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ANIMATED FEATURE REVIEW

Justice League Dark
Studio: Warner Bros. Animation
Release Date: January 24th, 2017 - Digital; Feb. 7th, 2017 - Blu-ray, DVD

Synopsis: When innocent civilians begin committing unthinkable crimes across Metropolis, Gotham City and beyond, Batman must call upon mystical counterparts to eradicate this demonic threat to the planet. Enter Justice League Dark, reluctantly led by the Hellblazer himself, John Constantine. Like Batman, Constantine is a cunning, often cynical loner who is the best at his chosen profession – but quickly realizes the sinister forces plaguing the planet will require help from other supernatural alliances. Forming a new “league” with sorceress Zatanna, otherworldly Deadman, and Jason Blood and his powerful alter ego Etrigan the Demon, this team of Dark Arts specialists must unravel the mystery of Earth’s supernatural plague and contend with the rising, powerful villainous forces behind the siege – before it’s too late for all of mankind.

Actor Matt Ryan, who set the standard for the role of Constantine on the Warner Bros. live-action television series, returns to the role in animated form alongside Jason O’Mara (Terra Nova, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.) as Batman, Camilla Luddington (Grey’s Anatomy) as Zatanna, Nicholas Turturro (NYPD Blue) as Deadman, Ray Chase (Final Fantasy XV videogame) as Jason Blood/Etrigan, Roger R. Cross (24, Arrow) as John Stewart/Swamp Thing, Jeremy Davies (Justified) as Ritchie Simpson, Rosario Dawson (Daredevil, Sin City) as Wonder Woman, Jerry O’Connell (Stand By Me, Crossing Jordan) as Superman, Enrico Colantoni (Flashpoint, Veronica Mars) as Felix Faust, and Alfred Molina (The Da Vinci Code, Spider-Man 2) as Destiny.

Justice League Dark is directed by Jay Oliva (Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, Batman: The Dark Knight Returns). Story by J.M. DeMatteis and Ernie Altbacker (Green Lantern: The Animated Series) and teleplay by Ernie Altbacker. Sam Register is Executive Producer. Benjamin Melniker & Michael Uslan (The Dark Knight trilogy) are co-executive producers. James Tucker (Batman Bad Blood, Batman: Return of the Caped Crusaders) is Supervising Producer.



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Justice League Dark Feature Review
By James Harvey

Batman finds himself exploring dark new corners of the DC Universe to enlist help to deal with a magical threat that's slowly gripping the world in chaos, taking the long-running animated DC Comics-based movie series to some exciting new places. Justice League Dark is a tense adventure that gives the DC Universe Animated Original Movie line a shot in the arm and may leave some fans more than a little creeped out.

Right away, Justice League Dark is clearly something a little different. It's darker, edgier, creepier and definitely more mature. While nothing ever comes off as forced, a lucky side-effect of the film drenching itself in magic-based carnage, there's definitely something a little different about it. The creative team isn't trying to make our heroes and characters grim and gritty, but the film's dark tone is instead driven by the evil our heroes are trying to stop and the darkness that comes from it. It's a darker look at the animated universe established in the revamped DC Universe Animated Original Movie line, but it's driven by plot, not style choice, and that's a distinct difference. The film is definitely trying to be a bit more adult and mature, and the creative team really nails it. None of the film's mature aspects feel forced, but instead feel natural.

Justice League Dark opens with ordinary citizens committing a series of horrific crimes. However, the catch is that each person claims they are seeing nightmare visions of demons. The majority of the Justice League is convinced these attacks are seeped in dark magic, but Batman remains unconvinced. However, after a quick visit by Deadman, Batman finds himself part of an investigation to find out what's the cause of these bizarre incidents. After setting up the threat, the film steps away from the traditional idea of a Justice League animated movie and throws us head first into the world of John Constantine and the mystical side of the DC Universe. And while it can feel a little overwhelming at times, the film is able to let things roll out at a pretty digestible pace. The pacing in the movie is especially deserves some acknowledgement. There is so much to cover, but never does the film feel rushed nor does it get bogged down with some of the heavier dialogue driven scenes.

There is a lot of ground to cover since as, outside of Batman and the Justice League cameos, the cast consists of entirely new-to-the-animated-universe characters, and it can be overwhelming if you're completely new to the DC Universe. However, Justice League Dark nicely establishes Batman's history with Zatanna, and her previous relationship with Constantine, and Constantine's long-time friendship with Jason Blood (among others). The only character who feels slightly thrown into the mix is Deadman, who actually prompts Batman to search out Constantine to investigate the horrific crimes. While the film does establish Deadman's origin and his purpose in life, along with his friendship with Zatanna, why he is the one that really brings the team together seems kind of vague.

