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Saturday, August 27, 2016

10 Characters We Might See in Dark Universe (Justice League Dark)

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Edited by Robert Beach 

Well, I don’t think anyone saw this one coming. If you asked me or anyone else last week what was happening with the Justice League Dark movie, they would’ve told you it was probably dead, especially when WB premiered that animated adaptation at SDCC.  The fact that the project is alive at all is pretty shocking, but that it’s poached Gambit director Doug Liman and is getting ready to enter casting comes completely out of nowhere. 

Also, the film is now being titled Dark Universe. No doubt this name change will set it apart from the light, cheerful, wholesome universe of the previous DC films. I don’t mind the name shift given the JLD has always included pretty much every magic user in the DCU, but it’s not like DC was bereft of names to apply to that group. As you’re about to see, DC has a long history of magic teams like this one. 


The Justice League Dark goes back to the 2011 New 52 DC relaunch, but the basic idea of a vast and premiere magic super team goes all the way back to 1999 and the event Day of Judgment. Event comics were still big business back then, and this ended up as one of the more easily forgettable showdowns given it’s major contribution to the DCU was widely despised. As this was a mystically themed crossover event, it ended up the flashpoint for DC’s attempt to unify their various magic users with the team: the Sentinels of Magic. 

Despite making a big deal out of the sentinels' formation, the team never really popped up again and were eventually supplanted in the 2005 event Day of Vengeance. If the name isn’t a giveaway, there’s always been a bit of a thematic repetition in the DC events and magic storylines, hence why there are so many “all the mages” teams. The 2005 team, called Shadowpact, was more active than the Sentinels of Magic, getting their own comic. And yet, the idea still never amounted to all that much. 

So far, the Justice League Dark is probably the most dynamic sorcerer team DC has yet to throw together. They were a major necessity in 2011 as the New 52 reboot was tasked with combining the main DC Universe with several heroes from the mature readers imprint Vertigo as well as the more popular aspects of Jim Lee’s Wildstorm Comics, which DC acquired.  

The Justice League Dark’s key role was introducing characters like John Constantine, Swamp Thing, and Tim Hunter into the main DC continuity. The team also did a pretty good job re-introducing a lot of more obscure magic characters from DC’s long history of weird heroes like Black Orchid and Dr. Mist. 

As for why Justice League Dark is still getting made, I think that mostly comes down to WB’s new ideology being based on money as the sole definition of success and forcing these movies regardless of audience interest. To be fair, WB seems to have had some success by just throwing a ton of characters up at once and then tailoring the next films to respond to audience interest, like how Wonder Woman was the most popular thing in Batman v. Superman, and her movie is doubling down on what worked. Or the more recent example of how Captain Boomerang (of Suicide Squad fame) gets to be in The Flash now. 

I wouldn’t be surprised if Justice League Dark / Dark Universe ends up scheduled in WB’s October 5, 2018 slot and sets up Shazam for April of 2019. What’s more, the stage has already been set for the first Justice League Dark comic arc as it revolved entirely around the death of Enchantress, or bit the dust in Suicide Squad, a connection I suspect has served Justice League Dark well given Suicide Squad’s monetary success. 

Now that we’ve gotten the background out of the way. Let’s meet some of the heroes who might be on the team. I say "might" because the team has expanded to include a huge roster of heroes, and there’s no way all of them are coming to the big screen. I won’t be getting to everyone on the Justice League Dark, but I’ll try to touch on as many of the big and likely names as I can.

WB is so obsessed with adapting Constantine it’s ridiculous. DC has seen dollar signs on Constantine since before the New 52 relaunch, hoping desperately to leverage his ‘cool comic’ clout into serious profit. His integration into the DCU has become the dominate and lasting change of the New 52 relaunch.  

I’m not sure why WB and DC are so obsessed with the Hellblazer though, and I say that as someone who genuinely likes him. If you don’t know anything about him, John Constantine is a British street mage; someone who does a weird blend of magics and is steeped in urban fantasy.

He’s marked by his blonde hair, trench coat, and cockney snark.  He’s one of DC’s longest lasting Vertigo characters and one of the major books that mark you as a cool fan to read. A big part of that mystique was that he felt underground.  

Every attempt to drag John Constantine into the mainstream by his trench coat has only stripped away the grit and rough edges that made him unique and engaging in the first place. Just look at his movie and TV adaptations for proof of that. Still, maybe third time’s the charm and slotting him into a group where he doesn’t need to be the focus is probably a good move. 

Weird fact: this guy is one of DC’s most successful multi-media figures. Swamp Thing has had two movies, a live-action show that ran three seasons, an animated series with its own action figure line, and a video game.  

For the uninitiated: Swamp Thing was originally a scientist named Alec Holland who got exposed to deadly chemical ooze and then thrown in a swamp where his body took on the properties of the surrounding muck. 

For reasons that don’t make sense, the ordeal ended up binding Holland’s soul to the spirit of the green, a vast web that ties together all plant life on Earth and is part of several such fields relating to different life forms. This makes Swamp Thing a blend of Treebeard and Poison Ivy: a living mobile plant person with the ability to manipulate plants and even incarnate into new plant matter bodies.  He’s also set to appear in the new animated series Justice League Action, so maybe Swamp Thing’s time has come again. 

For the longest time, Zatanna was pretty much the face of magic in the DC Universe. As a character concept, she’s unique in that she’s the daughter of a hero from the ‘40s named Zatara. Zatara was one of DC’s first heroes, first seeing print in Action Comics #1 in 1938 as a crime-fighting stage magician who also employed actual magic by speaking backwards.  

