Maybe it’s just a general sense that dark magic, weird mysticism, and twisted fantasy are subject matters that fascinate me, but Justice League Dark is one hell of a fun ride. Here is a film that dives into a niche group of characters and gives them a chance to shine. Yes, some of that shine is only possible because of an unnecessarily shoehorned Batman, but if everyone in the production felt he was required in order to make and sell it, then I can forgive it. After all, we got a film that features Deadman, Zatanna, and Constantine fighting an ancient evil, and that is worth a lot for me.
Not everything works entirely. Despite his prominent placement on the artwork Swamp Thing is a mere glorified cameo reduced to two scenes, but that second one is a dozy. While fighting the big bad demonic presence at the end, Swamp Thing barrels in with twisting and swirling vines and Venus flytrap-like tendrils on the attack. And Etrigan the Demon, and Jason Blood by extension, plays a larger role, but he still feels underused and awkwardly deployed. If nothing else, Etrigan’s origin story provides a perfect avenue to maybe get a Demon Knights film up and running. (How is THAT for a fringe property? I love it.)
I still maintain for all of my immense enjoyment of Justice League Dark that time would have been better served removing him from the narrative and redistributing it to Swamp Thing, Etrigan, explaining to non-obsessives just who the Demons Three, maybe giving Black Orchid more of a personality, and really diving into the mythology. A one-and-done Justice League Dark film is not for me. I demand a series of these things. If a brat like Damian Wayne can get a full-fledged trilogy, then give John Constantine’s sardonic, chain-smoking magic wielding presence a chance to explore the worlds of I, Vampire and his own rich mythology.
But that is everything that Justice League Dark does not do well, and everything else it excels at. Constantine’s a fun presence to spend time with, and he works well with Zatanna and Deadman acting as foils for his more brazen zingers. For characters that are so tortured in their histories, this league is a lot more fun to spend time with then the major league players. They joke, they have believably lived-in pasts and tensions within the group dynamic. Much credit goes to Matt Ryan’s vocal work as John Constantine which fits the character like a glove.
The past few years have not been kind to female characters in the DC Universe Animated Original Movies. Justice League Dark has it at a 50/50 split with Zatanna feeling like a fully realized character and Black Orchid just kinda…being there. After Constantine, Zatanna is clearly the leading presence here. If Constantine is the de facto leader then she’s the bruised heart and soul of the team. She also gets several stellar action scenes where she witness just how formidable she is as a magic user. Camilla Luddington’s vocal work cannot go without praise as the character feels nearly impossible to imagine working without the textures and range she brings to it.
In the end, Justice League Dark works so well because it’s briskly paced, unafraid of going dark or completely bonkers, and presents us with a group of characters that are more colorful then some of the big leaguers. Is this one of the best of the DC Universe Animated Original Movies? I would argue that yes, it is, flaws and all. Batman sells, and if his presence introduces more people to characters like Deadman, Etrigan the Demon, Felix Faust, and Black Orchid, then all is forgiven.