DC Universe’s Animated Original Movies are something that fans rarely complain about from Warner Bros. Entertainment. They often use them as the standard for the Zack Snyder-led DC filmverse due to their tendency to properly adapt or conversely, subvert comic lore. However, one criticism is that it gets too Justice League-oriented at times, especially focusing on Batman and Superman.
“Justice League Dark,” though, showed just how lesser-known characters could be brought to life with the same kind of appeal, and with an R-rating. It offered a breath of fresh air while still boasting Batman, who was surprisingly used as a peripheral character. This gave it much more room to flesh out the depth of its cast in a rare, full-blown foray into magic. As a result, CBR has decided to dissect why this film conjured a new, bold direction for DC’s animated films.
WARNING: Major spoilers ahead for Justice League Dark and its related comics
15. NO MORE JUSTICE LEAGUE
Many fans were concerned that Batman was tacked on to conjure interest from Justice League lovers, with fears that he would hijack the plot. It was pleasant to see that he didn’t as he was, perhaps not ironically, out of his league when these titans of magic clashed. With Constantine, Zatanna, Etrigan The Demon and Deadman trying to ascertain just what Felix Faust and the retconned villain, Destiny, were up to, Batman took a back seat and allowed it to be a supernatural throwdown.
We’re accustomed to seeing Superman, Wonder Woman and another magical bigwig, Shazam, throwing down with the meanest of mystics, but here, Constantine’s underdog team brought the fire and brimstone. This movie captured the essence of these characters so well and extracted just enough from the comics to craft a story that feels vaguely familiar but with just enough new tinges to paint a clear picture of rogues or anti-heroes, packing a brand of snarky humor, brashness and spell-binding charm. At no point did you crave the League’s big-hitters because “Dark” was a self-contained story with distinct personalities, all of whom were bending the rules to save the world.
14. BALANCED MATURE THEMES
DC’s animation, from the original movies to the Showcase shorts, usually pulls off mature themes fluently and believably, as opposed to their Marvel counterparts. Recently, we’ve gotten more and more in terms of language and sexuality (as seen with their controversial and only other R-rated adaptation, “Batman: The Killing Joke”). However, this movie delicately and more importantly, organically, balances all these adult themes so that neither component gets too heavy-handed.
We saw the romance and sexual tension emerge with Constantine and Zatanna, as well as foul language from heroes such as Green Lantern (John Stewart) and Deadman (while facing a poop monster), but the story was smartly written so that all these scenes had a cheeky humor to them. “Dark” never took itself too seriously, which made these scenes so easy to digest. These notes weren’t forced or done for shock value (like a certain Batgirl-Batman tryst) and felt like the natural progression of characters reacting to a truly otherworldly threat for which they may have been mismatched.
13. STRAYED FROM LORE PROPERLY
“Dark” had a resemblance to the DC supernatural universe from the New 52 in terms of characters, but not so much relating to story. This comic reboot reintroduced Constantine to the mainstream from Vertigo, rejigged Zatanna, thrust Deadman into the limelight once more, and lastly, it had us going green for Swamp Thing. “Dark” took note and incorporated these modern interpretations in a cleverly-hatched plot driven by Destiny, reshaped from a genius inventor to a medieval mystic (a la Marvel’s Dormammu).
What this script showed was that it doesn’t matter if it’s an original story or not, as long as you get the character-driven aspect down right. From the attributes of the protagonists and antagonists, to their intentions and motivations, “Dark” smartly crafted a thoroughly refined, engaging tale that didn’t belong to any comic fully. The idiosyncrasies of the characters were there, but more importantly, their main core, which made the tweaks on the likes of Faust (who was a bit more trickster than usual) most welcome. It didn’t stray from the heart and soul of the cast, which helped this magical treasure haunt harder.
12. OPENED DOOR TO NEW UNIVERSES
DC’s animated movies have always leaned towards the multiverse, we know, whether it’s with mainstream stories or Elseworlds tales, a la “All-Star Superman.” This is because no matter what, these stories include popular Justice League figures. However, as “Dark” showed, something contemporary and fresh is always worth the risk to avoid going stale.
The 2012 series “Before Watchmen” would be a great place to start, nicely complementing Snyder’s “Watchmen” movie. These books focused on the early lives of Rorschach, Doctor Manhattan, Ozymandias and other foundational pillars in Alan Moore’s critically-acclaimed universe, which could also hype its imminent tie-in to DC’s “Rebirth.” Another contender is “WildC.A.T.s,” which is due next month, curated by Warren Ellis as he repurposes the WildStorm universe for DC. Such a movie could go hand in hand with the reintroduction of characters like Voodoo and Grifter to the main DCU. These would be brave new worlds, but ones worth exploring to buck the trends and what’s expected.
11. CROSSOVER POTENTIAL
CW Seed is successfully curating the stories of Vixen and The Ray, while touching on the shared universe of “Arrow” and “The Flash.” While these web shorts pack a lot of punch, they’re just snippets, so imagine if DC decided to do full features like these, connecting to accompanying television shows. Such movies could be crossover events, tie-ins or filler material a la Japanese anime. They can also help bridge the gap or tell stories in between seasons.
