Animation isn’t my thing. I mean, other than classic Tom and Jerry, I just never caught the bug. I have a fondness for some Pixar material, and I really loved The Incredibles and The Iron Giant, but that’s mostly it. My most recent trip there was Howard Lovecraft and the Frozen Kingdom, but that was purely because I’m a fan of Lovecraft. The movie itself was pretty poor, as I said in my review here. So yeah, not a huge fan. But comic books are in my DNA, and I will usually try to watch animated features with the major characters. It rarely works out well – head on over to my review of 2016’s truly wretched animated adaptation of Alan Moore and Brian Bolland’s The Killing Joke. I should know better, right? Apparently not, because I just finished watch Justice League Dark.
You’d have to be living under the proverbial rock to have still not heard of The Justice League. Even though the live action movie will soon be out, the comic goes way back. This review isn’t the place to talk about the history, but the idea of bringing together Earth’s greatest heroes in one team isn’t restricted to DC comics – Marvel’s Avengers does the same thing. So what is Justice League Dark? Cue exposition!
The concept here is rooted in DC’s Vertigo Comics line – going back to its genesis in the 1980s, Vertigo Comics took a mature approach to comic books, and turned a number of its more little-known, supernatural and strange characters into cult favourites. A little later, some other characters were folded into the mix. Justice League Dark then, takes the characters John Constantine, Zatanna, Deadman, The Demon, Black Orchid, and Swamp Thing, along with Batman, and throws them together to combat a supernatural menace from the medieval times.
The result is certainly nowhere near as bad as The Killing Joke – in fact, it’s a decent attempt. Unfortunately it suffers from many of the same problems that animated features based on comic book properties have, which I’ll list here. First and foremost, the animation is bog-standard these days. 2D animation used to be great. They were crafted with real care at a point in the distant past, but for decades the animation has resembled the choppy movement of bad stop motion, and I find that really distracting. So much of today’s animation just looks cheap and generic, like watching a really long flipbook – the jumps between frames are so blatant and noticeable I find it very hard to sit through. Justice League Dark suffers from bad artwork too. The designs on some of the characters are just flat out awful, and many of the characters suffer from inconsistency (Superman, who appears very early, sometimes looks a bit like Tom Cruise, then sometimes nothing like him. Now, I don’t know if he was meant to look like Cruise, but the characters should at least look the same every time they appear in the same scene, right?) as though different artists worked on the same character. The anatomy is sometimes REALLY bad – arms look way too long and oddly disjointed, upper torsos are sometimes monstrously gigantic – I mean Rob Liefeld monstrous, just like this:
On character design, I’ve seen worse, and I actually like Batman’s costume here, but Zatanna’s is awful. While I wouldn’t call it offensive (some people might), I’m kind of tired of female costumes looking skimpy and revealing just cuz. Throughout the movie, Zatanna wears a white strapless thing that only just covers her big, obvious tits.
Yeah, yeah, women wear bikinis in real life, I get it … but these days it feels cheap, and believe me, I’m no SJW. Other characters are lazily designed too – Swamp Thing looks mostly crap, and the Big Bad of the piece looks painfully like the live action Skeletor from Masters of the Universe, back in the 80s. Visually, the whole thing approaches lame, and never rises above.
In terms of story, again, it’s okay. A serviceable story, written by comics veteran J.M Dematteis (who wrote one of the few comic books I’ve ever truly loved, Moonshadow) and Ernie Albacker, finds the team drawn together by inexplicable murders where regular people hallucinate other people as demonic beings who need to be killed. It’s a decent setup, and the story is as cinematic as a PG-13 horror movie can aspire to, but this is main trouble with the story. Plenty of Vertigo and pre-Vertigo books were genuinely set in the horror genre. The early days of Hellblazer (which introduced John Constantine), especially those by Jamie Delano and my old chum Richard Piers Rayner very successfully brought a Ramsey Campbell vibe into comics. And I could simply not even bother mentioning Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing, but his run was a brilliant piece of horror writing early in its run. For me, why do horror, if the goal is to soften the blows? Justice League Dark simply dips a toe in the horror genre, to the point where you wonder why bother using these characters at all? Moving past the introduction, the hour twenty running time is propped up by some exposition and a fight scene between the League and Felix Faust that goes on WAY too long, considering the payoff to that scene.
As well as all that, the voice acting was annoying too. Nicholas Turturro does a horrendous job with Deadman’s voice, coming off, incredibly, more like John Lovitz’s SNL character The Pathological Liar, and Matt Ryan, who actually played Constantine in the short-lived TV series sounds more like an American’s bad imitation of a Scouse accent than a real one. Jason O Mara’s Batman is good, and the rest of the voice acting is decent, with a surprisingly strong cast that includes Rosario Dawson and Jerry O’Connell – though I do wonder why not use voice talent who are NOT named stars? It’s not as if people are going to watch this based on who is doing the voices.
Once the thing had finished, I was left with the feeling that it was ho-hum. Nothing about it inspired me to write an invective filled Killing Joke-type review, just the sense that nobody was really trying to do anything that required much work. It doesn’t at any time try to pull off a Vertigo-like storyline, just a mostly weak, TV friendly cartoon that’s more like the early seasons of the Batman animated series from the early to mid 90s. With its sprinkling of mild swear words, I wonder who it was intended for, children who don’t really read comics anymore, or the dwindling adult audience. Like Howard Lovecraft, it seems like it was designed by people who never really knew who their target audience should have been from the start.