Sunday, July 2, 2023

Smells like teen spirit


Directed by Peter Rida Michail and Aaron Horvath
Written by Michael Jelenic and Aaron Horvath

Spoilers: moderate, or high if you don't already know who Deathstroke the Terminator is

Other than having been asked to by an old friend, I don't know what business I have writing about Teen Titans Go! To the Movies, the now-half-decade-old theatrically-released feature animation accompaniment (though not the only feature-length outing) for the TV show, Teen Titans Go!, which as the name implies is about the DC superhero team, the Teen Titans, which as that name implies was originally formed from the big heroes' teen sidekicks; that phenomenon really came into vogue in the Silver Age, so that practically every marquee DC hero had one, and eventually writer Bob Haney put together the pieces that'd been laid out for him in a series of team-ups between 1964 and 1966, coining the name "Teen Titans" in an issue of The Brave & the Bold published in 1965, prior to the launch of their own series the following year.  By the time I'd ever heard of them, of course, they weren't all sidekicks (Cyborg, Beast Boy, Raven, possibly so forth; Terra was a sidekick, after a fashion).  As for the ones who had been sidekicks, even the lazy laggard that is comic book time had caught up with them by then, so that during the main phase of my DC Comics fandom, whenever those characters appeared together they'd taken on new adult codenames, lives, and responsibilities, whereas the actual contemporary teen heroes, yet a third generation of derivative characters, had rebranded as Young Justice.  I'm not sure which name sucks more, though Young Justice didn't live in a big "T."  Clearly, I can look things up on Wikipedia like anybody else, but I have never seen a single episode of Teen Titans Go!, the actual show, and that's kind of unexpectedly intimidating, because while Wikipedia doesn't note this, it should, for it does in fact appear that Teen Titans Go! is DC's single longest-running cartoon.  Beginning in 2013, it's produced eight seasons, and as far as I can tell it's still going, sitting presently at three hundred and eighty-one episodes, meaning we might have to include it in any "longest-running American cartoons, generally" conversation, too.

Moreover, I don't know what business I have discussing this movie because I have never seen or read anything specifically with the Teen Titans.  I have never seen Go!'s precursor show, the simply-named Teen Titans, nor the live-action show, Titans; I'm fairly sure that I have never read an issue of any volume of The Teen Titans or The New Teen Titans or The New Titans or Titans.  (Or Young Justice, for that matter.)  And at the same time, through the weird osmosis that attends reading comics, it still feels like I have.  I just saw a title for an episode of the live-action show, called "Dude, Where's My Gar?", and I laughed at that because I very much got the pun, despite the fact that Beast Boy, as a design and as a power-set, might be my single least-favorite superhero (a prejudice, incidentally, that Go! To the Movies has not caused me to reevaluate, though let's not get ahead of ourselves).  This is a hazardous position, because I could convincingly pretend to myself that I did have some business writing about this; I'll probably start pretending in the next couple of sentences, in fact.

(There's also the matter of the show, if we accept its character designs as dispositive, having been somewhat intended for wee babies, but we've never let that stop us.)

Still: Go! To the Movies is admirably self-contained, and would work well enough if you knew even less about the Titans.  In some cases it might work better.  All it demands you know about the show is that "Teen Titans Go! is an anarchic parody" and all it demands you know in general is what anybody would have picked up just from being alive in the 2010s, namely, "wow, there sure are a lot of these superhero films, aren't there?", and in its suggestion that this is both unsustainable and also maybe kind of evil, watching this five years later might have been the best thing I could have done, because its happy-go-lucky subversiveness has something of a different substance now that some of its predictions have come true.  One of its funnier sequences I'm glad I didn't see till after I saw The Flash: for about five minutes' worth of snide, extravagantly lacerating parody, it basically recapitulates the entire plot of that 144 minute movie, which I personally quite liked, though if I'd seen Go! To the Movies immediately beforehand it would've practically obliterated it as anything to be taken seriously.  But I mean this as a compliment.  (Then again, the obvious, tedious poke it takes at Batman v Superman only indicates that even the people who make DC media, along with all of you other literalist cretinser, the general "you"don't understand Batman v Superman.  But no one needs every joke to land.)

