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Justice League Dark

Warner Bros. // Unrated // February 7, 2017
List Price: $39.99 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Thomas Spurlin | posted March 7, 2017 | E-mail the Author
The Film:

The presence of magic tends to be a tricky make-or-break element for comic-book readers. Some dig the extents in which writers are willing to take supernatural capabilities, while others can be left frustrated at the layering of powers and how they fix outlandish problems, which grows even more complicated and debatable when already overpowered heroes get outmaneuvered by even stronger powers. Unlike the relatively limited, defined powers of super-strength, green-energy manipulation, and flight associated with the members of the Justice League, the personalities involved with a lesser-known band of their allies, colloquially labeled the Justice League Dark, operates entirely on broad use of boundless, arcane spells and powers ... many of which surpass the forces of the League proper. DC's latest cartoon brings the existence of this alternate superhero squad into the fold of their animated universe, filling a void left by the stalled live-action adaptation that once had Guillermo Del Toro at the helm, and, for better or worse, it certainly doesn't skimp on the outlandishness of its premise.

Much like their introduction in their first comic a little over five years prior, Justice League Dark centers on a threat that the likes of Superman, Wonder Woman, and the others cannot manage on their own, centered on a mental-illness enchantment that makes people see monsters in place of other humans. Think the hallucinogenic gas in Batman Begins, only without fog everywhere and scattered across the country. Ever the detective and responding to a bizarre series of messages left for it, Batman (Jason O'Mara) reaches out to an old acquaintance, Zatanna (Camilla Luddington), to find the man named Constantine (Matt Ryan) who might be able to assist with his problem. Really, Batman just proves to be an identifiable vehicle toward Constantine and the other associates who congregate around his House of Mystery, a base of operations that transports wherever Constantine needs and which has its own physical vessel to interact with the world: the Black Orchid in this version of the story. Thus begins the Caped Crusader's descent into their darkly mystical realm, to which he's even more of a tagalong than he can seem when surrounded by the Justice League.

From the moment that a ghost named Deadman (Nicholas Tuturro) has a spell cast upon him that makes it possible for the magically disinclined, like Batman, to interact with him, Justice League Dark makes it abundantly clear that incantations, enchantments and curses are the driving force behind this corner of the universe. Have a problem? There's a spell for that, and it's possible that there's a spell that could unravel the previous spell. J.M. DeMatteis, writer of the lackluster animated installments Batman: Bad Blood and Batman vs. Robin, teams up with Green Lantern and Ben 10 vet Ernie Altbacker in the creation of a nonsensical yet exhilarating cascade of this sorcery and supernatural threats, while also flirting with the underpinnings of Lovecraftian horror in its depiction of vaguely sentient beasts. With this boundless mystique also comes a bottomless well of problems and solutions accessible to the screenwriting duo, and they don't shy away from going big and bold with the possibilities, unleashing shapeshifting curses and sentient tornadoes and all sorts of glyphs and energy blasts of varying elemental energies.

Underneath all the bright colors and supernatural chaos, Justice League Dark holds a clear and steady focus on these characters that lurk in the lesser-visited corners of DC's universe, emphasizing their strong personalities and unique chemistry. Fans of the now-defunct TV iteration of Constantine will enjoy hearing Matt Ryan reprise his role as the hellblazer here, taking on more of the curt, distinctively charismatic attitude he typically gives off when surrounded by other powerful people and acquaintances. His rapport with the magician Zatanna, full of in-jokes and references to past events, gives the story a vaguely bittersweet and evocative energy, while the quips from Deadman offer touches of measured comedic relief and the brief appearances of Swamp Thing emphasize the melancholy enormity of his "green" protection agenda. Between the breadth of their capabilities and the richness of their attitudes, they almost make one forget about Batman being there, even wish that maybe he wasn't there at all so the screenwriters wouldn't feel obligated to give him something to do ... and, yeah, between his gadgets and the brooding of his personality, he still manages to be a fairly prominent feature.

Frustratingly, as was also a setback to Jay Oliva's past directing efforts and J.D. DeMatteis' previous scripts, Justice League Dark becomes too concerned with cramming overzealous style and rushed, full-bodied characterization into a 75-minute runtime, and the overall storytelling suffers because of it. The investigation into the demonic illusions sends the crew on a needlessly convoluted, on-the-rails chase between interested parties and suspects that's full of meaningless red herrings, purely designed to channel these magic-users and their powerless human-dressed-as-a-bat colleague between cosmic battles and interrogations. Vivid animation bolsters the consistent rush of cosmic action, but the ludicrous comic-book logic and hokey dialogue shines brighter as the stakes grow higher, hampering the final act's bold conflagration of impenetrable shields, Arthurian-era curses, and how the situation makes the Justice League look ... well, weak next to their darker colleagues. Justice League Dark conjures an electrifying glimpse at the supernatural side of the DC universe, but the spell isn't powerful enough to win over skeptics.

