Anyone who has ever grown up in Fresno or anywhere else in the world probably knows something about coming to blows with their parents. As it turns out superheroes are no exception. Case in point is the recent heroes journey DC Animated has told us of Damien Wayne, the new Robin. When we were first introduced to this character in Son of Batman he was an utter brat suffering from profound arrogance and theologically torn between two worlds, that of his grandfather, the evil ecoterrorist Ra’s al Ghul, and his father, the Batman. Since then the character’s story has continued to be adapted into direct-to-video film in two sequels, Batman vs. Robin and Batman: Bad Blood. In both of these films we got to see the character take a very, and I do mean very gradual turn for the good and towards becoming a more compassionate person…but despite than he never does stop being a really obnoxious and arrogant brat.
But is seems the DC Universe Original Movies franchise still is not finished continuing the new Boy Wonder’s story as they finally decided to give us a story that this examiner had been hoping to see for a long time.
Justice League vs. Teen Titans, the latest film in the DC Universe Original Movie series, finally does what none of the previous films in the series have done before, bring the Teen Titans into animated film. Those who have followed DC Comic animated since the early 2000s likely need no introduction to this iconic team, but for those who haven’t, this is a very important cast of characters that fans love. Originally created in The Brave and the Bold #54 back in 1964, the teams was originally a sort of Justice League made out of many of the heroes teen sidekicks: Robin, Wonder Girl, Kid Flash, Aqualad and Speedy. The idea was popular enough, but it never truly became a major hit for a while, leading to the book’s eventual cancellation. That is, until the 1980s, when writer Marv Wolfman and artist George Pérez revitalized the team with only the tree most well known of the original characters (Robin, Wonder Girl and Kid Flash), and added in the previously established hero Beast Boy (then known as Changling) from the Doom Patrol comics, and then introduced three brand new characters: the empathic half-demon witch Raven, the half-man, half-machine Cyborg, and the alien princess Starfire. The New Teen Titans were an immediate hit and today are renowned as one of DC’s most successful and popular comic runs.
Then in 2003, this particular incarnation of the team were adapted into their own five season long animated series, which was a massive hit for Cartoon Network and which made its five featured heroes (Robin, Raven, Beast Boy, Cyborg and Starfire) household names for a new generation. The show was terrific at telling solid coming of age stories with superhero action, and gained a lot of attention, good and bad, for its blending of traditional American animation with over-the-top anime style.
After the show ended, the DC Universe line began and right out of the gate three projects were announced to be in development: Superman Doomsday, an adaptation of the famous “Death of Superman” story line from the 90s, Justice League: The New Frontier, an adaptation of the popular miniseries be Darwyn Cooke, and the third was Teen Titans: The Judas Contract, an adaptation of the 1984 story line about the team’s newest member, an earth-manipulating girl named Terra, revealing herself to be a traitor working with their arch nemesis Deathstroke the Terminator. This story is widely regarded as the greatest accomplishment of the New Teen Titans run, and was even adapted, very loosely, into the second season of the animated series. but that version of it was meant to be child appropriate while the comics was a very adult themed story. Much to my chagrin, The Judas Contract was put on the back burner in favor of other projects before finally being cancelled altogether. This was a decision I always regretted, and in all the years since these animated films have never chosen to touch the Titans…until now.
The film begins with the Justice League, consisting of Superman (played by Jerry O’Connell), Batman (played by Jason O’Mara), Wonder Woman (played by Rosario Dawson), the Flash (played by Christopher Gorham) and Cyborg (played by Shemar Moore) in battle with the Legion of Doom. After the Legion is defeated and captured, one of its members, the Weather Wizard, runs away, but is possessed by a shadow-like creature that teleports through darkness, revealed to be the demon Trigon (played by Jon Bernthal), whose supernatural nature allows him to physically harm even Superman. Aiding in this fight with the Legion is Robin (played by Stuart Allen), who disobeys his father’s orders to get civilians to safety, thinking he can help the Justice League fight Trigon, at this point none of them knowing who he is yet. Robin sets the Batwing to crash into Trigon and explode, forcing Trigon’s shade to leave Weather Wizard. He may have save d the day, but Batman is upset that they are left with no answers to this strange occurrence, and in order for his son to learn teamwork, Batman sends Robin to join the Teen Titans. Meanwhile, Trigon’s shade confronts and possesses Superman, making him become deranged and plagued with visions of demonic shadows.