As for the Titans themselves, the show's already chosen a "core team," probably because the more serious-minded Teen Titans 2003-2006 show chose them first (though even in my capacity as a secondhand observer, it's bizarre how much the background animators want you to notice that Donna Troy is with the grown-ups).  But it doesn't truly require you to even know these superheroes are named Robin (Scott Menville), Starfire (Hyndyn Walch), Cyborg (Khary Payton), Beast Boy (Greg Cipes), and Raven (Tara Strong), for if you didn't, it shall cheerfully tell you, in an introductory rap song rapped at a lame supervillain (Greg Davies) that, nonetheless, they fail to defeat.

This is, I guess, exactly the opening the film ought to have, and not only because when the adult superheroes (lots of folks, though the main one's Nicolas Cage as Superman) show up to solve the crisis for the teensso inept they don't even initially realize they're being aidedit kicks off the major arc of the movie, the Titans realizing that they're seen as bozos (<Cage>"goofsters!"</Cage>), and hence, in their deep immaturity, they reverse cause-and-effect and determine that to be taken seriously like Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman, they need to go to Hollywood and get their movie.

More importantly, it efficiently and effectively tells you how the two major strands of comedy in Go! To the Movies are going to be pursued, those strands being, on the one hand, a meta satire in which superheroes star in their own movies out of basically narcissism, and on the other, deliberately embarrassing material hard-sold.  Maybe the show was like this all along, but it's a bit like if half the movie were The LEGO Movie and half were Trolls, and one of those approaches works better than the other, the "look at pop culture's IP-strewn wasteland" LEGO Movie stuff jarring somewhat against the Trolls intentionally-cringish stuff, insofar as the latter worked in Trolls because the idea was the constant affectionate mockery of the uncool overenthusiasm of its stupid cast, and hence people who resemble them in real life.  I don't know exactly what the target is here, besides it being sort of funny when your cheeks flush despite watching it in the privacy of your own home.  This overlooks the "comedy for actual children," I suppose, which is also showcased in this opening battle scene when the lame villain, a giant balloon man (whose design is, to be fair, pretty nifty for a character intended to be dumb), has had his butt-analogue breached, and the film dwells on the resulting flatulence.  This is fine, and in fact there's some genuinely funny scatological stuff later, though the part I laughed out loud at was the somewhat more grown-up joke that happened in the space between me and the film, when I realized that it was somebody's actual job to write the words, "(FARTING CONTINUES)," into some sort of computer program for the subtitles.

It careens between these two (or three) modes throughout, and the meta satire is usually its better move, in part because this is how it gives itself leave to do quite a bit of play with form, and if there's definitely a sub-sub-Spider-Verse thing to its "hark, the style of Batman: TAS" gestures, these are still a lot of fun.  (As far as form goes, I'll confess I'm not a big fan of the primary form, and it hits me like an a-bomb in the midst of writing this that the watchword when the show was being designed was "PowerPuff Girls"Starfire could nearly be mistaken for onebut since I like the PowerPuff Girls designs, I should elaborate that I just don't think that this quasi-chibi-ness works all that well with teen superheroes, and it feels like they've doubled-down on the thick black swatches that comprise the character outlines with the side effect of emphasizing the digital assistance of the character animation.  Raven is especially badanimating her might have been a vacation, because she tends to expressionlessly hover, and the welded-on not-actually-a-drop-shadow of her hood makes her look more like she's wearing a maskand if Cyborg can come off well, it's only because his design at least enables funny, gross body horror.  Robin is the only figure who comes close to getting the is-this-actually-a-feature animated juice to rise to the level of "good.")

