Justice League Dark: Apokolips War
"Justice League Dark: Apokolips War" is the grand yet bittersweet finale to the movie continuity that was started in the finale of "Justice League: The Flashpoint Paradox" and began in full in the 2014 title "Justice League: War" on the DC Universe line of direct to video animated movies. Going along with Superman's urging, the Justice League mounts a preemptive strike against Darkseid on his planet Apokolips but it goes sideways in the worst possible ways and sets Earth on the path to certain global catastrophe. All that stands in the way is a ragtag band of former heroes and rogues. And a shark.
"Justice League Dark: Apokolips War" weaves the interpersonal relationships between several of the recurring characters together through the themes of burden and choices and love and hope. Constantine is the atypical hard luck case of the DC world and it's no different in this canon. Over the years, his arrogance has doomed innocent lives, he's lost his friends in battle because of choices and compromises he made for the greater good, killed friends who've turned on him, sacrificed the bond with a childhood friend and his memories... and now in Apokolips War, he has no say in a choice made by Batman and Zatanna to make him the ace in the hole in case plan A goes to hell. And that choice leads to Constantine watching the love of his life, Zatanna, being torn to shreds in agonizing pain, while a spell cast on him robs him of the ability to save her and instead he's compelled to run away and teleport back to Earth. Damned if he makes the choice, damned if he doesn't make the choice. Constantine spends the next two years on a bender, drifting back to his old ways of sexual promiscuity and alcoholism, with the nagging unanswered question of why he ran away. To his chagrin, destiny pulls him back into the fray and despite his complaining - Constantine is the one who makes all the crucial choices that turn the tide: locating Damian, using the Lasso of Truth on Wonder Woman, hacking Cyborg, weaponizing Trigon, and convincing Flash to change the timeline again.
Superman, as one of the leaders of the Justice League, has to juggle being a leader and keeping the world safe. In the wake of Darkseid's first invasion of Earth and Darkseid's failed attempt to assassinate him with Doomsday then invade through Cyborg Superman, Superman feels strongly and is justified that the proactive approach is the only choice left and they have to conduct a surgical strike and put down Darkseid. Or is he being too emotional and making it personal, a very human thing to do. The mission is a total failure. And to rub it in, Superman is spared but injected with liquid Kryptonite so that he is essentially powerless and can no longer do anything to protect his adopted home world or love of his life, Lois Lane. Yet, on the flip side, Lois proves in adversity that she is a capable leader who doesn't need to be sheltered and stronger in spirit and resolve than he ever could be. Without Lois, Superman would never have had a second chance at stopping Darkseid.
Raven has long shouldered the responsibility of preventing her father Trigon from devastating and conquering the planet even at the cost of her physical and mental health and acknowledging her true feelings for Damian Wayne. Raven is one of the few survivors of the Teen Titans after Darkseid's new soldiers, the Paradooms, massacres the team. Fearing for Damian's life if Trigon ever got free, Raven makes the hard choice to live alone but hits rock bottom and almost takes her own life if not for Superman's intervention. However, destiny brings Raven and Damian together again and they learn they feel the same way for each other but both are still weighed by the responsibility towards their fathers. Damian saw the strike mission failing from the start and knows with clarity the Justice League aren't killers and don't have what it takes to put down a galactic tyrant but he makes the choice not to voice his disagreement because Nightwing convinces him war always has risks. And as a result, Damian loses his father Batman who is brainwashed by Darkseid, most of the Teen Titans are murdered, Raven turns away from him and he was no idea why, and his attempt to save Nightwing's life with the Lazarus Pit works but leaves his surrogate brother insane. Ultimately, in all the dark times, love is still there. Batman's personal loss and love for his son Damian is ultimately stronger than any kind of brainwashing and he is restored to normal but Damian takes the bullet and shields Batman from Darkseid's omega beams. And when Raven is finally relieved of her burden, she tells the dead Damian she loves him and then her magic revives Damian to full health.
The reveal that magic is the only silver bullet they have left to fire at Darkseid is the perfect choice to convey hope is on its last legs but in the end is able to pierce the most insurmountable of situations. Previously established in previous movies like "Justice League Dark" and "Constantine: City of Demons," magic is the poster child for the chaotic and volatile nature of life itself. Use magic to gain the desired outcome but at an awful and terrible price. If she were at 100 percent, Raven could have been the trump card but she is on her last legs because of the toll it takes to keep Trigon imprisoned. To make matters worse, the only pinch hitter left to help them is Constantine who let's just say has the Chicago Cubs of track records when it comes to saving the day with magic. Then to make matters worse, their choice to be the closer is Trigon himself. Luckily, despite the twists that ensure, the enmity one conqueror has for another conqueror can't be shrugged off. But it's not to say that magic is completely like trying to bathe a cat. Constantine is able to use the old magic flowing in the Lasso of Truth to free Wonder Woman from brain washing, brilliant idea whoever thought of it by the way, which in turn gives his team the window to infiltrate Darkseid's citadel then later Constantine uses a techno-magic spell to liberate Cyborg, who is the key to final blow destroying Darkseid and Apokolips. Or Raven acknowledging her love for Damian is what saves him from very certain death and one of the most horrifying ways to go in the DC universe. But don't expect Robin to be stopping bullets with his mind or seeing people as streams of computer code.