Driven to the team’s T-shaped tower by Nightwing (played by Sean Mahey), Robin meets the Titans’ leader Starfire (played by Kari Wahlgren) and the rest of the team’s members: Raven (played by Taissa Farmiga), Beast Boy (played by Brandon Soo Hoo), and Blue Beetle (played by Jake T. Austin). The teams is welcoming to him, but Robin’s total lack of respect for the others causes friction. In fact, Blue Beetle and Robin get into a fight until Blue Beetle’s suit instinctively uses an energy blast to severely burn Robin. Raven heals him, but during the healing process her empathic powers unconsciously link their minds, tapping into each other’s memories, and causing her to pass out. Later, Robin thanks Raven for saving his life, but confronts her about a strange entity he saw in her mind. When Raven is unwilling to provide an answer, Damian tries to search up Raven’s background, but no information is kept about her in the Titans’ files. When he confronts Starfire about this, she replies that her team is not just for fighting crime, but also a surrogate family, as they are all lost souls in a world which has no real place for them.
Meanwhile, Superman finds and brutally beats down another supervillain and this tips off Batman and Wonder Woman that something is seriously wrong with their teammate. They quickly figure out he is being possessed and that this powerful force is searching for a “female with super powers.” In the meantime, in order to loosen Damian up, Starfire takes the group to a carnival, where Raven encounters demon emissaries and Trigon, her father. Trigon want Raven to join her so she may fulfill a prophecy for which she was sired and open the portal that will allow Trigon to enter out world and conquer it. The Titans offer their support to Raven in defeating Trigon, but the Justice League have by now figured out she is the one that Trigon is after and arrives in order to take Raven away. The Titans defy their elders, but before they can act, Flash, Cyborg, and Wonder Woman are taken over by Trigon’s shadow and turned into demon emissaries themselves. Batman finds a way to prevents his own possession and Cyborg is rescued from control by the Titans, but Raven chooses to surrender herself as her friends fight a loosing battle against the possessed League. Now it is up to the Titans the locate Raven, save her, free the League from control and, if necessary, stop Trigon from turning our world into a living hell.
Let me start off by saying that this is a year that, for whatever reason, has been dominated by a common theme of superheroes fight other superheroes. We have already seen Daredevil come to blows with the Punisher in the second season of his Netflix series, and of course we’ve seen the two most famous superheroes of all time come to blows in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, and very soon we are going to see the Avengers go to war with each other in Captain America: Civil War. I don’t why superhero on superhero conflict is in the air this year, but this film is titled Justice League vs. Teen Titans and as I hope I’ve made clear in the plot summary, if you go into this film expecting a literal, no-holds-bard battle between both teams while each of them is fully in their right minds, then you’re likely going to be disappointed.
The conflict between the League and the Titans is really just an afterthought of the storytelling. Trigon takes control of Superman so he can use his power to his own ends, obvious enough. We think we are going to get a real disagreement with the League and the Titans over what should be done with Raven and I like that. I like that we get to see these younger heroes stand up and say no to the adults, but the fight that breaks out, already very brief, only happens because the League have been taken over by Trigon’s influence. Don’t get me wrong, that is a long tradition of the Trigon character, but I cannot imagine anybody seeing this film who did not know the basic plot beforehand not seeing this film and feeling a little bit mislead…Plus, maybe I was hoping for a bit more now that I finally get to see both teams appear together in animation, and in a serious way instead of a total parody like in Teen Titans Go!
Oh yeah, and they also chose to leave Green Lantern and Shazam out of this film too…and we already know that neither of these two are going to be in the live action Justice League movie…curious, no? Still, at lest both of them get a brief mention here, unlike poor Aquaman who they say nothing about, despite already having an entire film about him joining the team.
The Justice League really aren’t the stars of this movie at all to be honest. This is the Titans movie at the end of the day and I really appreciated that. We don’t get to know a lot of these character’s individual histories other than some quick exposition about each of them to give us a brief idea, but those of us who grew up on Teen Titans and Young Justice will see familiar territory here and catch up quick. Those who haven’t…well, there’s always Wikipedia I guess.
