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part of a small rebellion | by maryann johanson

Teen Titans Go! To the Movies movie review: the last action heroes (to get a movie)

Teen Titans Go To the Movies green light

MaryAnn’s quick take…
The superhero movie we need, and also the one we karmically deserve. A riot of hilariously zippy animation that gleefully shreds the clichés of the genre while also lovingly embracing its self-referential geek experience.tweet
I’m “biast” (pro): nothing
I’m “biast” (con): nothing
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)
women’s participation in this film
male director, male screenwriter, male protagonist
(learn more about this)

The year is 2018. We are nearly two decades into the Era of the Superhero Movie. Film critics are the new New Money, living the high life off their courtesy checks from Marvel/Disney for boosting with rapturous reviews films that everyone was going to see anyway. Avengers: Infinity War astonishes audiences with its cast of caped thousands. Henry “Superman” Cavill’s unshaveable moustache sends DC/Warner Bros stock price plummeting. Hollywood weeps, for — after finally acknowledging the existence of women superheroes (Wonder Woman) and nonwhite ones (Black Panther) — there are no more comic books left to plunder. The studio VP who conceives of the notion of a TV series centered on Alfred, Bruce Wayne’s butler, receives the Nobel Peace Prize.

Deadpool?

Deadpool?

In times such as these, Teen Titans Go! To the Movies is the superhero movie we need, and also the one we, in a darkly karmic way, deserve. Based on the Cartoon Network series that is based on the on-again, off-again DC Comics series and made by its TV creators — directors Aaron Horvath and Peter Rida Michail; writers Horvath and Michael Jelenic — this is the snarky tale of a gang of teen caped crusaders and “goofsters” who despair that their exploits have, er, not yet been adapted as a comic-book movie. It’s very meta. Which is, like avocado toast and economic anxiety, what all the kids are into these days. And some of the grownups, too. An entertainment for our desperate uncertainty, for how we are not seen! Or maybe also a commentary on entitlement, too.

This is either the end of comic-book movies — for what is left to say? — or the briefest of pauses to catch our breath before the next decade begins. *checks upcoming movie schedules* The latter it is, then.

Anyway, the Teen Titans are all “It’s not fair!” that the grownup superheroes who scold them and scoff at them have gotten their own movies, some more than one. (The film opens with everyone going to the premiere of, ahem, Batman Again.) They determine that the reason they’ve been overlooked is because they lack an archnemesis, so they go out and acquire one: Slade (the voice of Will Arnett: Show Dogs, The Lego Batman Movie), whom everyone keeps mistaking for Deadpool, and I am here for the acknowledgment that Deadpool really is pretty much a villain.

Nicolas Cage?

Nicolas Cage?

And I am here for Titans — you don’t need to have seen the show, as I have not, to have fun with this — which achieves in spades everything that the Deadpool movies set out to do and fail at. This movie — a riot of hilariously, wonderfully colorful and zippy animation in a variety of delightful styles — doesn’t deploy clichés of the genre with a lazy wink and call it a day. Titans gathers together many of those clichés — from the little-orphan origin story and the “perfect plot device” macguffin of the superhero tale to the sentimentality and the musical numbers of the animated movie — and gleefully rips them to shreds. Yet at the same time it lovingly embraces its reality as a superhero comic-book movie and a self-referential geek experience; Nicolas Cage (Mom and Dad, Inconceivable) as the voice of Superman is perfection in casting, though only if you’re aware of the lost (ie, never got off the ground) live-action reboot of the Man of Steel with him in the role. Then again, it also rags on the genre and the industry’s approach to it: Cavill’s moustache has a sneaky cameo; Jonah Hex makes an appearance, as if to burn the Titans with “Geez, even this comic book has made it to the big screen!”

Teen Titans Go! To the Movies is, then, a giant bucket of movie popcorn that is simultaneously delicious and fully aware of what a mountain of junk food it is. It revels in its own nonsense, taking it all with, well, as many grains of salt as that giant bucket of popcorn would demand. It is, in many ways, more akin to the Captain Underpants movie than it is to the Marvel or DC epics we’ve gotten of late. It’s also as equally suited to adults as it is to kids.

(Contrast all this with “The Late Batsby,” the short Titans opens with. It’s a slight bit of nothing about Batgirl that ends abruptly and yet without any real resolution, and also features her spying on her father in the bathroom, eww.)

Big Wheels keep on turning’, Teen Titans keep on burnin’...

Big Wheels keep on turning’, Teen Titans keep on burnin’…

Teen Titans isn’t perfect. It misses an opportunity to do something meaningfully critical with its supposition that the greatest director of superhero movies in Hollywood is a woman, Jade Wilson (the voice of Kristen Bell: A Bad Moms Christmas, The Disaster Artist). (Women almost never get to direct these kinds of movies, and Titans is thisclose to dealing with this reality.) And while Titans has no time for the bullshit of comic-book movies, it misses the biggest bit of bullshit about the genre: the one that centers white men at the expense of everyone else. Batman-sidekick Robin (the voice of Scott Menville: Smurfs: The Lost Village, Mr. Peabody & Sherman) is the Titans’ leader, because who else could be, I guess? Beast Boy (the voice of Greg Cipes: Fast & Furious), who can transform into any animal, is green; Cyborg (the voice of Khary Payton), who does what it says on his titanium tin, is black; Raven (the voice of Tara Strong: Smurfs: The Lost Village, Sing), who can control dimensions or something, and Starfire (the voice of Hynden Walch: Tangled), an alien princess with alien powers, are both girls. Robin is the one with the journey here, however comedic it may be; he’s the one who has to learn that he’s part of a team, even as the leader, and that his friends deserve better than he is giving them. Robin’s arrogance and selfishness does come in for a thrashing… but that could have been done even more effectively if he were actually sidelined by the movie itself, the way it subordinates his teammates to sidekicks.