Imagine seeing the “Legends of Tomorrow” on another adventure that television alone couldn’t hold, either financially or due to story constraints. Another route could be showing the different universes from “The Flash,” such as the one occupied by his mentor, Jay Garrick, a seasoned veteran. DC’s animated movies can accompany Snyder’s filmverse too, but with so many big studio wheels turning behind the cinematic push, it’s more likely they’ll get to fiddle with properties such as CBS’ “Supergirl.” Who knows, maybe this is the only way we’d see Tyler Hoechin’s Superman with our CW heroes.
10. BIG PLAYERS ARE EXPENDABLE
Usually, there’s a reluctance to kill off big comic book names on film or television, but as seen with “Dark” and animation on the whole, you get the opportunity to do so and move on quickly. Fans were shocked when [SPOILER] Jason Blood (Etrigan’s human host) died here, as well as when Swamp Thing apparently perished when Alec Holland’s corpse was removed from the Green. We witnessed firsthand how unafraid and daring the animated medium could be.
While resurrecting dead characters may also be tricky on film or television, whether due to the plot or to actor contracts and other obligations, in animation there’s only voice work to worry about, so if you wanted that revolving door of death, it’s easily possible to bring them back to life. This can be seen as a copout, of course, even though DC hasn’t really toyed with death much in their movies. As “Dark” showed, the stakes are indeed high, and casualties do occur. This film was approached with a sense of gravity and collateral damage, upping the ante on the usual cartoons we see, making every hero expendable.
9. NO MORE TRINITY
We’ve been overloaded with the DC Trinity for as long as we can remember; from the days when Bruce Timm and Dwayne McDuffie helped engineer the “Justice League” cartoons and associated spinoffs, to the comic books, to (last but not least), Snyder’s filmverse. Outside of the Showcase shorts, DC boasts 27 animated movies and all but two have been Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman or Justice League-related. The exceptions are the Green Lantern flicks, “First Flight” and “Emerald Knights.”
Even “The Flashpoint Paradox” was a breath of fresh air because it was anchored on Barry Allen’s Flash, which goes to show that a change is needed. “Dark” showed that this saturation point was an easy hurdle to overcome, even if the Trinity, as was the case here, was just sprinkled on for decoration’s purposes. While DC’s Showcase seemed to be something to just sate the appetites of the minority fans and keep them quiet, “Dark” proved that such underground or obscure material has a huge fanbase, especially with more people interested in comic properties continue to grow exponentially.
8. BIGGER COMIC EVENTS
“Dark” showed that DC’s animated realm is certainly finished holding back. It felt like the chains were off and this medium was now ready to receive the focus that the filmverse loses as Snyder charts forward with “Justice League.” “Dark” had a lot of chaos and destruction as Destiny fought Swamp Thing and it finally felt like this outlet was ready to embrace big events, even if they came in the most comic-loyal fashion.
The writers clearly got the characters down to a tee so rather than use a subverted, retconned or original script, why not tread on something that’ll be difficult to pull off in cinema due to its sheer magnitude. “Blackest Night” pops to mind because of how many characters are in it, as well as things like “Crisis on Infinite Earths” or “Zero Hour.” It doesn’t need to be an elseworld tale. True-to-the-core DC stories can impact on the new status quo of the animated filmverse, which now has a steady continuity. “Brightest Day” also comes to mind as well as “Trinity War,” because it’s clear they can cover a grand, ambitious scope now.
7. AN AFTERLIFE FOR THE CANCELLED
When we say afterlife, we mean that their stories continue, despite their comics or TV series being cancelled. If anything, this was a great litmus test for Constantine, who lost his NBC series and then dipped his toes in the waters of the Arrowverse. Fans were dying for Matt Ryan to reprise the role full-time on the CW, which didn’t pan out, so when the animated medium offered him this chance, that alone drew fans to “Dark.” Ironically, he too will be back on CW Seed.
While “Dark” may not have had the same Constantine depiction from television, Ryan still embodied his spirit, which, no matter what, will always be more raw and jagged, as opposed to CW Seed. If DC offered him such movies, we could see stories expanded into original tales, like “Dark,” or comic-loyal ones. Either way, after investing in these characters for so long, it’d be nice to wrap their arcs properly with a movie. While Constantine may be covered, we’re still pondering the what if prospect of things like “Smallville” and “Birds of Prey,” which could have immense potential as animated features.
6. ENSEMBLE POSSIBILITIES
“Batman: Assault on Arkham” featured the Suicide Squad at their naughty best, which was the first indication that animation fans were ready for new ensemble casts. It also helped fuel the calls for David Ayer’s movie and reiterated that we were a tad fed up being force-fed that Justice League punch. “Dark” was another breath of fresh air and highlighted that teams who we didn’t think would ever see the light of day, actually had an audience waiting to soak them in.
“Secret Six” is one team, similar to Amanda Waller’s Task Force X, that is up for a rough and tough covert mission, as well as the “Birds of Prey.” They’ve had quite a few lineups, and usually focus around Oracle (ex-Batgirl, Barbara Gordon) in her wheelchair, using the likes of Black Canary and Huntress to combat street-level crime. “Gotham City Sirens” are another team, consisting of Harley Quinn, Catwoman and Poison Ivy, which could get its shot if the planned movie doesn’t pan out. “Red Hood and the Outlaws,” featuring Arsenal and Starfire, is another option that could be just as explosive.