This version of the team does feel different that many of us might be used to. Sure Raven is still the cold, emotionless Goth girl Beast Boy is still the funny prankster. But the inclusion of Blue Beetle casts him as the cool guy with some anger management issues, which are personified by the alien scarab that forms his suit. Damien (the current Robin) is there to be the unwilling, antisocial jerk to this cast of teenagers and its no surprise that his attitude rubs everyone the wrong way really fast.
The decision to play Starfire as older than the others and to make her the team leader and surrogate mother figure was a surprising one, a big contrast between the current fish-out-of-water portrayal or the innocent warrior she was portrayed as before. Still, I think the decision work very well here; it suggests the idea that the Titans are not necessarily a new team and that Starfire is an older member that had now matured from that more naive self into a grown young woman that wants to keep these kids in line. I also like the clear indication that she and Dick Grayson (Nightwing) are in a relationship like in the comics. We had seen in some of the previous films set in this continuity that Dick is in a sexual (or at least very flirtatious) relationship with a girl named Kory, and in case you were not a comics fan already in the know, Starfire is the girl that was referring to. Long story short, Starfire is a very likable character her and I really liked that. Yeah, okay, there is some clear fanservice doe at her expense, namely in a video chat scene she has with Dick while she wearing a bathrobe, but trust me as a comic fan I can tell you that this is far from the first time she’s been shown is some state of undress.
Now lets address an elephant in the room: Cyborg. Many fans will know that he was originally created as a member of the New Teen Titans and has been associated that for decades, including being a lead character in the animated series. But the recent DC reboot recast him as a founding member of the Justice League instead. I never had a problem with Cyborg graduating to League rank, but I never liked that they had to retcon his entire history with the Titans to do it. In this film, I think the filmmakers felt similarly as he is meant to be the member of the League caught in between them and the Titans. Due to Cyborg’s younger age (roughly the same as Nightwing and Starfire) he can clearly relate to these kids better than he might the fully adult heroes in the League. Even though his reason for siding with the Titans instead of the possessed League is totally for the sake of plot (they rescued him, end of story), I really did like how well he fits in with the Titans during the climax and that awkward ending of the League catching him eating pizza with these kids instead of working with them.
But in terms of individual characters, this whole is more about Damian and Raven than anyone else. These two form a bond after she uses her powers to heal him because her powers allow her to get inside his mind, and him inside hers. Damian is clearly not fitting in with these kids, nor is he even trying. There is even a scene where Starfire takes everyone out to a carnival for some bonding time and Damian insists of bringing his bloody sword! But with Raven I think there is a curiosity…somewhat. They are both very dark and troubled souls who have had their childhoods defined by demons, one by a demon in name and the other by a literal demon. When They get a number scenes together in the carnival sequence to bond them as friends, with the idea that she may know him better than he does himself. Now, I have no idea if they are actively trying to do any kind of character shipping here, bit we’ll maybe find out in future films.
One complaint I have to make is with Trigon himself. He definitely works as a presence and an approaching evil, as he did when the animated series adapted this story into its fourth season. But when the time finally comes for his to make his physical appearance, I could not help but be reminded of how Darkseid was presented to us in Justice League: War. Like Darkseid, Trigon comes across as a gigantic monster continuously walking through the city while the League tries fighting him off. In other words, he is like the final boss in a video game. But again, we as still aloud to learn more about him than we did Darkseid and get how much of a literal demon he is on his own daughter’s shoulder.
One thing I really didn’t see coming was the inclusion of two songs in the film, both of which happen during the carnival scene. One song in particular goes maybe a bit too long during a scene where Damian and Beast Boy duke it out in a Dance Dance Revolution-like video game.
The animation here is out to standards with the rest of these animated films. The designs of the Titans are pretty good, owing more to Young Justice quality animation. The action is smooth also, including the transformations of Beast Boy. Perhaps the most impressive animation is on Trigon’s forces; the possessed monsters look creepy, the black mass flows well, and the design of Trigon’s hell is impressive. There were some surprises though as well, namely a full blown sparkling anime transformation sequence for the Titans midway through…this is also a point where we are treated to more of the previously mentioned Starfire fanservice.