And the threats Batman, Deadman, Zatanna and Constantine face off against prove to be visually interesting and feel palpable. One of the major set pieces, which takes place in a hospital as our heroes attempt to recover memories from one of the allegedly-possessed victims, is nicely executed. As Zatanna and Constantine attempt to uncover the real threat behind these mysterious events, Batman and Deadman have to protect them from a rampaging demon comprised of excrement. Bizarre and a bit gross, yes, but it works given the established world and features some great animation and well handled choreography. One part of the whole sequence - with Deadman desperately jumping from body to body to escape this creature - is actually fairly tense and nicely compliments Constantine and Zatanna's equally dangerous mission.

Another solid set piece is a face-off between our heroes and Felix Faust in his lair, giving Justice League Dark a chance to show off some great special effects and fantastic design work with the film's magical symbols and incantations. None of these big set pieces, choreographed by the talented Jay Oliva, ever feel forced or extraneous, but actually serve the plot as each lay out crucial points that drive the film forward. In fact, the film's overall story is pretty tight. Nearly every moment counts, even ones which appear somewhat minor, such as Constantine and Jason Blood's introductory scene, which is actually includes elements crucial to the film later on. It's an incredibly well-constructed movie that, even though it stumbles here and there and might seem a bit too confusing for some, pays off in nearly every respect.

That said, given the huge cast the film has to deal with, some characters do get only a few brief moments to shine. The Justice League and Swamp Thing basically get a couple extended cameos and the Black Orchid's revamped backstory isn't as fully explored as it could've been. Aside from that, key characters in the film - Zatanna, Deadman, Constantine, Jason Blood - all are firmly established (including a couple getting extended flashbacks). Now, there are a few other noteworthy characters that appear in this movie, but in the sake of avoiding spoilers, they will go unnamed.

In terms of the film's tone, it's not a light-hearted affair. As mentioned above, it is a fairly dark movie, though some levity does break things up. Does it earn it's R-Rating? Given some of the language and the film's darker moments, especially in the cold open, it definitely does. That said, it also could've been reworked to a PG-13 without losing much. So fans put off by the R-Rating have little to worry about as the film is the standard animated DC Comics movie but with some necessary moments to showcase the stakes our heroes are fighting for. The solid work by director Oliva and writers Ernie Altbacker and J.M. DeMatteis make sure these splashes of pure darkness are earned and not forced, as they never feel out of place but firmly compliment the action and dialogue-driven moments.

In the midst of all of this is a voice cast very game for whatever the script throws at them. There are a some notable standout performances, especially from the new characters introduced and one very reliable Justice Leaguer. O'Mara is spot on as Batman, and given his time with the character, has definitely found a comfortable spot. He nails each line, and even knows how to play off a few scenes for laughs without it ever feeling fake. Ryan, back in the roll of Constantine, is fantastic. He's a little less restrained here, as compared to the television show, but it works given the heightened nature of the movie. Whether Constantine has to spout off exposition, say incantations, or even revel in the absurdity of some of the situations, Ryan is clearly game and on point. Luddington also hits all the right marks as Zatanna, able to jump from quiet and contemplative to a force to be reckoned with without it feeling forced. She may sound a bit young at times, but it doesn't really hamper her performance. Turturro as Deadman offers up a few solid laughs as the team's jokester, though manages to convey a hint of sadness in his character's current ghostly predicament. Colantoni is a total hoot as Faust, playing the character as an old-style sorcerer somewhat for laughs, but also not forgetting to bring the menace when he needs to. Chase is perfectly cast as Jason Blood/Etrigan, bringing to life character's sense of nobility and inherent tragedy. All in all, another great cast of actors doing excellent work under the skillful guidance of Wes Gleason. There are a handful of off line deliveries, but overall it's commendable work.

The score by Robert Kral is fantastic, adding a hard beat to the film's soundtrack. The "Batman" theme he developed for Batman: Assault on Arkham can be heard loud and clear at key points, and the overall general sound for the score sounds very much inspired by the late (and underrated) live-action Constantine series (and perhaps even a little by Angel), mixed in with a little bit of dub step. It's great to hear Kral back on an animated DC Comics project, and the end result does not disappoint.

Overall, Justice League Dark is the strongest Justice League movie in the revamped era of the DC Universe Animated Original Movie line to date. Exploring the magical side of the DC Universe, and introducing a wealth of likeable new characters, gives what could have been just another ho-hum movie a massive jolt of new energy. While each of these DC Comics animated movies have always explored new facets of the DC Universe, to varying degrees of success (usually positive), there's something a little different about this one. It's engrossing and interesting, rife with seemingly limitless possibilities and begs to be watched again. It helps that there are some genuine twists in the film - which have not been remotely hinted at in this review, including two major reveals - and the characters find themselves in situations with what feels like real tangible stakes. The film's dark premise never feels forced or excessive, and is skillfully balanced with moments of levity and nicely executed action beats. In fact, Justice League Dark is so packed full that it occasionally teeters on the edge of going overboard, but the always reliable creative team and cast manage to keep things together, delivering a really satisfying, fun experience. Highly Recommended!

[ Continue on to the Justice League Dark Blu-ray review ]

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