Across 15 films, DC, the home of Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman, has crushed its competition in the world of direct-to-video animation. And while direct-to-video releases may not have the same kind of theatrical fanfare as, say, a summer tentpole release, fan fervor for them is equally passionate. Just take a look at the comic book output from Warner Bros. Animation, which has long been touted for its sleek production values, rich storytelling, and depth of emotion.
All of those elements reach their crescendo in Justice League Dark: Apokolips War, the finale to what WB refers to as its "DC Animated Movie Universe."
"This is the big one. This is our Endgame," Jerry O'Connell, who has been the voice of Superman since 2015's Justice League: Throne of Atlantis, told SYFY WIRE in a recent interview.
***WARNING! The following contains major plot spoilers for Justice League Dark: Apokolips War!***
Written by Ernie Altbacker (Batman: Hush) and directed by Matt Peters (Superman: Red Son) and Christina Sotta (Young Justice), the film serves as a sequel to 2017's Justice League Dark. However, it's not just about the superhero team that takes on the DC Universe's more supernatural threats. As O'Connell alludes to, Apokolips War brings together all of our favorite DC heroes — and villains — for a final confrontation with the dreaded Darkseid (voiced by Candyman's Tony Todd).
"It’s both thrilling and sad... It’s not just the conclusion to this continuity series of films, but also the end of an era," Jason O'Mara, who has voiced Batman 11 times over the past six years, told us in a separate interview. "At times, it was quite hard to watch, knowing this was the last [outing], but at the same time, it’s so utterly exciting and so much happens. There are so many storylines and twists. There are so many epic battles, that I do feel like if we’re gonna go out, this is the best way to go out."
Matt Ryan, another Apokolips War cast member, has had the rare chance to play John Constantine in both live action and animation. When it comes to his own personal enjoyment, however, he finds it easier to relate to the character in cartoon form.
"There’s something about playing Constantine in the animated movies that when I’m watching them, I can disconnect myself in a way that I can’t do in the live-action," he explains to SYFY WIRE. "I really get into the stories and I’ve just loved watching them myself. To have it all wrap up and all the characters come to their final end, I thought they did a great job with it and a great job with writing Constantine."
Constantine actually kicks the story off as he heads to outer space at the behest of the woman he loves, Zatanna (Camilla Luddington). He agrees to help the League mount an ambitious attack on Darkseid, who wants to take over the universe, but things only go belly up from there. The New God whoops the team's collective butt, killing a bunch of them, maiming some others, and enslaving the rest. To add insult to injury, he conquers Earth and uses its molten core for his own nefarious ends.
"You have to be able to see — I can’t believe I’m saying this — Darkseid’s point of view," O'Connell says. "Darkseid is a pretty deep character as well; he’s not just a baddie who’s got a crazy voice. I can’t believe I’m saying this, but you have to feel some empathy for every character."
That's pretty generous coming from Superman who is forcibly tattooed with an "S" made of liquid Kryptonite that renders his god-like powers inert. It's an awesome concept and things only get cooler for the Man of Steel when he, one, gets a super-suit designed by Lex Luthor (Rainn Wilson) and two, gets possessed by Trigon (John DiMaggio).
"I’m just so impressed with the cool stuff that they come up, especially around Superman," O'Connell continues. "I mean, it’s so creative. Listen, if you were asking me, I think a few live-action versions should’ve probably had some of the Warner Bros. animated team chiming in on stuff. As far as I’m concerned, the most creative stuff in superhero storytelling is coming out of DC Animation."
O'Connell went on to admit that his Superman tenure has made him a better actor. He's also thankful for getting to play such a meaty role: "He’s a superhero, he’s a dedicated employee, he’s a dedicated son, he’s an orphan, he’s a bad boyfriend." The actor's even taken fan feedback to heart, checking comments on social media platforms and doing his best to "personalize" the character. Not an easy feat when "everyone has their ideas of who" Superman is.
"There’s a nuance that you have to play," he says, comparing this particular voiceover job to working on a Ferarri. "Every single film I’ve done for the Warner Bros. Animation team, they’ve given me something new and rich to play with Superman and Clark."
Two years after their defeat at the hands of Darkseid, Superman, and Raven (Taissa Farmiga) seek out Constantine, who is living in a drunken haze alongside Etrigan (Ray Chase). John is embittered by Clark and wracked with guilt that he fled the battle when Zatanna needed him most. When he's asked to assist in the new resistance movement against Darkseid, the paranormal investigator with a thick Irish brogue and a knack for spellcasting initially refuses.
