relief in this story. Batman snide remarks or scoffing at the magic users is relief enough from the darkness. We don’t need a floating, one-liner machine in the pack too. Worse than that though is the depiction of Zatanna as a Jean Grey in X-Men: Last Stand-type: a woman who’s more powerful than anyone else in the story, yet totally incapable of controlling her powers without the guidance of a man, because… she’s got lady parts, I guess. It’s a tired and misogynistic trope that I was really sad to see trotted out late in act two.
So in some ways, you might say that Justice League Dark is a bit of a mixed bag, but to my mind, it’s more success than failure, offering up a mature tale for mature audiences that reminds us that the superhero genre is a beautifully versatile thing. As such, I highly recommend checking out Justice League Dark in spite of any flaws.
Justice League: Dark is now available in a Blu-ray Deluxe Giftset, featuring an exclusive Constantine figurine; in a Blu-ray Combo Pack; on DVD and Digital HD from Warner Bros. Home Entertainment. Special features on the Blu-ray release include:
-“The Story of Swamp Thing” featurette
-“Did You Know?” behind-the-scenes featurettes sovering the Constantine origin, Color of Magic, Black Orchid, and Deadman Casting
-“2016 NY Comic Con Panel” about Justice League Dark
-A Sneak Peek at Teen Titans: The Judas Contract
-A Sneak Peek at Justice League: Gods and Monsters
-A Sneak Peek at Justice League: Doom
-Two Bonus Episodes from the DC Vault, including Batman: The Brave and the Bold, “Dawn of the Dead Man!” and Batman: The Brave and the Bold, “Trials of the Demon!”