For many millennials who came of age in the early 2000s, Cartoon Network’s animated Teen Titans show was a cultural touchstone, something we’d watch at a certain time every weekday so that we could talk about it with our buddies the next morning. Light enough for kids, but with an intimate knowledge of some of the famous arcs in the Teen Titans comics, the show deftly married PG-rated children’s programming with studies of madness, obsession, depression and heartbreak. It was my first introduction to superheroes as a genre, and my first and only foray into posting fanfiction online. (No, I will not elaborate on this.)
Many of us had aged out of weekday cartoons by the time the show ended its five-season run in 2006, and the Teen Titans — Robin, Cyborg, Beast Boy, Starfire and Raven — went dormant. Then, in 2013, after a test run of youth-skewing mini-episodes, drawn in a radically different style, the original voice actors came back to reprise their roles in Teen Titans GO!, a sillier, lower stakes series that focused on what kind of shenanigans the Titans get up to in their tower when they’re not fighting crime. The reboot was chibi-er, with characters are drawn with body types that actually make them look like teens, rather than muscled 20-year-olds, and full of goofy humor. The show asked a bold question: what if superheroes had fun?
The reinvention continues with the show’s first full-length movie. Teen Titans GO! to the Movies, keeps the light, jokey tone that connected with the young fans of the new show. The simplest way to describe it would be a diet version of The LEGO Batman Movie: a film so self-referential it puts even Deadpool’s fourth-wall-busting to shame. There are even a few lines about how the Titans’ nemesis Slade, aka Deathstroke, looks like Deadpool, with one of the characters telling him to “say something to the camera.”
The loose plot of Teen Titans GO! to the Movies finds the Titans pining for their own movie vehicle — a concept that’s already very meta, given that this is a movie about the Teen Titans). They learn that to get one, they must be taken seriously, which in their world means finding and defeating an archvillain. Of course, this iteration of the Titans can’t take anything seriously, which, naturally, they discover is their greatest strength. In-jokes about DC’s super-serious filmic embarrassments — like the Green Lantern movie and Batman v. Superman’s “Martha” moment — abound.
Since the more grounded version of Teen Titans ended, we’ve seen a resurgence in DC superheroes on the big screen, heralded and greatly influenced by 2005’s reinventive Batman Begins. After Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy ended, DC and Warner Bros. resurrected the caped crusader for a planned series centered around the heroes of the Justice League, with Man of Steel and Batman v. Superman leading into an ensemble team-up that would then allow the other discrete members of the League to lead their own standalone films. So far, and somewhat hilariously, the only successful post-Justice League standalone is this December’s Aquaman. The Wonder Woman series seems to have rejiggered of the hyper-brooding strategy (or at least prompted a “multiverse” approach).
Teen Titans GO! to the Movies is a new style for DC on the big screen, but not the ultimate direction for the team. Last year, DC announced Titans, a live-action show rejected by TNT that would instead air on their DC Universe platform, the comic company’s upcoming streaming service. A Titans trailer debuted at San Diego Comic Con last weekend, and gave fans a first look at a new incarnation of the team. The show, shot in shades of gray and black, Batman v. Superman-style, with the occasional spark of color from Starfire’s outfit or Beast Boy’s hair, focuses on Robin and his troubled past as a circus acrobat, and Raven, whose dark powers and demonic family ties cause her to crouch in corners and scream a lot. “Fuck Batman,” Robin growls after shooting a gang of thugs, a line that soon turned infamous shortly after the trailer was posted online.
This is the New Mutants of DC’s new programming: a show that leans heavily on the darker aspects of the source material, slipping closer into the grimdark morass of Zack Snyder’s superhero movies that DC keeps assuring us it won’t try anymore. “Tired of Teen Titans GO?” the trailer seems to say. “Try this on for size, kiddos.” There is a strange yet almost perfectly symmetrical disconnect between an animated movie which is so self-referential and silly and a new show that boomerangs straight back to the very same dour tone that Teen Titans GO! to the Movies so gleefully pokes fun at.
The Teen Titans have always been a band of misfits and orphans that find strength in one another, and a sense of their inner darkness can have a place in their stories. This kind of theme lends itself well to both the lighter Teen Titans GO! — where a lesson about friendship is stitched into every episode — and, perhaps, something darker and more dramatic like DC Universe’s Titans. All of these heroes have frightening, depressing origins: Robin’s acrobat parents were murdered by the mob; Beast Boy’s abusive family performed experiments on him; and Raven is the daughter of an interdimensional evil demon.
The fact that a kids’ TV show can even be made about them is impressive, and Teen Titans GO! hanging five seasons on irreverent humor even more so. Still, in the tonal gulf between this movie and the trailer for Titans, there is a distinct lack of the lighthearted, adventurous teamwork those of us who grew up with the early 2000s show know the Titans can pull off as a superhero group. There are a number of charming musical sequences in Teen Titans GO! to the Movies that include vibrant, varying styles of animation, and even a quick callback to the original show that may hint at a revival beyond the reincarnation of Young Justice. I know of a certain twenty-something who would be more than excited to tune back in.
Emma Stefansky is a writer whose work has appeared in Vanity Fair, ScreenCrush, and more. Follow her on Twitter @stefabsky.