Violent murders committed by people hallucinating demons alert the Justice League who conclude that magic is responsible. Following a message left at Wayne Manor, a skeptical Batman (voiced by Jason O'Mara) reaches out to his old ally Zatanna (Camilla Luddington). She leads him to the right man to solve this supernatural mystery, surly exorcist John Constantine (Matt Ryan) with whom she has a failed romantic history. Aided by spectral avenger Boston Brand a.k.a. Deadman (Nicholas Turturro) and an array of paranormal misfit heroes along the way, the team unravel an evil plot that hides some uncomfortable truths for Constantine.
First announced as a live action DC movie from Guillermo Del Toro, Justice League Dark finally arrived on VOD as an animated feature from veteran Jay Oliva. Despite shoehorning Batman into a supporting role as a shameless sales boost, the plot focuses primarily on DC's lesser known roster of winningly weirder characters. Including fan-favourites Zatanna and John Constantine, with Matt Ryan reprising his wholly authentic portrayal of the cynical anti-hero from DC's short-lived if much loved live-action television show. Plus impressive renditions of such hard to translate to live-action characters as Deadman, Swamp Thing (Roger Cross), Jason Blood/Etrigan the Demon (Ray Chase) and Black Orchid (Colleen Villard). Dusty Abell's sharp, angular character designs prove an odd fit for Wonder Woman and Superman - both of whose cameos are so brief one wonders why they bothered hiring top talent like Rosario Dawson and Jerry O'Connell - but otherwise serve the supernatural strangeness of the main players quite splendidly.
The script, penned by animation veteran Ernie Altbacker with story input from legendary comics scribe J.M. DeMatteis, interweaves origin stories for both Deadman and the Demon into a plot that while somewhat rote otherwise deftly deals with two key themes. Heroes whose past misdeeds come back to haunt them and how loving relationships keep them from being overwhelmed by their darker sides. As echoed in the subtle softening in John Constantine's demeanour throughout the story. Especially winning is a set-piece battle wherein Zatanna, one of the most vibrant yet too often frustratingly sidelined characters in DC comics, proves why she could be the most powerful magic user in their universe were she not selflessly driven to making people happy with lighthearted parlour tricks. Zatanna fans may have mixed feelings about the downplaying of her romantic feelings for Batman, as established in her animated outings by Paul Dini and Bruce Timm, in favour of a relationship with Constantine that, although true to the comics, is more one-sided and problematic with the latter doubling as a strong male mentor. Nevertheless the film uses Batman to nice fish-out-of-water effect, unusually leaving the dark knight detective clueless half the time, though he naturally identifies the mystery villain ahead of everyone else and memorably demonstrates to Constantine the value of a grappling hook. Also worth savouring is the moment Batman literally says 'Boo!' to a ghost, proving he is just as intimidating to demons.
Mixing horror, superheroics, streetwise cynicism and casual weirdness, Justice League Dark takes a valiant stab at capturing the unique tone of DC's Vertigo line of mature audience comic books from the Nineties. With a nice line in snarky dialogue that favours Constantine in particular and welcome nods to old DC supernatural lore like appearances from the House of Mystery and evil wizard Felix Faust (Veronica Mars star Enrico Colantoni). The latter proves a formidable foe lobbing lethal spells and misogynistic one-liners at Zatanna which makes her inevitable comebacks that much sweeter. Visually this lacks the cinematic bravura of Batman: The Animated Series (still the high watermark for all animated superhero outings) but does deliver several standout set-pieces. Unsuitable for younger viewers weaned on the already sophisticated Timm-Dini shows, the film edges in a more mature direction opening with scenes of relatively grisly violence (a hit-and-run driver, a man slaughtering his family, a woman attempting to fling her baby off a building). On the other hand the occasional profane barbs come across as rather juvenile attempts at seeming edgy. And yes, John Constantine calls someone a "wanker."