Here’s the great yin and yang of our time: DC’s movies are terrible, while their TV shows tend to be rather delightful. Marvel makes the best movies, but their TV shows lean towards the very bad. Weirdly the only place where this dichotomy is broken is when it comes to animated DC movies – they are actually really great, better than the live action DC movies and stake out their own weird space in the superhero universe.
Lego Batman was a blast, and I think was one of the better Batman movies ever made. It really got to the heart of the character, while also poking a lot of fun at the character. And now Teen Titans Go! To The Movies has arrived and is a better DC Universe movie than any of the live action DC Universe movies, and it accomplishes that while being wildly irreverent and disrespectful… but in a truly loving way.
Leaping from the TV series Teen Titans Go! (which I have never seen, just to give the hardcore fans reason to ignore my opinion), Teen Titans Go! To The Movies is an absurd series of sketches hung together on a meta-referential premise: all of the superheroes are getting movies made about them, but nobody takes the Teen Titans (and Robin in particular) seriously enough to give them screentime.
A little history here: the Teen Titans were a team of superhero sidekicks from the Silver Age of comics. The original team consisted of Robin, the Boy Wonder, Kid Flash, Aqualad and Wonder Girl. The book was the epitome of that “Hello fellow kids” meme, with the characters written in pure early 60s teen lingo. As the 60s got more serious, so did the Titans, and they got involved in inner city turmoil and other hot button social issues.
The book got canceled, was revived, canceled again and then was revived yet again in 1980 and nothing would ever be the same. The New Teen Titans was a landmark book, bringing in a level of soap operatic angst and adult themes that were unknown in comics previously. The New Teen Titans was one of the first comics to be exclusive to comic stores, and it was printed on expensive Baxter paper. It generated controversy by depicting Robin in bed with his girlfriend, the alien princess Starfire. It was the most popular comic book of the time, and when it crossed over with the X-Men (still the best intercompany crossover ever), it helped elevate Marvel’s book from a growing success into a total, dominating juggernaut.
The classic line-up of the New Teen Titans was Robin, who would eventually become Nightwing, Kid Flash and Wonder Girl. Joining them were Changeling (aka Beast Boy), a green kid who could become any animal, and brand new characters Cyborg, Starfire and Raven, a dark sorceress. This became the cornerstone lineup of the Titans.
There have been a lot of ups and downs for the Titans over the years (the upcoming live action show appears to be another down), and the reality is that as a team they’ve never really gotten the respect they deserve, even at their most popular. I’ve always considered it the great irony of these poor sidekicks and teen characters that their lasting influence on the comics industry was probably getting the X-Men to the next level required for them to be the definitive comic characters for the next decade.
Flash forward to today, where the Titans star in a series of animated TV shows, some more serious than others. The latest, Teen Titans Go!, is very very cartoony and silly, and the characters are drawn in a chibi style emphasizing their cuteness. The line-up reflects that Baxter paper era of the team – Robin leads with the support of Cyborg, Starfire, Raven and Beast Boy (that he has reverted from Changeling to his sillier name is telling). Now they have made the leap to the big screen, the first time a Titans team has made it to the movies.
And yet this cartoon – with big headed, big eyed characters being ridiculous and silly – feels more in line with the DC comics than any of the live action DC movies of recent years. Clearly the aesthetic is different, and the style is different, but the Titans themselves – while also very different on the surface – feel kind of the same. By being so weird and stupid and meta, Teen Titans Go! To The Movies has actually captured what made the Titans tick at their best – a sense of being outsiders and weirdos who weren’t being taken seriously.
That’s quite literally part of the film’s plot. Every major superhero is getting their own movie, and even Alfred, the Batmobile and the Utility Belt are getting their own films… but Robin isn’t considered cool enough to be the subject of a blockbuster. And forget the rest of the Titans – their own villains don’t even take them seriously. Robin, ever an overachiever, takes the team on a series of silly adventures intended to get them the respect they need to earn a motion picture of their own.
I won’t spoil all the wonderful gags – some of which are so dark I gasped – but I will say that the movie is consistently hilarious from beginning to end (and right to the end. I think the film saves its absolute best joke for the second before the credits run – it reminds me of the classic subversion of a Soupy Sales). What makes the jokes special is that so many of them are rooted in deep DC Comics lore, and Teen Titans Go! To The Movies is completely disrespectful of that lore. The Challengers of the Unknown have a running gag, and it is not a running gag that turns out well for the Challengers. That the Challengers should be in this movie is incredible enough – that they should meet the fate they do is something else entirely.
But that disrespect is, as is all the best parody, rooted deeply in love. The jokes that are made in this movie couldn’t come from a place of shallow understanding. The writers, Aaron Horvath and Peter Rida Michail, clearly know the DC Universe inside and out. That gives them the background to lovingly mock every nook and cranny, and to jam their film with cameos from some of the more obscure DC heroes. I was reminded of Not Brand Ecch!, the old Marvel comic that was their take on Mad Magazine, which skewered their own titles as well as DC’s.
That’s what sets Teen Titans Go! To The Movie and Lego Batman apart from the live action films – these are movies made by people with genuine affection for these characters and this universe. The people making them are part of the family, and you know how family is allowed to mock family. The live action films are made by people who don’t have that same affection, who are coming to the characters late, who want to deconstruct them or give them new spins. That’s a valid angle, but so far it hasn’t paid off that well for the live action movies.
Weirdly, for all the wackiness and meta humor and disrespect that Teen Titans Go! To The Movies dumps on the DCU, it gets the characters right at their core. Robin, like I said, is an overachiever, always worked up about something, taking everything a little too seriously. Cyborg is a regular guy who happens to get super powers. Starfire is the outsider still figuring out Earth but having a blast while doing so – and also having a deep connection to Robin. Beast Boy, as in the comics, is a clown and a goofball, beneath which hides a very caring and empathetic heart. And Raven is the goth of the group, always on the verge of going evil. Teen Titans Go! To The Movies gets these basic character traits better than Man of Steel got Superman, to be honest (and I think this movie also gets Superman better than Man of Steel as well, as goofy as they make him be).
Some of the jokes in Teen Titans Go! To The Movies are cheap (yes, they have a Martha joke in this movie), but many are clever, and the songs are fun. The style of art isn’t for me, but I appreciated the fluid way the film changes styles when called for (I especially love the hunky, grim version of Robin that appears in the second half, and there’s a great Lion King parody done in something approximating Disney style). There’s a joyful energy to the film – which is made up of five or six minute segments, strung together as a narrative – that makes the cutesy art work. It fits the vibe of the film.
I spent all of Teen Titans Go! To The Movies with a big smile on my face, I laughed out loud lots and lots of times, and more than once I actually gasped out loud at a truly transgressive joke (what happens to baby Aquaman is… well, I can’t believe Warner Bros okayed that joke). The breadth and depth of the DC Universe is on display here, and even as the movie makes fun of it, it does so in a loving way, the way your best friend breaks your balls. Maybe the people making the live action films should sit down with the people making the animated films and discuss what it means to really love these DC characters.