Like with all of these films, it is fueled largely by its ensemble voice cast. Taissa Farmiga gives a very morose, quiet and reserved performance as Raven, playing it more adult and angsty than Tara Strong would do it, but I do think her voice works great for this reimagining, even if I do have a inherent love for Strong’s performance. She captures Raven’s loner qualities and also an anger, one that is more willing to lash out and even swear at least once; in other words, she’s a Goth through and through. Stuart Allen continues doing what he has been doing as Damien Wayne, a.k.a. Robin, still playing the role as a obnoxious, angry brat but one that has a compassionate side just under the surface that he is not willing to let out. Those who have seen the other films featuring him are probably used to his arc by now, but he still does good with it. Kari Wahlgren gives one of the most enjoyable performances as Koriand’r, a.k.a. Starfire, her voice fitting well with the the older and more affectionate portrayal seen here. She plays Starfire as a pretty much comfortable with her life on Earth now and fully matured as a young woman with a loving heart; I can almost see this as a fair transition from the younger and more naive tone of Hynden Walch’s version. Brandon Soo Hoo is pretty good too as Garfield Logan, a.k.a. Beast Boy. His voice sounds a lot more normal and less high pitched than Greg Cipes, but because to that I think this version isn’t as memorable comical as the other. He’s still funny, but in a more toned down way that fits the tone of this franchise more. Jake T. Austin is hard for me to judge as Jaime Reyes, a.k.a. Blue Beetle, not because he’s bad, but because his character seems to be the one member of the Titans whose personality is the least pinned down. He comes off as a good kid with an attitude problem, hence why he puts heads with Damian more than anyone else. He is good though, and I always appreciate the touches like making sure Jaime refers to people and things in Spanish. Jon Bernthal is an effective enough villain as Trigon, his voice not tailor made for such a demonic presence like Kevin Michael Richardson’s is, but he works to make up for in actin what his voice may not have in tone and, frankly, what he character lacks in true depth. Lets face it, this is the Devil we’re dealing with here and omnipotent, godlike villains in comics are often known for being embodiments of pure evil. Jerry O’Connell returns as Clark Kent, a.k.a. Superman, and he is a lot more likable here than he was when he started. He seems more humbled and nicer than the more arrogant version we first saw in Justice League: War, though his ongoing relationship with Diana might have something to do with it. Of course, he also gets to play a demonic, possessed Superman too, so that’s different. In speaking of Diana, Rosario Dawson returns as well as Diana Prince, a.k.a. Wonder Woman, and while she too gets to play an evil, corrupted version of her role, she also lays the part getting more used to life in man’s world through her relationship with Clark. There are a number of ironic scenes where she criticizes the portrayal of women in action media only to be paralleled by something that happen later, but she does it with tongue in cheek. Christopher Gorham doesn’t have much to do here as as Barry Allen, a.k.a. the Flash, but he is funny enough when he gets to speak. Shemar Moore is a lot of fun here as Victor Stone, a.k.a. Cyborg, his new friendship with the Titans allowing him to loosen up and be a young man. In other words, he feels more relaxed in this one than he might have before. Jason O’Mara returns as Bruce Wayne, a.k.a. Batman, where his role is also limited, but he still continues to make do with what he has and maintain a clear continuity with his portrayal of the character across these interlocked films. Sean Maher returns in a cameo role as Dick Grayson, a.k.a. Nightwing, and for what he is here for he is fun to watch, namely in his flirtatious scenes with Starfire. Other performances include Laura Bailey as Angela Chen, Steven Blum as Lex Luthor and the Toymaster, Terrence C. Carson as Ra’s al Ghul, and Rick D. Wasserman as Weather Wizard.
Special features on the Blu-ray include “Growing Up Titans,” and featurette about the history of the Titans and their role within the DC Universe, a pair of featurettes discussing both Raven and Trigon and their relationship to one another, two bonus cartoons, and a sneak peak at the next DC Universe Original Movie, Batman: The Killing Joke.
Overall, Justice League vs. Teen Titans is not the best in the franchise, but it is one of the most enjoyable I have seen in a while, although that is probably do in some part to my own appreciation of the Titans as characters. It may not truly fulfill the promise of it’s title, and despite a few really dark elements (Raven’s entire backstory for instance), I would say it is one of the lighter movies to come out of this series in a while…of course, considering what material this crew will be adapting for their next film, that’s probably a wise decision. If you are into younger superheroes and particularly if you are a fan of the Titans of old and really dislike what is being done with them on Teen Titans Go!, then I think this will be something worth checking out.