Ordinary citizens are murdering their neighbors, believing them to be demons. and The Justice League can’t find a cause. Batman (Jason O’Mara) teams up with the esoteric mage and anti-hero John Constantine (Matt Ryan), the magician Zatanna (Camilla Luddington), the ghost Deadman (Nicholas Turturro), and the possessed knight Jason Blood (Ray Chase) to unravel the mystery.
The good and the bad of Justice League Dark are the same as that of the DC New 52 comics it is based upon. John Constantine is the draw and the guy that holds it all together. Over time he can get to be a bit of a drag and he is hard to cheer for, but his flawed personality and magic tricks can be a lot of fun. Zatanna is a more traditional hero, but an engaging one and she works well with Constantine. Their seedy world of demons and deals is a nice change of pace from “the men in tights.” Both deserve their own comics and films (and have had their own comics, and in the case of Constantine, a film and a TV series), and both are even better when they can play off each other.
But two things held the comics back and equally pull down this production. Firstly, the characters don’t fit together. Constantine and Zatanna live in that dark world of spells. But Deadman is an old time joke character, who belongs in Sunday comic strips. The fact that he wears tights just drives home the point. Jason Blood is perfect for your next high fantasy role playing game. Sure, knights and dragons are magical, but it is a different kind of magic. I wouldn’t drop Doctor Strange into the middle of The Lord of the Rings, or vise-verse, but that’s what we have here. Swamp Thing fits no better (yes, he’s pulled in for a long cameo), and the magic house AI feels like it was yanked straight out of the science fiction television show Andromeda. Batman is only in the movie because DC can’t sell anything without Batman. He’s amusing here and there, but his normal role is taken by Constantine, which leaves him to stand around and doubt magic. The pieces just don’t fit together. This becomes more evident when we get to a big super-hero type fight scene. Constantine should be doing gritty, nasty little spells, not tossing power bolts.
The second is a problem that plagues many fantasy films: we have no idea what anyone can do or how powerful anything is. There are no rules. When any of the team is in trouble, they just pull more magic and win. We have no way of knowing if any situation is dangerous. It’s all just flashing lights.
The story is a mystery that is tied up a little too easily, but this is a 76 minute film, so it could only get so complicated. There’s a few more origin stories than I’d have liked, but they were stuck with that, or leave the characters as unknowns except to comic readers. There’s also an excrement demon, straight out of Kevin Smith’s Dogma. I’d have thought DC had enough monsters in their comics to make swiping one unnecessary.
The R-rating is undeserved, both from the ratings board (who go a bit nuts with cartoons, wanting to warn parents of even the slightest nudge past teddy bears) and from DC who wanted it. All it amounts to is one use of “shit,” a few “bastards” and a purple magical entity that teases a curvy female bottom. These are barely worth a PG-13 and all could have been scaled back without harm to the picture, and should have been as the swearing stands out.
Justice League Dark is one of the better films DC has produced in the last few years. That’s not a ringing endorsement, but an indication of the mess that is DC. Suicide Squad was fair and both Batman v Superman and Man of Steel were as bad as Superhero movies get. Their animated films had been their strength, but the weak Son of Batman trilogy and the misguided Killing Joke have shredded that reputation. JL Dark isn’t bad, and for DC right now, that’s a win.