The Blu-ray:

Warner Bros. have unleashed Justice League Dark on the Blu-ray realm in a fairly standard package, with a front cover design that's duplicated onto a shiny, raised slipcase. The disc artwork on the inside isn't anything to get excited about, merely sporting silver tops with the film's titled emblazoned upon them. A DVD Copy and Digital Copy slip have also been included, and the version for review also came with a figurine representing John Constantine in his animated film form.

Video and Audio:

Many of the recent DC animated films -- mostly the ones that revolve around Batman, which is the lion's share of ‘em -- have proven to be a challenge on Blu-ray, which has led to a reputation for WB's output: they're mostly strong, attractive, but digitally flawed presentations that struggle with contrast and color solidity. Funnily enough, despite the name, Justice League Dark offers a much more colorful and uniquely brighter experience than some of the recent flicks, which results in a more attractive and satisfying HD treatment in its 1.78:1. 1080p AVC transfer. The consistency of bold shades of color draw the disc's attention, presenting bold shades in lapping fire, lightning strikes, and the characters' outfits. Black levels rarely have to deal with muted industrial grays as a result, and the handful of sequences that do are lacking the kind of banding and distortion found in other releases. The lines of the artwork are crisp and defined, and the range of motion during its many vigorous sequences remains fluid and convincing, if slightly hazy at certain points. While not entirely without some of the label's recurring flaws, it's an enchanting presentation.

The audio materializes within a 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio presentation that's more restrained and lacking dynamism than one might've hoped, and not from a lack of vigorous activity throughout. Energy blasts and other sorcery are pronounced and have high-end strength to them, exploring the front channels with robust enough impact, while scenes involving battles with grand-scope baddies allows the activity to spread across the front channels. Many of them lack lower-frequency impact, though, merely going through the action-movie motions of explosive blasts and crashes without the strong punch one might expect. Other, subtler effects are more satisfying, from the panel-by-panel reconstruction of Constantine's house in locations to Swamp Thing's tendrils in motion. Verbal clarity remains even yet unremarkable, balanced and free of distortion but lacking mid-range richness and depth. Despite the uptick in activity and the general strength and stability of the track, this audio treatment doesn't leave a lasting mark.

Special Features:

Several extras have been thrown on the Blu-ray disc for Justice League Dark, but the ones specifically concentrated on the characters' history and the story itself are strangely limited. The most significant one comes in The Story of Swamp Thing (18:12, 16x9 HD), which, paired with panels from the comics and clips from the film, illustrates the pathway that the character has taken since his first, short appearance in the comics many years back. Writer Len Wein, DC Animation's creative director Mike Carlin, artist Kelley Jones, and producer James Tucker discuss the tragic nature of the character's origin, the nature of his nude design, how Swamp Thing avoided the creative chopping block due to the live-action movie, and how Alan Moore rejuvenated the character. Eventually, Jay Oliva hops into the discussion and offers his insights into this new animated-film version of Swamp Thing, shifting gears to his relationship with Constantine and his more "theological" presence.

WB have also included a Justice League Panel at New York Comic Con (26:41, 16x9 HD), which features Jay Oliva, producer James Tucker, character designer Phil Bourassa, and voice actors Matt Ryan and Jason O'Mara as they discuss how the film revolves on "superhero stuff with a lot of magic spells", the uniqueness of the fact that O'Mara and Ryan didn't meet until the morning of the panel (after the film was completed), the complexity of voicing the spells, and the ways in which the live-action and animated versions of Constantine could, potentially, meld together in later sequels. They've also included a series of Did You Know? (3:26, 16x9 HD) trivia bits about the starring characters. Aside from that, WB have piled on a series of Sneak Peeks for other animated productions, as well as a pair of cartoons From the DC Comics Vault centered on Batman: The Brave and the Bold, and rounded things off with a trailer for Batman: Return of the Caped Crusader.

Final Thoughts:

If unique characters, consistent energy, magical collisions and the presence of Batman were all that an animated comic-book movie needed, then Justice League Dark would be nothing but a success. Director Jay Oliva and his writers dedicate their energy to realizing this lesser-known group of spellcasting heroes, giving Matt Ryan's antiheroic John Constantine a new venue through which he can continue blazing, as they embark on solving the mystery of a complex series of demonic, chaos-creating illusions. For some, hey, that might be enough, but the uninvolving investigative aspects, the convenient emergence of new and useful spells, and the story's forgiving grasp on logic keep this glimpse at a unique corner of DC's universe from transforming into something great. WB's Blu-ray looks great and sounds quite strong, and comes equipped with a solid Q&A session and compiled look at Swamp Thing's history. Mildly Recommended.

Thomas Spurlin, Staff Reviewer -- DVDTalk Reviews | Personal Blog/Site
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