However one might feel about the live-action side of DC’s adaptations of their comic properties, the DC Animated Universe has generally been well received by fans and critics, albeit with a few notable exceptions — I’m looking at you, The Killing Joke. More hit than miss, films like Justice League: New Frontier, Wonder Woman, Justice League: Crisis on Two Earths and All-Star Superman have adapted famous stories from the comics with a surprisingly faithful touch and told new tales with smart, solid storytelling and quality animation. Misfires like The Killing Joke tend to stand out because while the quality of the DCAU films varies largely depending on the tastes of the audience, there are currently 28 animated features covering SEVEN different continuities, and more on the way.
Of course, when one looks at the size of the audience for the animated films versus the live-action films and their relative costs, the risk of missing the mark on, say, Justice League: War has quite a bit less impact than it does on, say, Batman v. Superman. And that’s good, because the animated films can experiment more with less danger of any one film causing the kind of studio chaos that a tanking $250m blockbuster can wreak on a franchise. This means that Batman: Assault on Arkham can exist in the Batman: Arkham videogame continuity, play with sex and violence in a way that gains it a PG-13 rating, and Justice League: Gods and Monsters can tell the story of an alternate vampire Batman, son-of-Zod Superman and New God Wonder Woman. Your mileage may vary, of course, but with nearly 30 films to choose from, there’s pretty much something for every fan to enjoy in the line.
Well, aside from The Killing Joke, which managed to tick off pretty much everyone, for a host of reasons. One of them involved being the first of the DCAU films to receive an R-rating, what that rating was for, and how it was handled. Justice League Dark also is rated R, but for quite different reasons, as it is essentially the first DCAU horror film.
Now, a couple things to consider here when calling JLD a horror film. First, it is more a superhero film than a horror film, and I don’t think that will really surprise anyone, considering that Batman is on the box art. But mere moments into the film we have characters like Wonder Woman dealing with a lady running dozens of people over with her car, Superman finding a slaughterhouse in a suburban family’s garage, and Batman trying to stop a young mother from killing her baby; all because the killers or would-be killers involved see demons that have to be destroyed instead of innocent bystanders, friends and family. The look on Superman’s face as he stares into a garage full of a delusional man’s butchered neighbors – men, women and children – is pure horror, and possibly the most graphic depiction of violent death the DCAU has had to date. These terrible events and the clear presence of dark magic cause Batman – whose opinion of magic is less than stellar – to turn to the one magic-user he actually trusts: Zatanna. Their history goes back years, and with the name Constantine showing up courtesy of a brief possession by Deadman, the Dark Knight finds himself drawn deeper into an escalating nightmare, the end of which looks increasingly like an all-out apocalyptic scenario.
The violence of the film – in large part due to the darker themes of the subject matter – is more of the horror-film variety, and JLD if definitely the DCAU’s bloodiest film to date. Superhero films are violent by nature, of course, but when you add in demons and magic there is a clear shift into a darker visual tone. It’s blunted a bit by the clean art style, but still works well, and ultimately that’s my overall feeling about Justice League Dark: it works well, and I was entertained.
Justice League Dark has the benefit of a solid story, but its best asset is its amazing cast. The news that Matt Ryan (Constantine) would return to voice John Constantine made quite a few fans very happy indeed, and he’s joined by a cast viewers of the DCAU films will easily recognize. Jason O’Mara has been the primary voice of the DCAU’s Batman since 2014’s Son of Batman, and Rosario Dawson’s (Sin City, Rent) Wonder Woman, Jerry O’Connell’s Superman, and Camilla Luddington’s (Tomb Raider, Rise of the Tomb Raider) Zatanna are joined by Alfred Molina (Spider-Man 2), Jeremy Davies (Lost) and Roger Cross (24, Arrow) – among quite a few others – in taking the viewers into the darker corners of the DC Multiverse. Add in The Demons Three, Felix Faust, Etrigan the Demon, Swamp Thing and Destiny, and Justice League Dark is a solid, entertaining introduction to the magical and monstrous reflection of the Justice League.
Yes, there are a few areas where your mileage may vary, and mine certainly did. First of all, the R-rating is a PG-13 rating with some extra blood and two curse-words that just push the film into the more adult rating, and it would be an easy thing to cut those back for a PG-13 rating more in line with the DCAU’s other films, if that’s all you’re going to do with an R-rating. Considering the characters involved, it feels like a missed opportunity to indulge a bit in the worlds of Constantine, Etrigan and Swamp Thing, and really push the horror up into real R-rated territory. Yes, it’s a DCAU film, and there is a certain feeling of making them somewhat appropriate for the teenage audiences, but if you’re going to go with an R-rating and play with these characters, then go with the R-rating and play with these characters. It’s a problem that the live-action Constantine struggled with in the first half of its only season, and while it got much darker and creepier in the second half, it was too-little-too-late. It means you have scenes like the aforementioned garage, but never see chain-smoking, hard-drinking, foul-mouthed John Constantine light a cigarette, drink to excess, or indulge in more than a fleeting dalliance with inventive British cursing.
Another part of the problem here is the need of stories like this to introduce a bunch of characters and give the audience – who may be meeting these people for the first time – enough of a sense of who they are that you can invest a little interest in what happens to them. That means establishing who John, Zatanna, Deadman, Etrigan, Jason Blood, Black Orchid, Ritchie, Swamp Thing, The Demons Three, Felix Faust and Destiny are, framing their story with the mainstream Justice League, and tell a story in an hour-and-a-half. That’s more than twelve characters to introduce to an audience. While it ultimately works, the needs of the story means some characters get some serious short-shrifting or adaptational changes that don’t quite work. For example, JLD is set in the New 52 continuity of the animated films, yet they use the short-lived and reader-loathed version of Swamp Thing from the Brightest Day and The Search for Swamp Thing stories, and Destiny is barely recognizable as the comic’s Doctor Destiny. Viewers with little to no knowledge of the characters and their histories may not find that problematic of course, but fans of the characters may find themselves scratching their heads at some of the changes.
Still, Justice League Dark is a good introduction to the mystical side of the DCAU, and if some of the choices are a little odd, well, at least it’s a decent start.