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Review: “Justice League vs. Teen Titans” – On Escaping Long Shadows

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Justice League vs. Teen Titans

Justice League vs. Teen TitansThere are numerous anecdotes of DC Comics editors in the 1950’s and 60’s handing writers a cover and telling them to craft an issue’s story around it. At their best, you’d get a creative breakthrough where the final story felt like it was the basis for the cover rather than the other way around. Unfortunately, the latest animated feature from DC Animation, Justice League vs. Teen Titans, doesn’t quite make it over that bar. While all its component pieces are well-crafted and assembled, Justice League vs. Teen Titans doesn’t assemble to a fully satisfying whole mostly because it feels like the movie got its title first and its story afterwards. To be clear, all the individual pieces of Justice League vs. Teen Titans work pretty well, and the end product is a perfectly watchable superhero movie. “Let’s make the Justice League and the Teen Titans fight” is fine, fertile ground for a story (as Young Justice demonstrated quite well on several occasions), but too many of the creative decisions in Justice League vs. Teen Titans feel like they’re driven by mandate rather than feeling truly organic.

Damian Wayne (Stuart Allan) has dominated the “New 52” inspired animated features centering on Batman, and he muscles his way into a prominent role in Justice League vs. Teen Titans as well. After demonstrating his usual abrasiveness during a battle between the Justice League and a newly-formed Legion of Doom, Batman (Jason O’Mara) sends his headstrong Robin to the Teen Titans, in the hope of teaching him the value of teamwork and collaboration. This incarnation of the Titans borrows from the X-Men’s playbook, tasked with teaching new teenaged superheroes how to control and cope with their powers and the price they incur. The Titans are led by Starfire (Kari Wahlgren), who serves as mentor and den mother to outer-space cyborg Jaime Reyes/Blue Beetle (Jake T. Austin), animal shapeshifter Beast Boy (Brandon Soo Hoo), and the sullen sorceress Raven (Taissa Farmiga). Unfortunately, the League has attracted the attention of Raven’s demonic father Trigon (Jon Bernthal), who plans to use the League as pawns to subjugate the Earth. Robin and the Titans are soon forced to put their lessons in cooperation to the ultimate test, as they have to face down a possessed Justice League and an evil power that is truly monstrous.

Justice League vs. Teen TitansAs mentioned earlier, Justice League vs. Teen Titans is a perfectly fine superhero genre movie. There are impossibly high stakes, appropriate teenage angst, and a villain powerful enough to warrant the use of the Justice League. The plot ensures there’s never long to wait for another high-octane action sequence, with the super-powers of the players making for fight choreography that is nicely distinct from the more grounded combat of the Batman movies. Even so, Justice League vs. Teen Titans ensures the combat style of Robin and Batman are in-character without looking out of place in the scaled-up confrontations. With a cast of two separate super-teams, Justice League vs. Teen Titans occasionally has trouble justifying the involvement of everyone in the cast, even with a throwaway line at the start of the movie explaining the absence of Green Lantern and Shazam. Even so, despite the title, it’s clear that this movie is meant to be the debut party of this version of the Teen Titans, just as Throne of Atlantis debuted Aquaman. Considering the ongoing popularity of Teen Titans Go! (despite its numerous detractors on the Internet), I wonder if it wouldn’t have been better to just hand the Titans their own movie.

The quibbles I have with the movie are relatively small, but refuse to go away completely. Damian Wayne is still his haughty, insufferable self, with the Titans serving as a new grouping of people for him to spark against. This means that Justice League vs. Teen Titans continues his character development arc that has played out in the Batman movies, and while I continue to enjoy his evolution into his own brand of superhero, he is threatening to dominate the entire franchise. I am debating whether his relative immaturity in this movie is just the way his personality emerges when confronted with people in his own age group, or if it’s something of a step back from the development we saw just recently in Batman: Bad Blood. I suspect this internal debate is the source of some of my dissatisfaction with Justice League vs. Teen Titans. While it’s still fun to watch Robin needling the assorted Titans, it’s hard to shake the sense that he should really be a little bit less abrasive along than this. The lessons he learns in this movie are the same ones he’s been learning in the Batman movies, infusing too much deja vu to his growth and change here. But if Robin seems to have taken a step backwards, I am completely baffled why Batman would think that time with the Titans would change Robin’s attitude. Robin already thinks he’s superior to every adult he’s encountered, with the exception of his grandfather and (occasionally) Batman. It seems like spending time with superhero teenagers learning the ropes would only exacerbate Robin’s personality flaws, not resolve them, and arguably that’s exactly what happens. It’s probably the biggest example of a plot point being driven by mandate rather than by something that makes sense.

