Studio: WB Animation
Director: Matt Peters, Christina Sotta
Writer: Ernie Altbacker, Mairghread Scott
Producer: Amy McKenna
Stars: Roger R. Cross, Rosario Dawson, Christopher Gorham, Camilla Luddington, Shemar Moore, Jerry O¡¯Connell, Jason O¡¯Mara, Matt Ryan, Stuart Allan, Ray Chase, Taissa Farmiga, Tony Todd, Rebecca Romijn
Two years after Darkseid takes over Earth, Superman assembles a group of heroes to destroy Apokolips and retake the planet.
¡°Justice League Dark: Apokolips War¡± is the last of the animated Justice League movies that began in 2013 with ¡°The Flashpoint Paradox.¡± It¡¯s essentially the ¡°Avengers: Endgame¡± for this phase of WB¡¯s animated DC universe, as future features plan to reboot the cartoon continuity of Superman, Batman, and so on.
But there¡¯s no way to know this unless you¡¯re regularly tuned in to Comic-Con buzz or online comic book news. It¡¯s not like the movie tells you. I didn¡¯t know until I¡¯d already been nonplussed by my viewing, went to write this review, and did a quick Google search to verify a fact. Had I realized ahead of time what its grander goal really was, I might have experienced ¡°Apokolips War¡± through a different lens. Emotions might have invested in the film as a bittersweet swan song for a long library of action and adventure that¡¯s been an important piece of superhero pop culture for seven years.
Instead, I understood ¡°Apokolips War¡± to be a direct sequel to 2017¡¯s ¡°Justice League Dark¡± (review here), which arguably stands as the best entry in this incarnation of animated DC films. In taking it as such, I found ¡°Apokolips War¡± isn¡¯t much of a ¡®Justice League Dark¡¯ story at all, but rather a ¡°dark¡± Justice League movie loosely appropriating the JLD moniker.
¡°Justice League Dark¡± featured Batman more or less mentoring a ragtag team of magic misfits including John Constantine, Swamp Thing, Zatanna, Deadman, and Etrigan the Demon. This time around, Deadman is MIA. Zatanna disappears during the pre-title prologue and Swamp Thing only shows up for one brief scene.
In their place are heavily featured roles for bigger names like Superman, Damian Wayne¡¯s Robin, Harley Quinn and her Suicide Squad, and Raven of the Teen Titans. That¡¯s not unlike a Fantastic Four film keeping Reed Richards but replacing The Thing, Human Torch, and Invisible Woman with Captain America, Wolverine, and Storm. An upgraded roster overhaul can sound cool on the surface. But the appeal of a concept like Justice League Dark is the spotlight shining on cult characters who don¡¯t feature much in many mediums. Giving A-listers prominent parts completely alters the quirky B-team dynamic.
The plot takes eight minutes of setup to establish the initial situation. Two years ago, Superman led a failed assault on Apokolips that resulted in Darkseid subjugating Earth and either murdering multiple superheroes or turning them into cybernetic slaves. (Superman is so oddly insistent about this preemptive attack that I suspected we¡¯d find out he was an imposter or otherwise influenced in some way. That¡¯s not the case.) Batman now serves as Darkseid¡¯s mind-molded acolyte. Big Blue has been depowered by liquid kryptonite coursing through his veins.
It¡¯s unclear what all went on during the unseen 24 months, other than a lot of heroes uncharacteristically losing hope and giving up to lead lives mired in depression and alcohol, but Superman finally has a plan to retake the planet. It involves using the Caped Crusader¡¯s son to break Batman¡¯s brainwashing and he needs Constantine¡¯s spell-casting to help locate Robin. Thus begins a long connect-the-dots game as everyone goes from one location to another collecting more teammates to participate in the plan.
The master scheme involves destroying reaper towers mining magma from the Earth¡¯s core, infiltrating Lexcorp in Metropolis to use its boom tube for interplanetary transportation, and annihilating the power generator on Apokolips. Darkseid isn¡¯t much of a villainous presence since he disappears mid-movie to destroy Oa and the Green Lantern Corps. In his place, the heroes have to deal with his paradooms, which are Apokolips shock troops enhanced by Doomsday¡¯s DNA.
So many scenes are required to explain what everything is while outlining what needs to happen that ¡°Apokolips War¡± comes to frequent standstills for exposition. When action sequences factor in, they too feel like pauses since they merely present temporary obstacles that aren¡¯t organic to plot development.
For instance, when Raven teleports Superman¡¯s crew to Robin¡¯s location, they end up in a fight with League of Assassins ninjas. Robin stops the conflict when he sees who¡¯s arrived, rendering the battle pointless for anything other than empty spectacle. A similar circumstance comes from a brief boxing bout between Lois Lane and Harley Quinn, which only exists to explain why Harley agrees to aid the good guys.
This extensive groundwork basically creates a sandbox where the filmmakers can melt, disfigure, or destroy DC characters like a kid putting an action figure collection through the wringer. That¡¯s by design given how WB Animation wants this phase of the franchise to go out in a dramatic extinction event. As indicated earlier though, without awareness of what they had in mind, the hectic hullaballoo rings hollow. Tons of characters like Cheetah, Black Manta, Batwoman, Bane, and countless more make cameos, yet none of them speak and many of them don¡¯t do much more than throw one punch in a quick cutaway.
If you want to see Superboy¡¯s neck snap, Nightwing take a sword through his heart, Shazam have his eye torn out, or Aquaman emit a death scream, ¡°Apokolips War¡± offers all those massacres and more. It¡¯s pretty thin on resonant shocks however. The movie always reads as an alternate universe tale whose stakes don¡¯t matter much because you know the heroes will find a way to reset reality in the end.
I¡¯m not normally one to say, ¡°if only they¡¯d called it something else¡¡± Except in this case, the ¡°Justice League Dark¡± tag implies something ¡°Apokolips War¡± isn¡¯t. It¡¯s got what¡¯s left of the Justice League. It¡¯s definitely dark. But that¡¯s not the same thing.
As a JLD film, ¡°Justice League Dark: Apokolips War¡¯s¡± lack of specificity to the first half of its title as well as its ¡°what if?¡± nature make for middling entertainment. As an exclamation point sending a beloved series into the sunset, the film fares decidedly better. Hopefully viewers understand that distinction going into the film so they can come out appreciating it as the latter instead of being flummoxed by the former.
Review Score: 60