So there is still some new territory left for the superhero story to explore. Onto the next decade… *sigh*


Click here for my ranking of this and 2018’s other theatrical releases.


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green light 3.5 stars

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Teen Titans Go! To the Movies (2018) | directed by Aaron Horvath, Peter Rida Michail
US/Can release: Jul 27 2018
UK/Ire release: Aug 03 2018

MPAA: rated PG for action and rude humor
BBFC: rated PG (mild violence, threat, rude humour)

viewed in 2D
viewed at a semipublic screening with an audience of critics and ordinary moviegoers

official site | IMDb | trailer
more reviews: Movie Review Query Engine | Rotten Tomatoes

If you’re tempted to post a comment that resembles anything on the film review comment bingo card, please reconsider.

  • Oen1120

    Interestingly, this review from a huge fan of the show says that the movie’s flaws come from putting Robin as the main character with the personal journey, while in the show the Titans are all co-protagonists and Robin is shown to be the least sympathetic and a very poor leader.
    https://www.forbes.com/sites/scottmendelson/2018/07/23/teen-titans-go-to-the-movies-review-its-deadpool-for-kids/#475e8fda750c
    I’m a fan of the show as well- my favorite episode, “Finally, A Lesson,” opens with Robin promising that they will finally share a lesson with their childhood audience, but instead of “be yourself” or “respect others,” the lesson is “how to invest in rental property.”

  • Bluejay

    So there is still some new territory left for the superhero story to explore.

    MaryAnn, I have to admit I’m amused that you always seem surprised by this. Of course superhero stories can explore new things, just as other genres can. Science fiction comes readily to mind; “After decades of spaceships and laser guns, I’m surprised there’s more to explore!” would seem a rather unserious assessment. :-)

    Mediocre stories will always make up the bulk of any genre, but excellent stories will just as surely continue to pop up and delight us.

  • Tonio Kruger

    The film opens with everyone going to the premiere of, ahem, Batman Again.

    Not Batman Redux?

    Or Run, Batman, Run

    Or Batman X: Electric Boogaloo?

    Today’s generation of film makers care nothing for cinematic tradition…

    And while Titans has no time for the bullshit of comic-book movies, it misses the biggest bit of bullshit about the genre: the one that centers white men at the expense of everyone else.

    I’m actually old enough to remember the original George Perez comic book which inspired this cartoon and I have always been a bit annoyed that the cartoon not only took a Muppet Babies approach to the original material, but they also left out Donna Troy, a key part of the original group.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Donna_Troy

  • I’m not surprised that the movie decided it HAD to center a male character. *headdesk*

  • MaryAnn, I have to admit I’m amused that you always seem surprised by this.

    I’m surprised you don’t see the sarcasm in that. Obviously there’s plenty more areas superhero movies can explore. Will they, though?

  • Bluejay

    I’m surprised you don’t see the sarcasm in that.

    Sorry, my bad. (Though this isn’t the first time you seem to have expressed that sentiment; you’ve said Deadpool 2 is the death of the comic book movie, or should be.)

    Will they, though?

    Some will. Many won’t. Sturgeon’s Law and all that. *shrug*

  • Jim Mann

    That’s probably it, though part of it may also be that Robin is the only one of the Teen Titans that someone who is not already a comics fan probably knows.

    Based on your review, I may go to see this, though I’ve never liked this style of animation.

  • Robin is the reason I just can’t enjoy this show, and have to put in my earbuds when my daughter watches it. Dick Grayson is my very favorite superhero character (running neck and neck with Barbara Gordon), and he’s pretty much defined by two things: 1. He’s the warm, kind, friendly counterpart to Batman’s detached coldness, and 2. He is incredibly, incredibly good at what he does, including leading. That the cartoon took that character and made him an incompetent bully just makes me cringe.
    It doesn’t help that Cartoon Network canceled Young Justice, specifically because it was more popular with girls, to focus on this show, which is clearly aimed at attracting male viewers.

  • Minor correction: this movie is based on a cartoon that is based on a cartoon that is based on a comic book series. The costumes, voices, etc, are all based on the 2003 Teen Titans series.

    Yes, I am that much of a nerd.

  • Bluejay

    running neck and neck with Barbara Gordon

    I don’t follow the DC cartoons at all, but Gail Simone’s and Babs Tarr’s runs on the Batgirl comic are amazing. If they translate that Batgirl to the screen with the same fidelity they did Wonder Woman, I’ll be happy.

  • I actually like Barbara better as Oracle, but that’s at least in part about when I started reading Batfamily comics. I would love to see Batgirl get star treatment, though.

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