One of the strengths of the movie that I loved was it drew on the past six years of movies for references and nods and bringing many arcs to their end but it wasn't a reference party shilling out as many hat tips and then some. Like how some of the early movies "Justice League: War" or "Justice League: Throne of Atlantis" subtly showed how the new timeline diverged from the events seen in "Justice League: The Flashpoint Paradox" such as Atlantis invading Metropolis instead of Paris or Orm stabbing Cyborg with the Trident instead of Aquaman, Apokolips War also plays on those differences and parallels. I especially dug when Shazam is shown to bear facial scarring and a lost eye like Captain Thunder. Or the global catastrophe was the result of Apokolips instead of a world war between Atlantis and Themyscira. Wonder Woman still ending up as an adversarial presence. And of course, to see Flashpoint Paradox revisited and be "revealed" to Constantine was a pleasant twist. There is also lot of full circle moments that are built in naturally and not shoehorned for the sake of it. Like with his dying words, Robin repeats the "Justice, not vengeance" mantra he was given in "Batman vs. Robin". The first and arguably only genuine father-daughter moment between Trigon and Raven in the finale was unexpected and oddly touching. And of course, the ending. Some might see it as a waste and all the movies, in the end, don't matter. But there's something beautiful about producer James Tucker being able to definitely end another long running project. What seems like ages ago, he did the same kind of end of universe fade to white on Batman: The Brave and The Bold. Granted, it got a brief second life when a DTV came to be years later. But still, a continuity getting to end on its own terms is a rare and always moving occurrence.
For a movie that gets grim and nihilistic, there was still some good old fashioned humor. I loved (and was relieved) the comedic beat of Captain Boomerang and Constantine getting under each other's skin. And one of the lone new characters, King Shark is treated as a cipher only saying one line throughout the movie only to say something different and poignant in his last moments. All to Boomerang's chagrin. Well played! Easy to play it off as a Groot nod, but it actually took me back to the trope of the stoic and loyal warrior only speaking when it's to say something meaningful. And that silent scary guy in "Gone In Sixty Seconds" with Nicholas Cage and Angelina Jolie. It might be just me but I loved mopey Etrigan and how charmed he was with Damian. And while it's natural to see broad strokes of Avengers: Infinity War and Endgame in Apokolips War, I dug the similarity the ending had with Thor: Ragnarok with Trigon in Surtur's role helping bring about the end of Apokolips in place of Asgard. And a nice irony, Trigon also marks the end of certain gods, too. I loved Wonder Woman's shield nod to Captain America when she takes on the other Furies or the Hulk walloping Loki nod. And all those villain cameos at Stryker's Island, some more blink and miss than others like Toymaster, Giganta, Weather Wizard and Metallo. But I think my favorite easter egg was probably the Mobius Chair's attack protocol being named Alpha-Red. Pretty sure that was a Batman: The Brave and the Bold nod to the Batman of Zur En Arrh's robot butler Alfred equivalent in "The Super-Batman of Planet X!"
There's not getting around it or sweeping it under the rug about this movie's rating. It's rated R and it has some of the most graphic violence yet in DC animation. No matter how much the story and themes are liked by audience, the violence is likely going to turn a lot of people off. And maybe it's an uphill battle to convince the naysayers, but the point of the violence wasn't just to be over the top and take it as far as the executives would allow because it was the finale. The violence is there as a function of the heroes. Those are the stakes of this story. It shows that even when the darkest and most terrible things happen to them, the surviving heroes, even in the face of adversity, losing it all and everything being turned against them, will not turn away and will make the right choice to save the world even though they failed before and it could well be done at the cost of their own lives.
