I vividly recall the first time I read Kingdom Come. Despite the fact that the very first film I’d ever seen was the ‘78 Superman movie at the tender age of three, and despite having been a regular comic book reader since kindergarten, it was not until seeing the entire DC pantheon painted in panel after panel with perfect verisimilitude by the inimitable Alex Ross that I first longed to see such static images be brought to the big screen in full motion for a wider audience to appreciate. This was long before Infinity War brought the same epic scope as crossover comics to their cinematic counterparts; before Batman movies could include every obscure character from Crazy Quilt to Condiment Man; even before X-Men had inaugurated the current age of superhero movies. No part of me dared to hope of so much as a film featuring both Batman and Superman, let alone a slugfest between every hero and villain in the DC Universe, as per the final issue of Kingdom Come. All I knew was that adapting characters and storylines from less prestigious media to cinema conferred a certain cultural cache. For comics and cartoons, getting a movie made from such source material was the ultimate validation, one which I wanted for Waid and Ross’ masterpiece.
Though Teen Titans Go! to the Movies is ostensibly about the importance of friendship over fame, it is more so a meta-cinematic meditation that ultimately rejects this pervasive attitude that properties need to make their way to the silver screen to be worthy of recognition. It’s a movie about the unimportance of movies, forwarding a thesis nearly exactly opposite of Hail, Caesar! or La La Land. It’s the kind of Hollywood navel-gazing normally reserved for Oscar-bait, albeit with plenty of puerile potty humor.
The film follows the titular Titans as they attempt to fulfill their fearless leader’s lifelong dream of having a movie made about him (indeed, it is odd that The Boy Wonder has yet to star in a solo project in a world where Scott Lang, T’Challa, and Carol Danvers have all beat him to the box office). But much more than a comment about the character of Robin in particular or even the glut of B and C-list heroes being brought to live action, the movie is much more about its relationship of the Teen Titans Go! cartoon that served as the source material.
A frequent criticism levied at the protagonists by the “serious” superheroes is that the Titans neither fight fiends nor save civilians. This echoes a similar sentiment by many television viewers – especially those soured by the cancellation of fan favorite animations such as Young Justice and Teen Titans – that the Teen Titans Go! show featured no fighting or anything else resembling heroics. Instead, it was cut from the same cloth of nonsensical non sequitur storytelling as the many wonderfully weird Warner Bros. cartoons that’d come before it, such as Loony Toons, Tiny Toons, and Animaniacs. For fans of classic children’s animation, there was a lot to enjoy, but for those in want of capes, cowls, and crime fighting, it felt like a bait-and-switch.
Teen Titans Go! to the Movies addresses such criticism head on. In some ways, it seems to capitulate and cater to the later set of fans. In their attempt to receive respect and recognition, the Titans deliberately seek out an arch nemesis to tussle with, which they find in their classic comics adversary Deathstroke the Terminator (here referred to only as “Slade”). That the villain most associated with the Teen Titans had not been previously introduced during the show’s five season run is proof positive as to its wildly divergent direction. Here, however, the Titans cross blades with Slade on several occasions, each increasingly epic and culminating in a truly climatic final battle.
In spite of such, the higher octane action is in no way the film’s real draw. In fact, it exists primarily to be undercut, as do the motivations driving it. Upon beating the big bad and earning and the accolades of their fellow heroes, the Titans realize that affirmation that they’d long sought could not compare with the camaraderie and friendship they’d had with one another from the start. Similarly, none of the action set-pieces are as memorable as the zany antics peppered throughout: choking infant Aquaman in a plastic six pack ring, defecating in a prop toilet, etc. The real appeal of the movie is not in how it breaks from the show but rather in how it embodies it.
In this way, Teen Titans Go! to the Movies both implicitly and explicitly questions the need to (almost pathologically at this point) adapt every superb and comic book and cartoon into a major motion picture. Implicitly, in that the film is shown to succeed specifically due to the elements already present in the small screen source material and not in any added benefit brought by being a full length feature (this is almost undercut that the film is by far better than any of the preceding episodes, but the point is technically valid). Explicitly, the film is structured such that the hero’s tragic flaw is his desire to be validated by having a film made about him, and his moment of triumph comes when he sets aside that ambition, defeating the director of the Robin solo film and stopping it from streaming to screens worldwide.
I love superhero films as much as the next guy. Indeed, more so. My job title at Wisecrack is “Marvel Movie Expert.” But if Avengers 4 wrapped up their cinematic universe and suddenly all studios stopped making superhero films, I’d be fine with that. Every Wednesday, new comics will still be released, none of which need to be adapted, few of which could, and even less of which should. I’m a vocal defended of Snyder’s Watchmen, but I’ll always recommend the original graphic novel instead. The Winter Soldier is my favorite Marvel movie, but Brubaker’s run is much more than a mere storyboard for such. Even the greatest superhero movie ever made, Nolan’s The Dark Knight, cannot compare with the best Batman runs.
And there are some series which should never be brought to cinemas, not even with the best director and the biggest budget. God forbid that Promethea or Flex Mentallo should ever be optioned by a studio!
Teen Titans Go! to the Movies has the tenacity to take on the prevailing attitudes about cinema as high art over and above comics and cartoons as low art. It encourages audiences to appreciate its interpretation of the Titans as the very unheroic heroes they are, and their series as the very uncinematic cartoon it is, making no apologies for either. And it has a lot of really funny fart jokes.