'Justice League Dark' Filled With Magic, Attitude, Contrivance

Directed by: Jay Oliva; Runtime:
Grade: C+

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.

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