When it comes to comic book-based films, the R-rated train is moving full steam ahead. Fox showed us how successful such modern mainstream superhero movies could be, both critically and financially, through Deadpool and Logan, while lesser-known properties such as Kingsman and Kick-Ass also resonated with mature audiences. We know the Disney-owned Marvel Studios plans to steer clear of rated-R storytelling, but Warner Bros./DC Films is another story. While they pushed the boundaries with Suicide Squad, and there was an R-rated home video version of Batman v Superman, for the most part the DCEU hasn’t pushed its gritty and violent tone to full-on, adult-only levels.
With director Doug Liman’s Justice League Dark, Warner Bros. has the perfect vehicle to change all that, however. After Guillermo del Toro’s initial vision failed to come to fruition, the long in development film roared back to life, presenting Liman with the opportunity to really set the DCEU apart from all the other comics-to-film universes. Frankly, there’s a lot of potential to be found in an R-rated take on the various characters’ DC Comics/Vertigo source material, and approach that would fit, for lack of a better word, a dark story about the things that go bump in the night.
Frankly, the Justice League Dark animated movie provided a great blueprint on how to approach the live-action film. This feature — the DCAU’s second adult-rated outing after The Killing Joke adaptation — illustrated how to blend the Dc Universe’s unique mysticism and heroism with horror. This sort of scare factor has been missing from comic book movies; even though we got the Enchantress go full-on vengeful god in Suicide Squad, there’s no denying that the character’s darker potential was held back for a PG-13 audience. But with JL Dark, the DCEU has a chance to really make moviegoers jump in their seats.
Older franchises like Blade and The Crow brought R-rated suspense to theaters, but by combining that with the dread of 30 Days of Night, JL Dark could prove to be something truly special and unique. Swamp Thing, for example, is a key player in Liman’s plans for the mini-franchise, and watering down his swampy, eerie presence would be quite a travesty. He isn’t Groot, or a Tolkien Ent, nor is he the creature from A Monster Calls — he’s the master of the Green, if given the full R-rated leeway, Liman should be able to do his scare potential justice.
Beyond the presence of Alec Holland’s plant-based alter ego, Liman has a very diverse roster lined up for the film, and it’s of vital importance that they stand out from their more all known counterparts in the Justice League-proper. That’s not to say everyone should be cursing and killing op a storm, of course, but there’s a reason these characters in particular have been chosen to take on the dark, magical underbelly of the DC Universe. John Constantine, for example, has to be more than another Doctor Strange. Though Matt Ryan accurately embodied the character, his NBC and CW appearances followed the footsteps of 2005 Constantine movie, in that it just wasn’t the foul-mouthed Hellblazer we knew from the Vertigo comics. In order to really make Justice League Dark pop on screen, we need a John Constantine who is an unrepentant bar-dwelling, gal-chasing, rule-breaking, British vagabond.
And while we expect Constantine to be the dark heart of the film, the rest of the roster needs some bite as well. Deadman shouldn’t be relegated to being DC’s take on Casper, The Friendly Ghost; he’s dead, man, and should be scary as hell! Etrigan the Demon’s story with Jason Blood is a medieval magical horror show in itself, as their souls were bound due to Merlin’s wizardry. As such, Etrigan needs to be a bloodthirsty monster, and the violence her visits upon those who cross his team’s path needs to be as uncensored as possible.
If treated like her comics counterpart, Zatanna will help balance out the darkness with the light, the one true superhero of the bunch offsetting the devils on the team’s shoulders. In fact, she’s the perfect bridge to bring the Dark team together with their better-known costumed counterparts, and the perfect character to explain why her teammates are good, if only in comparison to the villain they’ll inevitable face. Speaking of which, whether we see the team battle Trigon, Morgaine le Fey, Felix Faust or someone else entirely, as horrific as the hero are, Justice League Dark‘s bad guy needs to be even more disturbing, or else they’ll risk ending up like Doctor Strange‘s Dormammu or Kaecilius.
Director James Mangold crafted an amazing Wolverine story that pulled bits and pieces from comic books like Old Man Logan and X-23, creating a work of art that stands on its own. Though they differ wildly in tone, both Deadpool and Logan were truly about story and characters. With Deadpool 2 in the works, as well as an X-Force spinoff, this trend towards R-rated superhero films is set to continue, and not just from Fox. The upcoming Hellboy reboot has also been announced as planning to take a more “gruesome” direction than the previous films featuring the B.P.R.D.
The R-rated label is hereto stay, whether we’d like to admit it or not. Is it gimmicky? Maybe — but it works. Hollywood is so saturated with family-oriented comic-based content that it’s worth the risk trying for adult themes. Justice League Dark is about wizards, mythical creatures and gigantic monsters wreaking havoc from other dimensions, so why not ride this wave? The box office seems to like it, after all, and if Warner Bros. is planning to send the DCEU in that direction, this is the perfect opportunity to do so.
Produced by Scott Rudin, written by Michael Gilio and directed by Doug Liman, the live action Justice League Dark has yet to been given a release date. However, fans can occupy themselves in the meantime by checking out the DC animated feature of the same name, featuring the same lineup with the addition of the Dark Knight himself, Batman, the film can currently be found on DVD, Blu-ray and VOD.