"John deflects, doesn’t he? And he gets drunk. More of [the performance] was about rather than expressing it, [you're] suppressing it. And that’s what John does," Ryan says. "And then it leaks out in sometimes not so good ways. It was more about playing the moment. I’ve gotta say a lot of it is down to the scriptwriting, which they nailed, and the voice direction as well. They are your guide in that booth because you don’t really have a perspective of what they have or what else is gonna be going on with the story."
Despite his initial cynicism and resignation, Constantine slowly lowers his emotional defenses and helps the anti-Darkseid cause so much, that he might just be the movie's MVP. He's literally the heart and soul of the story, and Ryan, seasoned with experience after six years of portraying the character, took the immense responsibility in stride.
"Since I got the role of John Constantine back in 2014, there was such a huge pressure with this iconic character, which, at the time, I didn’t really know about until I started reading the comics and getting into it," he continues. "If you second guess what the character should be, not wanting to let the fans down, to do the best service that you can to the comic books, that can kind of stop you from doing what you’re doing. There was a part of me that tried to jettison that early on and just go with it. Coming to the Justice League Dark, I feel like where I am now with Constantine, six years later, that’s already been dealt with, in a way."
And what of Batman? Well, the lone-wolf vigilante suffers what is perhaps the greatest indignity of the entire film: He's brainwashed into being Darkseid's top strategist. Even under the villain's spell, the Caped Crusader is still able to command a room with a no-nonsense attitude and glowing red eyes.
"I’m a big Star Wars fan, so it wasn’t a huge jump to go to the Darth Vader-Emperor scenes in Return of the Jedi. The servant himself is very powerful, but the master is even more powerful. So, that’s really the relationship there," O'Mara reveals. "Batman is not Batman for most of this movie and in post-production, my voice has been altered somewhat to inflect how influenced Batman has become by Darkseid, and how he’s under his control."
He adds that "the real challenge, as an actor, is to find something else, to find a different dynamic for the voice. [It's] doubly cool to see what the filmmakers did with it after I recorded. I feel like between this movie and all the movies that have come before, I’ve covered just about every possible challenge that Batman could have in one way or another. Story-wise, vocally, creatively, and technically."
In the end, it's Bruce's son, Damian, aka Robin (Stuart Allan), who breaks Darkseid's control over Batman. The father-son dynamic is definitely one of the emotional highlights, having emerged from several discussions O'Mara had with the filmmakers about who Bruce is during that reunion. It's a beautifully tender moment that ends with Bruce telling Darkseid to go to Hell.
"The lines between Bruce and Batman are a little more blurred in this version than in others because he still feels those emotions, no matter which guise he’s wearing," O'Mara elucidates. "I’m pretty sure we decided towards the end that he would be more Bruce than Batman because he needed full access to his emotions. Regardless of who he was in that moment, he was a dad feeling for his son and it was the most human moment that Bruce and/or Batman could ever find himself in. The concern was more that we got the emotion right rather than whether he was being Bruce or Batman."
Just before the credits roll, Constantine convinces Flash (Christopher Gorham) to reset the timeline with another Flashpoint event. Barry Allen reluctantly agrees to do so in an act that harkens back to the film that started it all. It's a poetic, cyclical, and poignant end to the current animated continuity.
"This is it. I’m done now and there are no more plans for me in Batman and no more plans for movies in the series, so I feel like we’re going out with a bang. That’s why I’m both sad and excited [for this movie]," O'Mara reiterates.
"Superman isn’t mine, he's yours and who knows, this could be my last time playing Superman. He’ll be around a lot longer than I am. It’s been a real honor," O'Connell says. "I hope they bring me back. Maybe I’m getting too old as Superman. Maybe I’ll have to play Superman’s dad, Jor-El. Or Jonathan Kent."
Given the fact that Constantine became a regular on Legends of Tomorrow after his own show was canceled at NBC, Ryan has come to learn that nothing ever really ends.
"There’s something now that’s kind of been built up over the last six years, where there’s some part of me that feels like there isn’t a finality to it. Even though I know that’s just me, psychologically, because the story wraps everything up. And they give him a great sendoff, they resolve it," Ryan says. "I just thought they’ve done a great job in giving us what we want, man. It’s nice to see a story where John Constantine has a happy ending."
Justice League Dark: Apokolips War arrives on DVD and Blu-ray tomorrow (May 19) and is currently available on VOD.
Rosario Dawson (Wonder Woman), Rebecca Romijn (Lois Lane), Hynden Walch (Harley Quinn), Shemar Moore (Cyborg), Sean Astin (Shazam), and Liam McIntyre (Captain Boomerang) co-star.