The "less is more" approach to revealing how the failed mission went will also likely be a moot point. On one hand, the sudden 2 year skip after the mission hardly began then learning the horrific details as the movie moves along leaves a lot to be desired. Some might see it as a lazy storytelling tool or a cheap way to fit the run time. Sure, we saw how Thanos won and did the Snap. There wasn't some 5 year skip to right before Thanos inserts the last Infinity Stone. On the other hand, if the failed mission played out in linear fashion it ran the risk of being the big opening action scene that ran 20 minutes too long then the final battle at the end of the movie would have lacked some omph. The audience would just want it to end already. The movie has to strike that right balance of action, narrative, and execution. If it were up to me as the armchair editor, the only changes I would really make are minute but would help the flow of pre-title to the post-title narrative. Instead of ending the failed mission on the Paradooms crashing into the Javelin, I think it would be better received and coherent if it ended on Zatanna and Constantine. Bring that scene of Zatanna's death up. Take the camera to Constantine's POV, he's disoriented and trying to stand amid the wreckage, then cut to the part of Zatanna dying and Constantine standing there in shock. Maybe even throw in Zatanna's backwards spell played back in his head then shift to the title card and the time skip. Then in that later scene, still show the flashback and reveal Constantine ran away and why he wonders why he did it. I also think when those still shots of the League being massacred and mutilated appear, there needed to be one more to make Flash's later reappearance less of a head scratcher. Flash revealed as the generator and his explanation late in the movie brought the last act to a grinding halt. It would still work if we saw a still shot of Darkseid's omega beam hitting the generator and later Flash explaining he became the new one would create a better eureka moment. Otherwise, it feels like an extraneous twist when we no longer need twists. "Less is more" is okay if combined with "a little bit more" tweaks to the narrative flow.
Aside from these ideas rolling in my head how to edit the movie, I also found myself with a couple gripes. Maybe you will, too. Or maybe this movie is better than sliced bread. No matter how I tried, I couldn't get past a few things like Darkseid having a pretty easy time killing the Guardians of the Universe and the Green Lantern Corps. Sure, we didn't see the full battle or know how many Lanterns were on Oa at the time or which of these Lanterns were experienced or not or were the Lanterns hampered by a no kill rule... but it all makes Darkseid, an already top shelf powerful villain, look too overpowered. You would think the combined willpower of chosen life forms for an elite organization could provide a bigger challenge to Darkseid. Or did we really need that scene at all? We already get what a hopeless situation they're in. Was Oa overkill and just a plot device to get Darkseid off Apokolips for the mission parameter? Another death in the movie that left me on the fence was Zatanna. A lot of time was spent in "Justice League Dark" was made to set up and show Zatanna was the powerhouse of powerhouses among magic users. Then in a movie where magic was so important, Zatanna is just the girlfriend that gets quickly killed off in the cold open. Yeah, she's also there in Heaven to send Constantine back to the fight but her role as a support character rubbed me the wrong way. Yet, I understand and it works for the story. But I felt so conflicted that was all her role was. Though I don't think the movie would work if things were flipped and Zatanna was the survivor, not Constantine. One headscratcher was why the liquid Kryptonite didn't kill Superman immediately or would it have in a couple years' time? I guess in a liquid state, the ill effects are different versus a solid rock. Another thing I was the fence about was character incongruity. In the totality of the continuity, there wasn't enough time for all the heroes to have equal exposure like Aquaman, Mera, Hal Jordan, Shazam, Hawkman, Martian Manhunter, Batgirl, or Wonder Girl. And yes, probably some teeth grinding about Wally West being MIA and the modern Rebirth era Kid Flash in his place. A Part 2 probably wouldn't have helped much, and it's just one of those remainders in the math equation. Can't get to them all. It's not fair and it can't be helped. Still a bummer. But c'mon, Shazam was magic! I know, I know...
The DC Showcase line continues in Apokolips War with DC Showcase short starring Adam Strange. It is 16 minutes and 4 seconds in length. Produced and directed by Butch Lukic, with a story by Lukic and a teleplay by J.M. DeMatteis, it definitely highlights the unforgiving feature of the Zeta Beam and appropriately almost similar theme in theme to Apokolips War, a dismal situation that ends on a feeling of renewed hope. He had to have been reunited with Aleea. Had to. The short as a love letter to the 1970s/1980s Sci-Fi and Wild West movies is apparent from the start beginning with the tags at the start, which made me think of the font used in old sci-fi movies like Alien, probably the intent. Didn't expect the colony to belong to the Eden Corps of all the evil DC organizations but if they leaned into Alien, then I suppose that was on purpose to mirror Weyland Yutani, as well as with the antagonistic force being alien bugs as stand ins for the Xenomorphs, acid and all. If you squint hard enough, you could even see the Weyland Yutani logo aesthetic in the miner's uniforms. The Adam Strange vs. Thanagarians fight was brilliant, well staged, board and animated. You could feel how very vicious it was. I really enjoyed the contrast of human, using tech, using a blaster, driven by love versus aliens, using their own biology to fly, close quarter combat, driven seemingly by conquest. It wasn't a clean fight you would see in an animated series. Adam really got worked over and really lucky in the end until he realizes what has happened to his family. Adam becoming an alcoholic and still doing the heroic thing feels like inspiration was taken from Westerns like John Wayne in True Grit or Lee Marvin in Cat Ballou or Dean Martin in Rio Grande. Robert Mitchum in El Dorado. Digital eMation did right by this short. Animation was top notch. Of note, one of the three character designers, Andy Kuhn previously worked on the Batman vs. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Ultimately, the short was amazing and a riveting take on hope, resilience, and redemption.