Justice League vs. Teen TitansI also find that this rendition of the Teen Titans never really escapes from the shadow of their earlier incarnations. The original Teen Titans show distilled the New Teen Titans into their core character traits and deployed them very successfully for comedy and drama alike (while Teen Titans Go! does the same for flat-out slapstick comedy). This new group of Titans makes only minor adjustments to the formula that Teen Titans exploited so successfully, and feels a bit too derivative as a result. Essentially, Blue Beetle replaces Cyborg and new Robin replaces old Robin, while Starfire’s promotion to team leader makes her a little more mature and less naive. The fundamental dynamics are still strong and the newer team works out, but it’s hard to shake the sense that the creative decisions were based on reverence to the past rather than striking out in new directions. I’m even a little torn whether one twist at the very end was wise, since it’s winding back the clock on one of the few real changes to the status quo introduced in the “New 52” era. If Marv Wolfman and George Perez had made similar creative decisions in the 1980’s, we wouldn’t have gotten the New Teen Titans at all. The fact that this is also essentially a remake of the Trigon saga that played out in the comics and then in Teen Titans also ends up making this movie feel a bit too familiar, although I must admit I was impressed at the way one late-movie plot twist ties together two entirely disparate elements of the DC Universe in a way that makes perfect sense. I don’t envy the balancing act that the DC Animation crew has to walk, but I still feel like they’re playing a bit too safe. Stick around for a post-finale sequence that teases an adaptation of a long-awaited comic book story arc.

Justice League vs. Teen TitansThe character designs by Phil Bourassa are more successful in establishing a distinct identity from the original animated Teen Titans. I especially like the takes on the polar opposites Starfire and Raven: the former gains a more substantial physical presence befitting her role as warrior and team leader, while the latter is an appropriate update to Raven’s classic comic book look by George Perez to make her a younger teenager. There’s a casual sense of physical confidence in Starfire’s design that carries through all her animated body language, whether she’s chastising Robin, battling Wonder Woman, or driving Nightwing to distraction in a mid-movie scene that veers dangerously close to exploitation. The exact opposite plays out in Raven’s designs and body language, which are dominated by stillness and her desire to escape notice. Those character traits are reinforced by an excellent vocal performance by Taissa Farmiga, who has to do a lot of the emotional heavy lifting with her haunted portrayal. Animation quality is on par with all the recent DTVs, remaining a cut above the average action TV show and just below feature-film quality, and it is rendered in excellent high-definition video and audio on the Blu-ray.

Justice League vs. Teen TitansBonus features on the disc include three featurettes on the comic books that Justice League vs. Teen Titans is based on, a preview of Batman: The Killing Joke, and two episodes from earlier shows. “Growing Up Titan” focuses on the broader comic book history of teenaged sidekicks before moving to the original Teen Titans and then the 1980’s revival by Marv Wolfman and George Perez. It’s especially good for having Marv Wolfman himself speaking about his creations in addition to the producers of these animated films and higher-ups at DC Comics. One shorter featurette focuses on Raven, while another focuses on Trigon; both are good, short introductions to the characters for those unfamiliar with them. I also still feel like DC is missing an opportunity by not including a reading list at the end of these featurettes. The episodes from the vault are Batman: The Brave and the Bold‘s “Sidekicks Assemble!” and the original Teen Titans‘ episode “The Prophecy.” The first focuses on a lineup matching the original Teen Titans (minus Wonder Girl), while the latter is a key episode in the Trigon story arc. They’re both great episodes, though they also skew noticeably younger than this PG-13 movie.

A retailer limited edition of the Blu-ray combo pack also comes with a very nice Robin mini-statue, which matches up well with the ones of Batman and Nightwing that came with Batman vs. Robin and Batman: Bad Blood. The Robin figure may be the best one yet, with a very clean paint job (all the more impressive for the much broader color palette in his costume) and nice, detailed sculpting.

Justice League vs. Teen Titans Justice League vs. Teen Titans

When it comes to the “New 52” DC animated movies, I suspect I may be more impressed with the Batman-centric offerings because they feel like they’re taking the character and his supporting cast in newer directions, largely due to Damian Wayne and the inherent disruption he presents to Batman’s status quo. In contrast, no matter how technically competent the Justice League movies are, they feel too safe and conventional, offering thinly veiled retreads of very familiar ground that re-tells Origin Stories without ever straying far from expectations. The injection of Damian Wayne into this latest Justice League movie doesn’t successfully break this pattern. Justice League vs. Teen Titans is perfectly enjoyable, but it doesn’t have as much staying power as it could.

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Last pup of a dying planet, a young German Shepherd is rocketed to Earth, where he is bombarded by cosmic gamma rays emitted by a radioactive spider. Crash-landing in the forgotten land of Hubba Hubba, he is discovered by the Who-You-Callin'-Ancient One and his lovely wife Pookie. Instilled with their traditional American values, he spends his young adulthood roaming the globe, learning all the secrets of Comic-Fu. Donning battle armor fashioned from spilled chemicals splashed by lightning, he becomes the Sensational Shield of Sequential Art ACE THE BATHOUND! Look, it sounds a lot better than the truth. Born in Brooklyn, moved to Queens at 3 and then New Jersey at 10. Throughout high school, college, grad school, and gainful employment, two things have remained constant: 1) I am a colossal nerd, and 2) I have spent far too much time reading comics, and then reading and writing about them. Currently working as a financial programmer in New York City, while continuing to discover all the wonderful little surprises (and expenses) of owning your a home in the suburbs. Shares the above with a beautiful, wonderful, and incredibly understanding wife named Frances (who, thankfully, participates in most of my silly hobbies) and a large furry dog named Brownie (who, sadly, does not). Comics, toys, Apple Macintosh computers, video games, and eBay

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