5. DEPTH TO THE JUSTICE LEAGUE
DC’s modern animated films and series usually just throw Justice League rosters at us without much background as to why these persons were recruited. We’re just supposed to believe they exist and kick enough ass to warrant a call-up. “Young Justice” shared insight into the up-and-comers being groomed, but they too had seniors who just showed up with membership. “Dark” broke the mold and displayed why Zatanna and Constantine were recommended by Batman, as they literally saved the world.
Understanding the breadth of these characters would add a lot of value when we see them with the League as we’ll already be emotionally connected to them. “Dark” broke the kind of recruitment ground we saw from Nick Fury in Marvel Studios’ movies, assembling his squad of global protectors. When we saw them team up, we knew what they were about, which was in stark contrast to, say, the Suicide Squad who we were just expected to fall in love with. “Dark” fixed this as it exemplified why the League hires who they do.
4. NEW FACES
Fans rejoiced when “Dark” threw Swamp Thing back into the spotlight after he was revitalized in “Brightest Day.” Seeing him in command of the Green like this, tearing the city down with Destiny, felt like seeing him for the first time as he went crazy with his vine-y power set. Etrigan’s call-up was also most appreciated because we didn’t see him unleashed like this since “Justice League: Unlimited.” Black Orchid also appeared, retconned as a key figure overseeing Constantine’s House of Mystery, in a small but dramatic role.
What these characters show is that it isn’t just about new events, storylines or teams, but fresh faces on the whole. What about Animal Man? Nightwing in Bludhaven? The various Blue Beetles? Time Hunters? The Atom? They may pop up in contemporary cartoons from time to time, but it’s clear there’s an avenue for them after the success of “Dark.” Phantom Stranger and Pandora are other mystical heroes who could be given a shot; the magical realm is something we would definitey like to see more of in the animated sphere.
3. WAND-TO-WAND (NOT HAND-TO-HAND)
The fight sequences of the DC animated universe have always been top shelf; well-choreographed and even giving Japanese anime a run for their money at times — slick, swift and brutal. However, by the time we got to “Batman vs. Robin” and “Batman: Bad Blood,” things started to feel a bit repetitive and bland. While “Dark” does unleash violence and chaos at the end (a la “Man of Steel,” careening through the city with Zod), the movie focused on conjured spells and magic battles similar to Scott Derrickson’s “Doctor Strange.”
It was a fresh approach that still allowed the stakes to be high, splicing in hand-to-hand combat, but not losing the importance of the mystical plane as part of the art of war. The “Dark” team, especially Constantine, were always more about their wiles — apart from, perhaps, Etrigan’s brawls — so to see DC stray away from a lot of power-hitting was refreshing. There’s only so much you can do when it comes to heroes being badass martial artists and using gadgets, after all, and it’s nice to conjure up new ways to battle.
2. NO MORE ORIGINS
“Dark” didn’t need to waste time introducing Constantine and Zatanna, and glossed over the origins of Deadman, Etrigan (both in flashbacks) and Swamp Thing (in conversation), which proved that you don’t need all that backstory if you have the foundation of a solid plot. The same was done for the villain, Destiny. Whether it’s heroes or their counterparts, most comic fans would already know some history of the characters, while non-fans really don’t need all that background material if the direction’s on point.
Given it was a rare foray into DC’s magical realm, we expected exposition into how these characters became like this, but DC was confident enough to let the quest do the talking for itself, and so it did. When DC animation tackled the Court of Owls, for example, a lot of time was taken up with its past and origins, which was necessary, and it illustrates our point here that simplified storytelling, and showing instead of telling, does work better at times. Even if origins are shown or teased for a few scenes, they don’t need to be explained for all of them, even if the characters are a tad obscure.
1. A DOOR TO NEW REALMS
“Dark” painted a comprehensive take on the magical realm, opening the door further for the unexplored or unconventional. This begs the question: why not see what the microverse of the Atom looks like? How about the Source Wall with Metron, the watcher of DC’s universe? Why not deal with the war between the New Gods and Apokolips more fully? There’s more magic or supernatural lore to dive into than that, too, such as Phantom Stranger’s link to Judas, for example.
DC can afford to push the envelope as they pump out more animated volume than Marvel, giving leeway to deviate from the norm of science fights and alien invasions. One property which could be a drastic shift in the status quo is Kamandi, the boy living in a post-apocalyptic world, which draws parallels to Tarzan and Planet of the Apes. Not to mention the fact that DC has Vertigo and now Young Animal to play with in terms of adult-themed, Hollywood-esque properties such as “Y: The Last Man,” “DMZ,” “Fables,” “100 Bullets” and “American Vampire,” proving that there are many genres in DC’s pocket waiting to be cashed in. If anything, “Dark” proved that braver and bolder is a formula that certainly works.
What do you think of DC’s animated direction moving forward? Let us know in the comments!
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