Warning: This review contains spoilers.
I wasn’t a fan of Batman: Bad Blood. While it had an intriguing premise, it mostly wasted it and then ultimately abandoned it in the third act, in favor of the same old world domination plot. Since I watched and reviewed that film, I’ve taken the time to catch up with the rest of the New 52 animated films. Some are better than Bad Blood and some are much worse. On the whole, I haven’t been overly enthused about any of them, although if I had to pick favorites, it’d be Justice League: Throne of Atlantis and Batman vs. Robin.
The biggest problem I have with these films overall are mind-numbingly long action sequences and an over-reliance on Batman. With the former, I’m all for big, intricate action sequences, but when they are nothing but heroes pummeling random henchmen (or henchthings) over and over, they become quickly become tedious. As for Batman, while it makes sense for him to be at (or near) the forefront of the solo films, he’s all too often position as the League’s best and most prominent member. Whether that’s true or not as a whole does not matter. These are team-based films and it would be nice for the screentime to be a bit more equal on that front.
Imagine my surprise when I finally got my wish here! Justice League vs. Teen Titans (an oddly misleading title) has its share of issues, but by and large it might well be my favorite entry in this animated cinematic universe to date. Both superhero teams have their members showcased pretty evenly and the film is all the better for it. Of course, the League is down three members here, as neither Green Lantern, Shazam, nor Aquaman make any sort of appearance. In their place, we are introduced to the likes of Starfire (Kari Wahlgren), Beast Boy (Brandon Soo Hoo), Raven (Taissa Farmiga), and Blue Beetle (Jake T. Austin), as well as Damian Wayne (Stuart Allen) finally making the jump to the team films in the series.
The film opens in medias res as the Justice League are battling the Legion of Doom. Our villainous team here is comprised of Lex Luthor (in a super-powered mech suit), Weather Wizard, Solomon Grundy, The Toymaster, and Cheetah. Superman (Jerry O’Connell) goes mano y mano with Luthor, of course, while the rest are up against similarly-expected foes. Batman (Jason O’Mara) battles Grundy, The Flash (Christopher Gorham) zooms into battle against Weather Wizard, The Toymaster toys with Cyborg (Shemar Moore), and Cheetah fails at out running Wonder Woman (Rosario Dawson).
They mostly make short work of all of them, while Damian is stuck a few blocks down directing civilians away from the danger zone. Needless to say, he is none too thrilled about this. After Weather Wizard escapes at the end of the battle and is possessed by some sort of powerful demon…who outmatches a few of the Leaguers…Damian uses it as an opportunity to show his worth to the team. He successfully takes the possessed Weather Wizard down, but Batman is not pleased with his blatant insubordination. As a result, he is shipped off to Titans HQ, with Nightwing (Sean Maher) giving him a ride.
Here we are introduced to the team and all of them make for rather interesting characters. The adult Starfire legitimately cares for all of these kids and they care about her just as much. Raven appears to be the unofficial leader of the trio of teens themselves, with Beast Boy and Blue Beetle being a bit more immature. The latter is probably the least well-rounded on the team, but he still fits well overall. Besides, his main purpose is to take Damian’s ego down a notch upon the young Robin’s arrival.
So what’s up with the demon possession earlier? It appears that Raven’s demonic father, Trigon (Jon Bernthal), has escaped his crystal prison in Hell and is determined to conquer Earth. His plan requires using her as a conduit, so his demons followers are now in pursuit. After one of them fails going up against the Justice League in the body of Weather Wizard, they set their sights higher. Next they possess Superman!
This takes the Man of Steel out of the story for a chunk of the film, aside from a short sequence of him pulling an ancient satanic relic out of the desert. Yes, I said satanic. The film makes it very clear that Trigon is pretty much just Satan and that Raven’s mom was a part of a satanic cult that performed a ritual that married her to the demon. Raven, of course, was the result of that unholy union.
The middle section of the film mostly sees our young protagonists training together and bonding with one another, as the remaining League members try and figure out what in the heck is going on. It all collides when the demons track Raven down at a carnival. The Titans repel their attack, but by then, Batman and company have figured out what is going on. An argument erupts over whether or not Raven should stay with the Titans or go with the League, during the middle of which the demons sneak up and successfully possess The Flash, Wonder Woman, and (for awhile at least) Cyborg.
Batman manages to stave off possession by injecting himself with a toxin, which has the added bonus of taking him out of commission for the rest of the film. Sorry folks, I love Batman as much as the rest of you, but it was refreshing to see him take a backseat to the rest of the gang for once. The Titans, with Cyborg in tow, are now tasked with attempting to stop Trigon’s insidious plot. They succeed, of course, but not without a few interesting turns.
Let’s start with the positives. First off, the story is well-plotted out and pretty straight-forward. There’s nothing worse than watching one of these animated films and realizing that they have two or three films-worth of story crammed into one 80 minute movie. Regardless of what was done in the source material equivalent of this tale, it’s absolutely refreshing to see the Leaguers sidelined in favor of a more green batch of characters that aren’t really interested in grandstanding or constantly arguing about tactics. They see what needs to be done and just do it, not only because they care about humanity, but also because they clearly care about each other. Yes, even Damian eventually feels this way too, which makes for a nice continuation of his on-going arc in these films. Hell, this is far more of a “trilogy capper” for Damian than Bad Blood was.
Action-wise, things are more dynamic. Part of that has to do with the fact that these characters are not as common as their more recognizable brethren. More than anything, it comes from them having an entirely different set of skills. Beast Boy is a delight in particular, both in his various transformations and how he utilizes them in the midst of battle. Everyone’s powers are well-displayed and well-defined, with each receiving a nice showcase multiple times throughout.
On the negative side, the Justice League stuff at the start leaves me cold and it has everything to do with how these characters are portrayed. I know I’m supposed to care about Superman and Wonder Woman’s romantic relationship, but it feels so cold and matter-of-fact that I don’t. Even the attempts to humanize both of them, like Diana calling out sexist tropes in American films, fall flat. The Flash is a nothing of a character altogether in this film, which is a bummer.
Batman remains a constant throughout these, which is a good thing when he is used sparingly like he is here. Cyborg has the most personality of any of the members present in this film and is thankfully given a decent amount of action and character work. If we get another Titans film on down the line, I would certainly welcome more scenes of him spending time with them.
My only other big complaint is Starfire. As a character she comes off well, but the film goes out of its way to sexualize her and constantly gawk at her occasionally barely-clad form. When you take the time to use Wonder Woman, an empowering female figure, to call out sexism in American film and then turn around and leer at Starfire’s body, it’s rather off-putting and disingenuous. It completely robs that earlier Wonder Woman moment of any power and is just another example of infantile thinking slipping into these films. Thankfully most of those tendencies have been curbed more and more since the atrocity that was Justice League: War, but I won’t truly be happy until it’s stamped out completely. Perhaps next time?
Justice League vs. Teen Titans is not a perfect film by any means, but I honestly think it is the best one that DC has produced since starting this new animated continuity. These films have mostly been getting better as they’ve gone along and the fact that I enjoyed this one as much as I did gives me hope for future entries. Shaking the overall narrative up by focusing one of these films on the younger heroes, even bringing in a bit of the modern young adult vibe to the proceedings, made for a nice change of pace. It’s a solid little film and one that I wouldn’t mind watching again on down the line. Nice going with this one, DC!
Justice League vs. Teen Titans is currently available for digital download. It will arrive on Blu-ray/DVD on April 12th, 2016.
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