This release's featurette, "Darkseid: New God, Evil Classic," delves into the machinations of and the driving force behind Darkseid and a commentary on the importance of gods in both classic and modern fiction. Creatives and executives weigh in on the impact of Darkseid, the history of Jack Kirby's creation, real world inspirations, and history of appearances on media. James Tucker brings up the similarities to religions and myths and the recurring themes of change and redemption. He even likens Darkseid to the Devil, a representation of hubris for the protagonists. Directors Christina Sotta and Matt Peters also weigh in with their thoughts on the good vs. evil trope, the role or lack of morality, and Darkseid's goals of conquering empires and bringing his version of order to bear much like Alexander the Great. Mark Evaniers reflects on Jack Kibry and the origins of Darkseid, taking inspiration from the youth rebelling against the Vietnam War and drawing from Biblical sources and parables. Evaniers even comments on Kirby's foresight and likens his Mother Box to the modern day iPhone. The featurette also features footage from highlights of Darkseid in animation from the Super Friends to Superman: The Animated Series and Justice League Unlimited to Justice League: War and Justice League Dark: Apokolips War. All in all, this is only a basic primer on Darkseid and doesn't go too in depth about his all his appearances in animation and ignores his live action appearances or even talking about how he's been used in the New 52 or Rebirth. It's not for those who already know all there is to know about Darkseid.
The Sneak Peak is for next year's first release, Superman: Man of Tomorrow. It is 8 minutes, 35 seconds long. The unique new animation style a la Archer looks really intriguing along with the notion of a 'year one' story with Superman under what appears to be a new era of movies under the supervision of Butch Lukic. The cast and crew introduce this movie as the start of many things like the partnership between Clark and Lois and what leads Clark to become Superman. The sneak peak has a lot of finished footage and also includes shots from the comics, past movies, and cast recording sessions. Hopefully this won't be the third Superman movie in a row centered on Superman making a huge mistake. But overall, the sneak peak leaves us excited for this new direction and interpretation.
Thankfully, there is an audio commentary for this movie. It features Executive Producer James Tucker, Directors Matt Peters and Christina Sotta, and Screenwriter Ernie Altbacker. It sort of doubles as a retrospective on James Tucker's reign as the supervising producer on the DTV line and there is some good-natured ribbing at Tucker's expense. During the commentary, they're also keen to point out which storyboard artist did what scene, material deleted during various stages of production like Aquaman's original death at the hands of Cyborg Mera that Cassandra Canete boarded, homages, and editing choices. Tucker even reveals a voice credit he omitted to try and keep a character appearance a surprise (only for it to be spoiled in the previews). It is the cherry on top to all the quarantine watch party, virtual panels, podcast interviews and interview articles that have already released.
The two classic DC Vault episodes are from Justice League Action "Zombie King" and "Abate and Switch" and Teen Titans "Nevermore", and the previews of past releases are for Justice League Dark and Batman and Harley Quinn. The trailers that play before the menu screen are Wonder Woman 84 and Mortal Kombat Legends: Scorpion's Revenge while the trailers in the special features section are Birds of Prey and The Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn, Superman: Red Son, and Wonder Woman: Bloodlines. The special features for "Justice League War: Apokolips War" were solid and part and parcel for the DTV line. The only thing I was really disappointed not to see was a salute to all the movies in continuity with a tribute reel edited together with something like the cast and crew's favorite scenes and favorite Q&A panels.
"Justice League Dark: Apokolips War" is a recommended purchase. A stunning finale to the ongoing movie continuity, Apokolips War is a lesson of heroism and making the right choice even in the most extreme case of adversity. Perhaps oddly appropriate in today's uncertain times, the strength of love and hope when all else is lost is a moving message in an otherwise bleak story that can't end in a complete victory for the side of good. The emotional core of the movie is anchored by an epic final no hold barred battle between Superman, Trigon, and Darkseid. The series of movies being able end on its own terms is also something to be appreciated, especially in this cancel culture where series and movies often meet a quick, quiet death if the results are any less than desirable by the powers that be. Apokolips War is for the most part a well executed movie and bittersweet conclusion that ends on a feeling of veiled hope for the future and for renewal.
Main Feature: 4 out of 5
Special Features: 3 out of 5
Average Rating: 3.5 out of 5