A dark and brutal conclusion to DC’s animated continuity that somehow manages to respectably pay off 15 movies.
This review of Justice League Dark: Apokolips War is spoiler-free.
You’d be forgiven for not realizing that DC’s animated movie universe was coming to an end, or indeed that there was even a shared continuity, to begin with. It started way back with Justice League: The Flashpoint Paradox, and Justice League Dark: Apokolips War is the – *checks Google* – 15th of them, but it’s the – *checks Google again* – 38th overall in the catalog since they still release non-canon ones all the time. The shared universe is the one set in the New 52 timeline with the edgier attitude and Superman’s turtleneck costume. Do you know the one? Well, it hardly matters. With this film, it has ended.
That means that Justice League Dark: Apokolips War has both an unwieldy title and an unwieldy set of responsibilities. It needs to be a big continuity-busting climax with real stakes and story beats and set-pieces, it needs to sort-of pay homage to Geoff Johns and Jason Fabok’s Justice League: The Darkseid War, even though it only really maintains a high-level conceptual relationship to it, it needs to leaven its nutty superhero action with grounded emotional realism, and it needs to work as a sequel to fifteen prior movies, putting its dextrous fingers to work in tying knots in God-knows-how-many story threads left dangling in everything from Reign of the Supermen to the Teen Titans movies.
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You’ll be surprised, I think, quite how well all of these objectives are met here. A faithful adaptation this is not, obviously, since there was really no way it could have been. But in the spirit of balls-to-the-wall crossover climaxes, this film makes quite a case for itself. It goes in some interesting directions and does some ballsy things with characters and continuity, and it functions, by and large, as a real conclusion. If you’ve watched and enjoyed the movies in this timeline for the last few years, then I reckon Justice League Dark: Apokolips War will satisfy as a kind of steroidal payoff to them all. If you’ve watched and not enjoyed them, then all the inherent flaws of the source material, the tone, the aesthetic, and the on-going story structure will be brought into starker relief. And if you haven’t watched them, you likely won’t have the foggiest idea what’s going on or why your favorite DC superheroes are getting their arms ripped off.
Yes, Apokolips War takes the idea of playing with DC’s toys as a mandate rather than a suggestion, and plays with them as vigorously and often violently as possible. The New 52 itself often embodied this edgy overhaul, so it’s no surprise, and these films have always rejoiced in their slightly off-brand characterizations and proudly R-rated violence. What might be off-putting to some is how pointless some of that violence feels here, existing really for its own sake, but there’s still an oddly subversive pleasure in it, like hearing a Care Bear curse or something. Besides, Apokolips War – which sees Earth’s mightiest heroes rallying to take care of Darkseid once and for all – is dark, violent material. Everyone treating it as a lark would have undermined it.
I say “everyone”, which is another idea that this film takes as a challenge. You can expect to see virtually any character who has appeared in this universe before to make at least a cameo here, but the busy script by Ernie Altbacker and Mairghread Scott wisely maintains focus on just a handful. John Constantine (Matt Ryan) mostly drives the plot, and his arc feels fullest, but Superman (Jerry O’Connell) and Raven (Taissa Farmiga) get plenty to do, while this canon’s fascination with Robin (Stuart Allan) persists. He even gets a pretty strong payoff to his on-going relationship with Jason O’Mara’s Batman, so at least all the focus on him over the years actually amounted to something.
That idea of amounting to something is pretty integral to Justice League Dark: Apokolips War, and I’m happy to say that, messy as it is, it does amount to a decent and surprisingly resonant finale. With a proper 90-minute runtime to give equal weight to its various and often competing obligations, this is as full as any of these films have felt. For the most part, what’s there matters, providing a decent if rather abrupt ending to several years of storytelling. If you came looking for a payoff to all that has come before, you might just find it. And if you weren’t, well… at least you’ll see DC’s icons get their arms pulled off – among other things.