Later, in 1964, super-star Silver Age creator Gardener Fox revived the concept and made the character a woman then framed her as the daughter of the original. Zatanna’s been around the block plenty of times at DC as both a major Justice League member and one of the more interesting Batman love interests. She’s one of the few consistent heroes among all the magic users. 

Another Batman supporting character, Dead Man is pretty much exactly what he sounds like. He was Boston Brand, a daredevil trapeze artist and friend to the Flying Graysons. However, when Brand was killed by an assassin working for Ras Al Gul (the details are unimportant), his ghost was trapped here on the material plane with the power to possess the living in a quest to avenge his murder.  

Dead Man eventually did solve the mystery of his death, but he ended up sticking around on the Earth plane to help out the cause of justice and such. Much like Zatanna, Dead Man is one of the more consistent and well-represented mystic heroes of the DCU, usually popping up whenever the writers want to throw together a magic adventure and need someone to explain what’s going on. 

And thus concludes the trilogy of big-name mystic heroes. Etrigan, the Demon, was created by Jack Kirby in the late ‘60s. Like most Kirby creations for DC, he has been milked to the bone by DC for all kinds of uses. The idea behind his character is that he was a knight of Camelot named Jason Blood who betrayed the Kingdom and doomed Arthur’s reign. 

Realizing his mistake in betraying everything he’d ever stood for, Blood sought a way to atone for his mistake, so his soul was bound to that of the Demon Etrigan. Now, Blood is immortal, cursed to wander the Earth and deal out justice and able to transform himself into demon form through a mystic rhyme. If Justice League Dark is looking to hit all the obvious bases, I’d expect the Demon to be on hand, even more so if each of the heroes is meant to embody some different aspect of magic like Hell or the Green. 

Madame Xanadu is such a strange character to have become a central figure in DC’s mystic circles, but here we are I guess. She was originally from a horror anthology comic called Doorway to Nightmare, one of DC’s last as it came out in 1978 a few months before the DC implosion.  Xanadu was the fortune teller host of the comic with the various horror stories revolving around the litany of bric-a-brac stocking filler in your standard haunted item store format. 

From there, she eventually migrated to the comics mainstream, though she was a fairly porous character. She moved freely between the main DC Universe and the Vertigo Imprints. She never commanded a real standout comic in the mainstream, nor did she pop up as much as Zatanna or Dead Man with the cape and cowl set, yet she’s been a consistent fixture of the DC magic scene for as long as I can remember. 

The Spectre is the last of the major mystic heroes on this list, though his claim to being a hero is arguable at that. The original character of the Spectre was created in the ‘40s and envisioned a superhero ghost. When DC re-introduced its ‘40s heroes in the ‘60s as the defenders of a parallel world, Spectre was reworked into a much more powerful being with his abilities still being nebulously spooky. 

In the ‘70s, Spectre finally got his own comic where it was established he was a spirit of vengeance, the embodiment of God’s wrath bound to a mortal soul and charged with inflicting brutally ironic and lethal punishments on the sinners of the world. That whole “I kill people in ironic ways” thing has often kept Spectre on the outside of the hero community. Going rogue and trying to kill everyone in Day of Judgment and Day of Vengeance would do that to you. Mainly, Spectre’s role in the hero community is to deal with a crisis, an event so massive and reality shattering you need a being with the literal wrath of God behind it to put reality right. 

Now we’re getting into the moderately unlikely zone. In Shade’s case, he was a founding member of the Justice League Dark yet left the team, and continuity, pretty early on for parts unknown. As for the character, the original Shade comics were by Spider-Man co-creator Steve Ditko and revolved around a bizarre race of humanoids powered by a blend of color and madness.  

The idea was revived in the ‘90s by Peter Milligan to serious acclaim, creating a new vision of Shade as a being of madness forced into the material plane, confronting other incarnations of human insanity.  Like I said, Shade’s a little ethereal to serve in a blockbuster. I’d be psyched if he made it to the screen. 

Frankenstein is a much newer character than anyone else on this list. Much like Constantine, DC has aggressively promoted him since inception, presumably because they think he’s very merchandisable. I don’t know if that’s true or not, though I do like Frankenstein, so I’m willing to look the other way on how much stuff DC just shoves him into and how desperate they seem to get him in the public eye. Anyway, Frankenstein is pretty much exactly what it says on the can: he’s the Frankenstein’s monster, having assumed his creator's name and living through the centuries as a defender of man. 

He wields the sword of Michael in addition to his steam-powered pistol and shovel, which a deadly combo at his side. His major role so far has been working with S.H.A.D.E., a government agency tasked mostly with handling weird magic stuff, though they only seem to exist to facilitate Frankenstein adventures. It’s kind of hard to say what their focus is. At some point, all these acronym agencies just blend. The point is, Frankenstein is a big lumbering powerhouse of dead flesh that makes a habit of murdering monsters in a manner similar to Hellboy. 

The Phantom Stranger is probably the least likely character to be in the film after Shade, though I could see him functioning as a mystic Nick Fury, the one behind the formation of the Justice League Dark. Created in the ‘50s then revived in the ‘70s, the Phantom Strange is a bizarre and extremely powerful mystic being who wanders the Earth, drawn to strange, mystic, and horrific situations that require his interventions. 

It’s heavily hinted he’s some form of all-powerful being. At the very least, he's a being on the same level of ability as the Spectre or the Greek God Zeus. He’s a favorite character for me even if his whole identity is just “super vague yet extremely friendly.” Like I said, his ambiguity means we probably won’t see him. If you notice a mysterious figure in a fedora lurking around the background of the film, you’ll know who it is. 

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