Though infinitely less well-known than their caped and cowled counterparts, the more paranormal-themed characters of DC comics are some of the most interesting and storied characters in the publishers’ pantheon. Characters like John Constantine, Swamp Thing, and others represent a dark flip-side to the more bright, colorful worlds of the DC, a more complex underbelly full of antiheroes and uncertainty. At no point was this distinction and the potency of this more apparent than in the late 80s and 90s, when these characters thrived under DC’s Vertigo imprint. Vertigo was created as a mature-audiences imprint of DC, a line of comics tailored for darker, more complex stories. It was the place where legendary writers like Neil Gaiman, Alan Moore, Garth Ennis, and others wrote stories that would shape their careers and the comics industry at large in books like The Sandman, Swamp Thing and Hellblazer. Though those halcyon days are behind us, the characters that became poster children for this era are still around, and they’re among the subjects of DC Animation’s latest film, Justice League Dark.
But there’s a problem, at least if you’re a part of that group of comic-book fans who hold 80s/90s Vertigo comics in a special esteem: while Justice League Dark has some familiar faces and a few fun shout-outs to offer Vertigo fans, make no mistake — you aren’t the target audience. Justice League Dark is intended as a primer on these characters for new audiences, and probably also as a proof-of-concept for the in-development live-action movie of the same name. While JLD could have been a slavish and artistically-charged tribute to this special era of comics, that simply isn’t the route they took. The good news is that if you’re able to adjust your expectations accordingly, it’s still a fun enough romp through DC’s paranormal areas, with a brisk pace and some fun visuals.
The story opens with a plague of grisly murders rocking the DCU, as ordinary citizens start hallucinating that their friends, family and neighbors are hideous demons. The Justice League are stumped, so Batman enlists the help of several paranormal characters to try and get to the bottom of things. This team includes Zatanna, DC’s resident stage magician/magical superhero, British urban sorcerer John Constantine, the ghostly acrobat Deadman, and demonic Etrigan. The adventure leads them on a whistle-stop tour of the DC Universe’s paranormal hotspots, with cameos from the likes of Felix Faust and Swamp Thing.
While early entries in the DC Animated canon felt like they had a bit more character to them, stylistically they’ve since settled into a consistent house approach in terms of animation, and to a lesser extent tone. While this makes it easier to present the films as installments in a consistent universe, it also leaves less room for experimentation and style. And if any DC Animated film could have benefited from a little style, it’s Justice League Dark. That isn’t to say that the animation and overall presentation is bad; it’s just a little on the bland side. Very rarely, if ever, does it feel like the animation or style really suits the characters, or adds to the film’s atmosphere of paranormal spookitude. This is the biggest hurdle the film has to overcome for layman viewers. While anime-infused projects like Batman: Gotham Knights could coast on visuals, Justice League Dark relies on its script and characters to carry it.
And carry it they do, for the most part. For many, the make or break is the depiction of John Constantine, the hard-bitten London mage with a knack for getting himself embroiled in magical trouble. Constantine is a hard character to get right, as the ill-fated Keanu Reeves movie demonstrated. He’s harder still to get right in the confines of a film where he can’t curse or smoke — two of his favorite activities. Surprisingly though, Justice League Dark pulls off a fairly faithful depiction of the character, despite these limitations. The supporting cast fare a bit less well, but not by much. Deadman, Zatanna, Etrigan, and Batman are pretty much along for the ride, only getting in little bits of characterization here and there where they can.
Frequently it feels like Batman in particular is excess baggage, there only to demonstrate how nervous DC gets about any property that doesn’t involve their golden boy. His monosyllabic grunts are occasionally amusing, at least, but bit players like Swamp Thing get the worst of it. The character once molded into a nuanced, tragic, and endlessly interesting hero by Alan Moore now feels tragically shoehorned into the story, only appearing in a few key sequences. Perhaps even worse is a cameo by Black Orchid, whose Neil Gaiman-penned miniseries almost single-handedly launched the Vertigo phenomenon. She feels like pure window dressing, a pointless addition that will be confusing for non-fans, as the film never quite explains who or what she is. If you have no knowledge of Black Orchid, the film won’t really fill you in. If you do, however, you may get more than a bit irked by seeing the character reduced to Constantine’s housemaid.
And that’s Justice League Dark in a nutshell, honestly. Longtime DC fans, particularly those with fond memories of the Vertigo golden years, may find themselves chafing under the film’s depictions of characters who once leaped of the page in nuanced, artistically charged stories. They feel homogenized, dumbed down, stripped of nuance. Newcomers, meanwhile, will fare much better, even if the occasionally ham-fisted exposition and uneven characterization leaves something to be desired. It’s far from DC Animation’s previous greatest-hits, like Under the Red Hood or Assault on Arkham, but for someone just looking for an hour and change of paranormal superhero fun, Justice League Dark is a pleasant enough distraction. But if you’re a Vertigo die-hard, you’d be better off keeping away, as the film’s versions of the characters that once haunted the pages of that hallowed imprint feel like shallow echoes of their former selves.