Justice League Dark: Apokolips War ends on a whimper

DC’s animated films build to a crescendo, but continuity comes before character in this finale. In the end, it’s a hollow victory for the Justice League.

I can’t pretend I wasn’t looking forward to this movie, not for the film itself, but because it promised to be the last in the long line of DC animated flicks operating in a shared universe. Starting in 2014 with Justice League: War (2013 if you count The Flashpoint Paradox), this series of direct-to-video movies has stuck with a shared continuity and art style based on the New 52 comic run, and it has always seemed utterly pointless to me.

First, it’s an ugly art style. Second, the interconnectivity of these films hasn’t gained them anything over the standalone titles. Out of 15 entries, the only ones that have truly stood out are Justice League: The Flashpoint Paradox, The Death of Superman, and the original Justice League Dark. The others have ranged from okay to downright terrible.

Now, we have Justice League Dark: Apokolips War, a movie that promises to cap it off the entire series with a showdown for the ages.

Fed up with past attacks, Superman rallies the Justice League and launches an assault on Darkseid’s home planet of Apokolips. Their goal is simple: destroy the extraterrestrial despot before he causes any more misery.

Unfortunately, it all goes horribly wrong. Most of the costumed crimefighters either are killed or converted into mechanized slaves, and Darkseid retaliates by ravaging the Earth.

Two years later, a newly powerless Superman recruits mystic antihero John Constantine and a ragtag group of other rebels for a shot at redemption. Now that Darkseid’s forces have recovered from the initial attack, he’s sent his colossal machines to siphon energy from the planet’s core. Time is running out for everyone on Earth, so the heroes must seize this last chance to stop their tyrannical enemy once and for all.

That’s a lot to take it, isn’t it? You might have noticed from the synopsis and structure that this film is blatantly trying to be Avengers: Endgame, which immediately raises a red flag for me. For all my gripes about the Avengers flicks, though, at least the creators had the right idea in devoting an entire movie to the defeat and another to the eventual victory. I rarely support this approach, but this should have been two movies in the vein of The Dark Knight Returns. That would have presumably fixed some of the major narrative and character issues here.

The Vengeance League?

Frankly, Superman being gung-ho to wage bloody war on Darkseid doesn’t feel earned. He mentions previous indiscretions, but this is not remotely powerful enough to justify the killer mindset in such an idealistic hero, especially as briefly as it’s delivered. Plus, the fact that the rest of the Justice League is onboard with this plan paints these guys in a pretty unflattering light. We as an audience need to see something drastic right before this decision so that we buy the characters’ frame of mind.

Justice League Dark: Apokolips War. Image courtesy Warner Bros. Home Entertainment

Injustice: Gods Among Us accomplishes this by showing Metropolis in ruins. In this game, the Joker drugs Superman into killing his pregnant wife, whose heartbeat is linked to a nuclear bomb that obliterates millions. As such, we understand why the Justice League installs a totalitarian regime to stamp out their enemies.

Likewise, in Superman: The Animated Series, the Man of Steel’s attitude toward Darkseid came off as more personal and believable. After all, this was the merciless dictator who invaded Earth, killed Superman’s friend, and later brainwashed Superman himself into laying siege to his own adoptive home, effectively destroying the people’s trust in their greatest hero. Imagine if we had an entire film to develop that type of rivalry, one that ended in the Justice League’s crushing defeat and a need for redemption in the follow-up. Not only would this have made the story more palatable, but it also would have let us get to know these heroes more intimately.

Too many crooks in the kitchen

That’s another similarity this flick has with the Marvel movies: there are far too many characters running around. We barely know any of them because they are all fighting for screen time. We’re led to believe that Constantine, Superman, Raven, and Damian Wayne are the primary protagonists, but they are frequently shoved aside so that other characters can have their little moments and establish their relevance. We simply don’t have enough time here to develop all of these people as full-fledged characters. To have any familiarity or investment in them, the creators must have expected us to watch all fifteen films prior to this one.

Justice League Dark: Apokolips War. Image courtesy Warner Bros. Home Entertainment

That would certainly explain the lack of context in its storytelling. If you don’t know anything about Flashpoint, Swamp Thing, the Green Lantern Corps, or any of the other wacky terms in the DC Universe, then this movie will make you feel like a moron. So many concepts and plot threads are incorporated here, introduced briefly or not at all.

The script is just so clumsy in the information that it doles out. It assumes you know all of the storylines that have occurred thus far, and it tries to wave away any confusion or lack of development with bad quips. In short, it’s a mess that tries to trick you into thinking that it’s not.

Is there silvering lining to this misery?

That being said, if you know this universe like the back of your hand, be it from the comics or the other films, then you might get some enjoyment out of this tale. Barring the encyclopedia of lore, the narrative is structured competently enough, with each act flowing neatly into the next. There’s little issue with the pacing here; it remains relatively smooth and steady throughout. That steadiness extends to the stakes, which are organically raised after each narrative beat. As we get closer to the climax, the film definitely conveys the atmosphere of desperation that you’d expect from a last stand.

Justice League Dark: Apokolips War. Image courtesy Warner Bros. Home Entertainment

This makes for some powerful voice work from stars Matt Ryan (Constantine), Jerry O’Connell (Superman), Taissa Farmiga (Raven), and Stuart Allan (Damian), who admirably attempt to pull you in even when the script does not. The rest of the cast do their jobs effectively enough, but that’s not saying much since they’re given little to do in general.

Among the more shameful wastes is Tony Todd, who becomes the latest talented actor to be saddled with a stock, cliched version of Darkseid. It seems like Michael Ironside was the only one ever given any substantive material for this villainous god.

On the upside, the lord of Apokolips does provide plenty of hard-hitting fight scenes. Most of the action is animated well and directed energetically. However, even this aspect comes up short when compared to what we’ve seen before. The hand-to-hand duels don’t quite have the same acrobatic fluidity of the solo Batman flicks, and the super-powered clashes fail to match the impact or intensity of the Doomsday battle in The Death of Superman. That’s a problem when you’re touting this as the grand crescendo to those films.

Final verdict

Every time Justice League Dark: Apokolips War shows its strength, it also reveals a weakness. The script functions well enough in a broad structural sense, but it’s fundamentally flawed in characterization and worldbuilding. Even the unironically accomplished aspects may underwhelm devotees because they’re not as good as we’ve seen before. These elements make the movie a mixed bag: a thoroughly frustrating experience that never lives up to its potential or legacy.

Did you enjoy this filmic finale? Do you think this New 52 universe was worth it? What are some of your favorite DC animated movies?

Justice League Dark: Apokolips War is currently available on digital platforms, such as Amazon and iTunes. It will come to DVD and Blu-ray on May 19.