Thursday, 16 February 2017

Film Review - 'Justice League Dark'

Over the past few years, DC have managed to put out an increasingly impressive number of its own original animated films, based on its comic-book universe. These films have, naturally enough, tended to vary somewhat in quality – with some truly fantastic films mixed in with others that weren't quite as impressive. Notably, though, while some of DC's animated films did turn out to be a little average, none have been truly terrible (which effectively sets these films apart from DC's current attempts at creating a cinematic universe).

While this ever-increasing selection of original animated content has attempted to cover many different facets of DC's complex comic-book universe, the one thing that so many have had in common is that they have devoted themselves, largely, to a retelling of popular stories, based around familiar characters. With Justice League Dark, however, we have a film that is clearly set on exploring some of the stranger aspects of the DC Universe, with a story based around some of its more obscure characters.

The basic premise of the film is straightforward enough, of course. When ordinary civilians begin lashing out at the people around them, the Justice League leap into action – only to find themselves confused and horrified by the terrible acts of violence they observe. Wonder Woman rushes to stop a woman speeding down the street in her car, but is unable to save the innocent bystanders that she seems set on running down. Superman is just in time to prevent a man's murder of his wife and children, only to discover that he has already killed his neighbours. And, Batman is only just able to save a new-born baby from a young mother seemingly intent on killing her, but is unable to prevent the mother, herself, from committing suicide. In each case, though, those responsible for these horrific acts see themselves as desperately fighting back at demonic creatures that surround them – as some form of dark magic traps them in a terrifying hallucination. Not only that, but instances of similar violence seem to be taking place all over the world.

It is a genuinely fantastic sequence, which does a great job not only of setting the stakes for the heroes, but also of firmly establishing the overall darker and more serious tone of the film, itself. By the time that Batman, who seems strangely contemptuous of the idea of magical involvement, finds himself slowly drawn into the realm of the supernatural Justice League Dark has already managed to get itself off to a great start.

Of course, with a story so deeply immersed in the magical side of the DC universe, the question that many in the audience might have is exactly why Batman needs to be there, at all – especially when there are other character who could have easily served as the film's primary protagonist. Well, from a purely practical point of view, Batman's presence throughout the film actually makes perfect sense. As someone with so little knowledge, or direct experience, with magic, Batman quickly comes to represent the audience's entry-point into this all of this strangeness. He is the one who needs to have the more unusual details of magic in the DC universe explained to him (which, of course, allows for those same points to be explained to the audience in a way that feels natural). Along with that, of course, there is also the fact that he is still Batman – the most popular, and well-recognised, character of DC's wildly varied cast of heroes and villains. So, he is clearly intended to act as an entry-point for the audience in that capacity, also.

In the end, though, the most important thing that can be said about Batman's presence in the film is that he doesn't actually get in the way. He doesn't detract from the rest of the cast in any meaningful way – and, he doesn't undermine them, or push them out of the spotlight. While his unique set of skills means that he is fair from useless, he is also clearly there in a more supportive capacity – with the film even managing to have a bit of fun with his stubborn refusal to admit that he might actually be in over his head, here.

Alongside Batman, the film features a cast that includes popular, though perhaps not as instantly recognisable, characters such as the occult con-man John Constantine and the stage magician (with access to real magic) Zatanna. Apart from Batman, these are the two who quickly come to serve as the true heart of the film – with Constantine, in particular, quickly taking on the role as the main driving force behind the group's investigation. With some fantastic voice-work by Matt Ryan and Camilla Luddington, respectively, it is these two who seem to go through the most satisfying character-arc throughout the film – with hints of a complicated romantic history between the two being all that is really required to sell the very obvious tension that currently exists between them, and which they are slowly able to work through as the film progresses.

Unfortunately, though, the focus on these three central figures does seem to come at the expense of some of the supporting cast. The former trapeze artist turned wandering spirit Boston Brand (Nicholas Turturro) is clearly intended as more of a comic-relief character – so, the comparative lack of focus doesn't actually seem to hurt him all that much.

On the other hand, when we learn that the film's ultimate villain is one intimately tied to the immortal knight, Jason Blood, and the rhyme-speaking demon, Etrigan, to whom he is intimately bound, it begins to feel as though these two characters should have played a much large role in the film than they were permitted to. Each voiced by Ray Chase, these two figures offer up what would have to be the film's most fascinating back-story, and its most compelling character-arc throughout the film. So, it definitely feels like a bit of a missed opportunity that the film couldn't find the time to explore any of this in greater detail.

Other seemingly important characters receive even less focus, though – with the mysterious Swamp Thing (Roger Cross) only appearing in a couple of scenes, and his own complex back-story only barely hinted at. As fascinating as the character is, there was probably no real reason for Swamp Thing to appear in the film, beyond the fact that the film's writer decided that he should. As great as his action contribution to the film's final action sequence was, Swamp Thing is probably the one character I felt could have been cut from the film, entirely, without hurting the narrative. Of all of the cast, though, none frustrate me quite as much as the film's take on Black Orchid.

Now, I suppose I should admit, up-front, that I'm actually not all that familiar with the character's broader comic-book history – so, perhaps, my frustration is somewhat unjustified. But, I have read Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean's very impressive Black Orchid mini-series, from back in the 1980's, at least – so, I do feel like I know enough to be disappointed with the way she is used in the film. My main issue, I think, is with the fact that the character we meet, here, is really just Black Orchid in name only (and, to be honest, I can't even recall if she was ever actually referred to, by name, in the film). Instead of the nature-based super-hero she usually is, this version of Black Orchid is presented as the magic of John Constantine's 'House of Mysteries' choosing to take on 'human' form – an interesting enough idea, sure, but very much not the Black Orchid that fans of the comics might be familiar with. To make matters worse, though, there is also the fact that, even in this new form, Black Orchid is left as a bland and underdeveloped character not permitted to make any real contribution to the film – which left me wondering why the film-makers' even bothered using an established name.

Despite all of that, though, Justice League Dark is also, quite often, a genuinely exciting film. It is a film which features some incredibly creative action sequences, which fully make the most of the cast's varied abilities. It is, also, a film which features a truly great cast, who each give a fantastic performance in their respective roles – even if those roles might seem somewhat underutilised. There is, genuinely, a lot to enjoy about Justice League Dark – with the film serving as a great introduction to the magical side of the DC universe, and the fantastically strange characters who lurk there.

I have no idea of there are any plans for a follow-up film, of course – but, based on the quality of this film, I sincerely hope that this will prove to be the cast.

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