In November 2012, rumors started buzzing around a superhero team few had ever heard about. The suggestion was that Guillermo Del Toro (Blade II, Hellboy, Pacific Rim) was working on a new film entitled Heaven Sent. The film, set in the DC Universe, would shine a light on characters less familiar to movie audiences. The main fixtures of the movie would include John Constantine, Swamp Thing, Zatanna, and Etrigan the Demon. These characters, and their teammates, would make up the Justice League Dark.
Fans of DC comics got an update on the project in January 2013. When Del Toro was at WonderCon publicizing Pacific Rim. When asked, he confirmed that the project was moving forward. In fact, it was entering the writing phase and would begin production immediately following the release of Crimson Peak. Del Toro also revealed a litany of other characters who would appear in the film.
In the following months and years Del Toro let details continue to trickle out. He said that he was looking forward to incorporating his film into the DCEU. He said that he had submitted the script to Warner Brothers. He revealed that Doug Liman (The Bourne Identity, Edge of Tomorrow) had signed on to direct. He confirmed that the title was Dark Universe.
In 2009, Warner Bros. had announced that they were beginning pre-production on Suicide Squad. The film went more or less silent for four years.
In July 2013, DC Comics announced a new animated feature: Batman: Assault on Arkham. Based in the universe of the Arkham video games, the film would pull on many well known voice actors, directors, and writers. The franchise had alluded to a Suicide Squad before in 2013’s Arkham Origins. The movie promised answers to the questions video game fans had about the Squad.
And it delivered. The Suicide Squad, led by Deadshot and Harley Quinn, went on a mission for Amanda Waller to stop The Riddler. The Squad managed to complete their mission while dodging a series of attacks from enemies like The Joker. The film received mix positive reviews from critics but was lauded by fans.
Then, in September 2014, WB announced that David Ayers would direct Suicide Squad. The job was reportedly difficult for Ayer because he had been given the unenviable task of writing the script in six weeks. Ayer found himself in the tricky schedule because WB had already locked in the release date.
The script ended up being remarkably like the animated Assault on Arkham which had come before. Harley, Deadshot, Captain Boomerang? Check. Joker? Check. Batman cameo? Check. King Shark? Well, no. But there was a massive man-beast character in the lineup. Altogether there were few differences between Suicide Squad and Assault on Arkham.
Taking that story into account, the story of Dark Universe has taken an interesting turn. DC Entertainment and Warner Bros. Animation released Justice League Dark on DVD today. Featuring John Constantine, Swamp Thing, Zatanna, and Etrigan the Demon, the film matches Del Toro’s description of Dark Universe almost perfectly.
And, boy, is it perfect. The movie itself is a captivating and exciting look at DC’s Dark Universe. The characters who populate the movie are complex. The situations they find themselves in are difficult to find a way out of. The villains are complicated. The film is one more example of WB’s animation out preforming the live-action side.
The film opens with the members of the Justice League baffled. A pattern of crimes is breaking out across the country. Normal, everyday people are seeing those around them as demons. Their terror overcomes them so much they hurt, or even kill, innocent people who they think are demons.
Looking for answers, Batman goes to find Constantine. In that search he joins up with Deadman and Zatanna as well. The group stumbles into a few other noteworthy members of DC’s Dark Universe. They run across Jason Blood, who transforms into Etrigan the Demon. They temporarily join up with Swamp Thing. The group goes toe-to-toe with Felix Faust and Destiny. Spells fly, curses are thrown, and portal to other dimensions are opened. Eventually, the world is saved.
Another advantage of the film is that it is one of the few times in recent memory that DC’s “grim-dark” approach worked. The movie has a dower tone, especially for an animated movie. But the feel isn’t forced. It complements the characters and their stories. The film is neither macabre nor maudlin in its delivery. It is fun when it can be, and it respects the fiction of the characters whose story it tells. It is wonderful.
Moving forward, the question will be how much this film is a precursor to Del Toro’s Dark Universe. Where Assault on Arkham was a precursor to Suicide Squad, it was only in the most vague ways. The films shared a roster of characters but none of the swash-buckling excitement that made the first one so much fun.
Del Toro’s Dark Universe has been in production for much longer than Suicide Squad ever was. The movie has been in the writing stage for four years, rather than six weeks. If there is any connection between the two movies, it is most likely that WB is feeling for the interest around Dark Universe. But the studio has had a hard time keeping their hands off of big projects before. It is hard to imagine that after a track record of studio tampering, this will be the movie they learn restraint on.
Regardless of what happens with Del Toro’s Dark Universe, Justice League Dark is astounding. DC’s animated wing has put out some amazing movies in recent years, but this one is a high water mark. The only fault is the insistence by the studio that Batman be in any movie they’re unsure about selling.
Even with the awkward shoe-horning in of Bruce Wayne’s alter ego, the movie tracks wonderfully from start to finish. The R rated action-adventure film is everything we want DC to deliver on the big screen. And whether they are ever able to or not, they always put out high-quality animated material.
Justice League Dark, from Warner Bros. is available on DVD and Digital Download.