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Mar 27

Movie March – Justice League Dark

John is still pissed Castiel stole his look.

Welcome back to Movie March! All month long, we’ll be looking at and reviewing animated films from both the east and the west. For our final western pick, we’re jumping into the latest in the DC Animated movie line, and the seventh in their ongoing continuity of movies, Justice League Dark.

Rather than a typical Justice League movie this time they are not only focusing on a different team but also an entirely unexplored corner of the DC universe in animation, magic. While all these characters have popped up in animation before and there have been some magical plots in the cartoons they were more exceptions than the rule. This movie is purely about the magic side of the DC universe and why these magic users are better equipped at solving it than the regular Justice League. Though first and foremost it is a John Constantine movie co-staring the magical side of the DC universe and also Batman, because he makes the marketing department happy.

The plot is that people around the world are killing random people thinking they are demons. Batman goes to Zatanna who, along with Deadman, leads them to John Constantine and the House of Mystery. They have to figure out who is causing this and stop them before more innocent people die. Along the way they meet up with Jason Blood, and his alter-ego the Demon Etrigan, and Swamp Thing. It is a nicely done unfolding mystery that allows them to go through some of the magical areas and meet these beings as they search for answers.

I’d say the big thing to understand when watching this is that it’s not a Justice League movie, or even a standard superhero team building movie. The League does show up for a small amount but Batman’s the only Leaguer that really is in this movie. The movie also doesn’t set out to create a new League just for supernatural threats, as you might expect from the marketing and even the name of the movie. There is a sort of team that goes around and is about solving this mystery, but it does feel more like a John Constantine movie co-staring a bunch of other DC characters. Which isn’t really a bad thing, if you like Constantine and also Matt Ryan’s take on the character from his short lived TV show, but I feel maybe some fans will get a little disappointed at the slightly deceptive marketing. Probably Swamp Thing and Black Orchid fans especially.

It works really well as a Constantine movie, highlighting particular aspects of his character that go against the typical hero narrative. The strongest one in the movie is how much of a bastard he is and how he creates collateral damage for the people around him while not really suffering himself. We even see an old friend of Constantine, Richie, who is dying of magical cancer because of a stunt Constantine pulled. That is also played out in the fight scenes, while he might do some fighting himself he often drags other more powerful beings into the fight against their will. With Jason Blood at the beginning and again with Swamp Thing at the end. It is a pattern with Constantine and I’m glad the movie reflects that. Though I think the movie then cops out a little at the very end, after the fighting is done, to try and give the movie a more traditional happy ending, which feels at odds with Constantine’s nature. He shouldn’t be getting the girl at the end, he’s not that type of character, and the movie should’ve tried to be a little subversive on that front.

In terms of the other characters Zatanna is secondary to Constantine, she used to have a relationship with him so they play up the romantic tension between them, and she is also apparently a very powerful magic user but also can’t use very much of it without “losing control” and becoming dangerous. Something entirely invented for this movie that is rather questionable given all the other magic users in this movie don’t suffer from any of that. Next up is Jason Blood/Etrigan the Demon, and the movie does a good job of showing off the character, his conflict, his backstory, and actually dealing with it a bit. The movie also gets major plus points for keeping Etrigan as a rhyming demon who can only talk in rhyme. That’s something the old DCAU cartoons didn’t want to use because it was “too silly” for their serious TV shows, so it’s always a welcome thing to see used especially for an R Rated movie, just to rub it in that it can work even in a serious setting. Then there’s Deadman, he’s a ghost who can possess people, and he talks with a Boston accent, that’s pretty much his entire repertoire. To the movie’s credit they do find uses for him beyond comic relief and actual useful ways to use him in fight scenes. Swamp Thing and Black Orchid are also in this, though not really in any substantive way. Swamp Thing does at least get to do something and we do get some hints towards his larger comic roots, including a slight reference to Alan Moore’s reinvention of the character. Black Orchid might as well not have been in the movie, she just does so little and is just an invention for this movie so there’s no even any nods to her comics. Here she’s a physical manifestation of the House of Mystery and the only thing she really does is flirt with Deadman, she could be taken out of this movie without the need to change anything in the movie itself. It’s just a weird thing to have a movie that has such reverence to the Vertigo/magic side of the DC universe but also changes an obscure character into a lifeless doll and might have well been named anything else. They could’ve had the manifestation be Cain, named after the mysterious man who was the caretaker of the House before Constantine randomly got ownership of it in the New 52 comics. But then they’d get rid of the awkward flirting with Deadman, and who’d want to do away with such a vital element of the movie.

Then there’s Batman, who does feel like an inclusion from the marketing department, but he’s also the comic relief of the team. He is the straight-man “normal” to all the weirdness and magical goings on, and it works really well. It’s not Brave and the Bold level comedy, but he does get a lot of nice bits of deadpan humour at the situations and remarks aimed at how his gadgets are inappropriate to deal with magic. There’s even a running gag of ending scenes with him just grunting at the weirdness he’s just witnessed, just a grunt and walking away shouldn’t be as funny as it is.

I don’t really want to go into the plot so much because it is actually a decent mystery that’s well put together and you get to see them follow the trail and put the pieces together and it nicely builds up to a good climatic finale. It’s well structured and nothing feels forced or out of left field, and it is honestly better put together than I’d expect from a DC animated movie these days. There’s only one cheat, one bit that’s solely there to fool the audience and keep the mystery alive, and it is a minor thing but one really noticeable the second time you watch it. But other than that it’s a surprisingly well done mystery plot.

I will say the opening is probably one of the more darker things from DC animation, with the innocent people starting to see demons and trying to kill them as they are terrifying, only to see they weren’t demons but real people. The movie doesn’t pull its punches or try to minimalism how horrific this is, with one man pulling a shotgun on his wife and kids, nearly killing them, and tells Superman to go look in his shed to see proof of other demons and there’s just the dead bodies of his neighbours. Then there’s a women who sees her new born baby as a hellspawn so she tries to throw it off a church roof, and then jumps off herself thinking she’s also a monster who gave birth to a demon. It does a good job of treating these events as tragic and horrific while also not glorifying them with trying to be edgy or gory for the sake of it. The demon visuals are also fantastically designed for some great creepy horror, where you can see why people would go crazy and try to kill them. Some of the background designs can be a little samey and a bit generic, but a lot of ones we get a good look at do hit the mark and look truly unsettling.

The animation is mostly solid, with some pretty well staged action scenes with big magic fights, but in between those fights things can get a little shaky. Things can look a little stiff and unpolished when there’s some downtime and exposition happening. You can tell what got time and attention and what didn’t from the crew. There’s even one really terrible shot of them walking down a road where the characters and the background don’t really match up and it looks like an animation mistake from an 80s cartoon. Thankfully it only lasted a second or two and there’s nothing else like it in the movie, but it was something so badly done I’m surprised it made it into the final product and not redone or just cut out.

I could say the same for the soundtrack, which while mostly inoffensive the main theme certainly the weirdest choice for a DC animated movie. For a magical mystery exploring the dark and gritty corners of the DC universe the theme they chose to compliment this was dubstep. It just sticks out like a sore thumb and took me right out of the movie, especially when it was used for part of the big climactic fight sequence. It just really doesn’t fit the rest of the movie, or even the rest of the soundtrack that is mostly not dubstep.

Other than that it’s a good movie showing a different side of the DC universe that doesn’t get much of a look in from other media, especially not animation. Though given all of these characters have appeared in the current Justice League Action cartoon, and Constantine is getting his own animated series on the CW Seed, maybe that’ll change in the future. Give this a chance if this sounds like your thing, its certainly better than DC’s live action movies.