Wednesday, 20 December 2017

Movie Review: Justice League Dark (2017)



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The plot: After a series of grisly murders that seem to have a magical component to them, Batman (Jason O’Mara) is led to occult detective John Constantine (Matt Ryan). Reluctantly, Constantine agrees to team up with Batman, Zatanna (Camilla Luddington), Deadman (Nicholas Turturro) and Jason Blood/Etrigan (Ray Chase) to discover what could cause these ordinary civilians to become murderous. However, as they delve deeper into the world of the dark arts, the team are going to be confronted with things that no human should have to witness. Things like a demon made of literal shit that looks like it was designed by Hayao Miyazaki. Yeah.



Ryan’s experience with portraying everyone’s favourite supernatural detective serves him extremely well here, bringing a lot of sardonic charm to his very quippy dialogue. Aside from how well he delivers his lines, his general aura within the story feels like this is a personality that is borne from frequent exposure to very, very dark and unsettling stuff. O’Mara as the Caped Crusader doesn’t have the same heaviness as Kevin Conroy (then again, few things on this Earth do) but since he only has to focus on the superhero side of the character, he does very well with it. When you hear him manage to scare a literal spectre of death, you buy it without a second thought. Luddington is okay in her role, even though it’s not quite as meaty as it should be given her own place within the group dynamic, Turturro is likewise just okay as the resident wise-cracker, and Colleen Villard as this story’s version of Black Orchid is really damn passive, which is saying something when her character is already passive as hell to begin with. Cross as both Swamp Thing and the John Stewart iteration of Green Lantern works out nicely, mainly as the former since he’s able to imbue the character with the majestic air that it calls for, and Chase as Etrigan is absolutely fantastic. Not only does he do very well with both Jason Blood and the demon he turns into, he makes the literal poetry of his dialogue sound fitting and even has some fun with it.

Similar to that other Justice League film from this year, this has to introduce pretty much its entire main cast within the story itself. Dissimilar to Justice League, this film actually manages to get the job done. With Batman as our focal point into the seedier side of magic within the DC universe, writer Ernie Altbacker manages to introduce some rather high-concept ideas into a 75-minute space without any of it feeling slapshod or even out-of-place alongside the OG Justice League. Some of the characters are rather easy to set up, like Zatanna the performing magician with actual magical powers, while others should take some time to get your head around, like Swamp Thing the personification and defender of nature itself. And yet, not only do we get a definite sense of character establishment and personality for everyone involved, we also get some really solid set pieces to introduce. Whether it’s Constantine playing poker with demons, Jason Blood fighting alongside the others knights of Camelot, or Deadman’s trapeze act going horribly wrong, they all work at quickly getting the audience up to date on their existence and making sure that they stick in the audience’s mind.

That lingering sense of memorability, again with the short running time in mind, also exists in the visuals. Now, admittedly, the DC animated universe as it exists right now is going by The New 52 character designs, which means that when we get a good look at Superman and Wonder Woman (and even Batman, to be honest), we’re shown one of the weaker visual iterations of the character. The animation also lacks a lot of the crispness that I’ve come to expect from DC’s animated work, but then again, that’ll happen when I haven’t really seen that many of the more recent installments and Paul Dini isn’t directly involved. That said, when the film gets into the more action-oriented moments, it is rather effective. The emphasis on magic might not get stretched as far as it could in the animated arena, but it’s kind of difficult to argue against magicians, ghosts and demons battling an Arthurian-era sorcerer. Especially when the action is paced out enough so that everyone can get their chance to shine.

In the realms of comic books, the term “dark” in regards to story is usually a bad sign. Most of the time, it refers less to the themes of the narrative being heavy and disturbing, and more to the themes of the narrative being what the writers think is heavy and disturbing but is more accurately just trying too hard to be “mature”. It takes literally no time at all before this film makes its case in that regard, delving into the kind of unnerving and rather frightening ideas that I’ve come to expect from the Vertigo staple of characters (Constantine, Swamp Thing, etc.) While the impetus for getting together the titular team is a bit of a headscratcher, since the Justice League themselves admit that they have experience with magical foes, the progression and willingness to delve into truly dark territory ends up making that scepticism just an afterthought. Things like being convinced that your newborn child, your family, your neighbours, even random people off the street, have been overtaken by demons is perturbing enough… until you see the reactions to that idea. From then on, this film deals with notions of death and the dark arts in a surprisingly smooth fashion, getting some chuckles and blood-pumps in without diminishing the material given. I say “surprisingly” because this is a barely-feature-length animated film, and it somehow managed to get the seriousness of the situation across better than a full-fledged live-action flick. Good to see that not everyone connected with DC nowadays is a complete dumpster fire.

All in all, it’s nice to know that we got at least one good Justice League movie this year. The voice acting is damn good, with Matt Ryan definitely making a case for keeping his incarnation of the character around, the animation has its off points but definitely sells the action scenes, and the writing balances character introduction, characterization, morose subject matter and humour without even breaking a sweat. I’ll admit to not being that familiar with the DC Universe Animated Original Movies, but after seeing this, I’m looking forward to seeing more of them.

It ranks higher than Little Evil, as the process of sitting through this movie is not only far less grating but also far shorter, allowing for a more entertaining experience that I wouldn’t mind redoing at some point. However, since this film is still a bit flat in terms of subtext and themes and all those other things I tend to fixate on, it falls short of Jumanji: Welcome To The Jungle, where the sense of humour and acting are just that good that I end up forgetting to even care about those things.

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