Guillermo Del Toro directing a live action DC Comics adaptation involving the supernatural, with characters such as John Constantine, Zatanna, Swamp Thing, Deadman and Madame Xanadu, sounds like the most brilliant thing imaginable, especially given that the source material, Justice League Dark, part of DC’s New 52 era, was a highlight of that particular era of DC Comics.
So how come it never happened? Annoyingly, Justice League Dark, sometimes referred to as Dark Universe, has become permanently stuck in development hell, and despite announcements of new directors and screenwriters, the film has never managed to come to fruition.
Launched by DC Comics in September 2011, Justice League Dark ran for forty issues, some of which actually crossed over with other Justice League titles for the likes of DC’s Trinity War and Forever Evil events, and was written by Peter Milligan, Jeff Lemire and J.M Dematteis, the latter actually contributing to the animated Justice League Dark feature-length movie (more of which later). Mixing supernatural based horror, high stakes action, witty dialogue and brilliantly spiky character interaction, the title was made for a live action version, and has managed to have elements make the jump to live action in various forms.
Co-created by famed comics writer Alan Moore in the early 80’s, John Constantine had been turned into the star of a live action film in 2005. The Liverpudlian character famed for his drinking, smoking and creamy coloured trench coat, was turned into a Keanu Reeves vehicle, controversially with fans, but amazingly the film worked in its own right as a Reeves-starring horror action film and actually brought the occult flavoured supernatural themes to the screen in a highly entertaining way, even if Keanu Reeves doesn’t look like the Sting-influenced character from the comics and wasn’t from Liverpool (thankfully not trying another English accent after his disastrous attempt in Bram Stoker’s Dracula).
A much more faithful interpreation came with the NBC television series Constantine that saw Matt Ryan in the lead role, actually from Wales but doing a convincing accent, and who was so well received as the character, despite the show being cancelled after one season, that he was incorporated into The CW’s DC television universe by appearing in Arrow, and is set to appear in an upcoming episode of Legends of Tomorrow. Other members of the team to appear in live-action were Zatanna, who appeared in several episodes of Smallville, played by Serinda Swan, while a thinly disguised version of Madame Xanadu appeared in the fourth season of Arrow.
As all of these things were going on, Justice League Dark remained stuck within the confines of development hell. During promotion for Pacific Rim, Del Toro frequently mentioned having finished the script and was awaiting to begin production. but in the end his next film would end up being the incredibly atmospheric Crimson Peak. In the end, Del Toro would walk away from directing the project, although speculation was ripe that his script, or many elements from it would be used. The next director to be announced was Doug Liman, who had become attached to the project after exiting the forever unmade Gambit movie for 20th Century Fox, a project that is almost equal to Justice League Dark in forever finding it difficult to make it to the cameras.
Liman’s attachment to a DC property was not a complete surprise given that he had directed Edge of Tomorrow, aka Live, Die, Repeat, aka Live, Die, Repeat:Edge of Tomorrow for Warner Bros. Whilst that movie was not the massive commercial success that was expected given that it was a science fiction action movie starring Tom Cruise, it was acclaimed by critics to the extent that a sequel is now in active development.
In the end, Liman would pass on the project and it would be announced shortly after that Jon Spaihts was writing a new script. Spaihts would come to the project with a strong genre pedigree having written Prometheus, contributed to Marvel’s Doctor Strange, itself a comic book property with a lot of fantasy and magic involved, as well as having his script for Passengers on the Hollywood “Blacklist” for a while before being made into a Jennifer Lawrence/Chris Pratt starring flop.
Even as all of this was going on, once again the Justice League Dark would manged to make their way in another medium as part of Warner Animation Studios very successful run of feature-length movies. Released straight to DVD and featuring a script co-written by J.M Demmateis, the movie brilliantly utilised the vocal talents of Matt Ryan as Constantine and also featured a supporting role for Batman.
Taking its cue from some of the early issues of the New 52 comic run, it sees the team being brought together by Batman due to the main Justice League’s inability to fight the supernatural and features a team made up of Constantine, Zatanna, Deadman, Jason Blood and Swamp Thing. Getting mostly positive reviews, the film was fun and entertaining, even though putting Batman strongly at the centre of it was somewhat distracting given that he isn’t really a key member of the team.
As fun as the movie is, it once again reiterated the frustration that this imaginative and fun part of DC’s comic universe has not made it to the big screen and become another symbolic part of DC and Warner Bros. inability to actually bring some of these stories and projects to the screen after announcing them well in advance (something that has befallen The Flash movie as well). The fact that several of these characters have made it to the smaller screen while the bigger budgeted equivalent of them has struggled to make it to a bigger canvas is a constant source of frustration.
The worst part of all of this is that one of the best directors in Hollywood was attached and his attempts to make the film stalled, either due to fear or an inability by the executive level of the studio to settle on a direction. Reading the comic books, one cannot help but feel that Del Toro was an ideal candidate to bring these characters to life. Rumours abounded over the casting, with Colin Farrell rumoured for Constantine, although Del Toro did talk favourably about Matt Ryan which would have been great.
Ironically, it has become the DC equivalent of Gambit, forever talked about but never made. Unlike Gambit, the notion of a Justice League Dark movie is exciting, and ripe for a movie franchise. It could be for the DC Cinematic Universe what Doctor Strange has become for Marvel Studios, but alas it has languished, like a dead supernatural creature, waiting to be risen from a death-like slumber. It’s apt when you think about it.
Would you like to see Justice League Dark one day? Who would you have star or direct? Let us know.