But, I was saying that when it puts its best foot forward it's very funny, and that's in even larger part because the meta humor is its primary vector for a significant bleedover into just straight-up, random, mean, often-extremely-mean cartoon comedy, which I guess might be a fourth mode all by itself, though it's usually grounded in something superhero media-related; that's swell because the plot ensures that the meta stuff is the comedy that predominates, the narrative encouraging the Titans to be out-and-out sociopaths about getting their movie.  This begins with a remarkably brutal running joke, that, equally remarkably, never actually gets happily resolved, at the expense of the Challengers of the Unknown, which is partly good precisely because nothing about it indicates anyone reined in their contempt for the obscure Silver Age science-heroes long enough to even look up who the Challengers of Unknown were.  I suspect they did know, and decided they were Johnny Quest characters anyway, because otherwise they wouldn't have been able to pull off the best "different aesthetic" joke in the movie with their identical squarehead character designs (palette-swapped for more diverse skintones, but in a way that turns them even more into mid-century pod people) alongside the late-stage Hanna-Barbera of their character animation (and, see, this is what I meant by "no business"they were also guest stars on an episode of the show, which for all I know did this with them already).  Well, the tendency peaks, though it surely doesn't cease, when the Titans go back in time (they have time machines) to ensure that they're the only superheroes.  Robin pooh-poohs any idea that they should actually go back and kill the superheroes (though it's notable that the idea is suggested), declaring only that they should prevent their tragic origin stories, but the montage to follow does not, let's say, take this dogmatically.  The montage that immediately follows that, when it turns out that this was a bad idea, is so gleefully horrid that this kid's movie feels like it's getting away with something.*

That plot, to give a little further detail, sees the Titans struggling for the smallest recognition (as with the time machines, the looseness of the film is indicated by how it seems like Batman barely knows who Robin is), a situation that pertains until they stumble into a battle with Deathstroke the Terminator (a little distractingly, our LEGO Batman, Will Arnett), and foil his plan to steal a sci-fi maguffin that will eventually be used in a scheme suggestive of the most logical end to our current Streaming Wars.  With this qualified victory, the Titans suddenly acquire a new cachet, enough to garner the attention of the world's biggest superhero movie director (and for all its scabrousness, isn't this is just superhero cinema propaganda, insisting that these things have directors?), Jade Wilson (Kristen Bell).  She gives them their movie, though, curiouslyor not, as the Titans are still moronsshe seems to be mostly interested in separating her star, Robin, from his friends.

Anyway, that plot is even more obvious in the film's rendition of it, insofar as Slade Wilson, Deathstroke the Terminator, is invariably referred to here by his given name, in a joke I'm not sure how I feel about, with the Titans gushing over the prosody of "Slade" in ways that get kind of tiring though I expect the goal was to ensure that even the very smallest child had the opportunity to realize that "Slade" rhymes with "Jade."  I initially thought that they just couldn't say "Deathstroke" in this children's film, but then, they can say "Deadpool," the joke there being Arnett violently denying that he is Deadpool, or like Deadpool in any way, which is a joke I understand implicitly though I don't know, is it funny?  (The reveal is very funny, involving maybe the best pure animation gag in the film despite being one of the least-stressed, going completely, quietly surrealist in the disconnect between a head and a body.  And still it's a little degraded by dialogue that might not fully realize that Deathstroke's covered right eye is not altogether a costume flourish.)  Deathstroke's kind of inevitable; but he's kind of odd, isn't he?  Somehow the show appears to have held off for five years ever doing the character that, give or take Trigon, is probably the definitive Titans villain from what might be the only legitimately famous Titans storythe only one I could somewhat accurately describeand I guess Go! To the Movies is kind of like The Judas Contract, though that's something Go! To the Movies does not attempt to get away with.  (Sure, roughly half the superhero movies ever made are about evil manifesting as genocide on a municipal, planetary, or universal scale, and, by all means, let's hear Thanos out; but Deathstroke committed even worse crimes, grooming and statutory rape.)  The movie is keen to position him as their archenemy, in a way that keeps flirting with knocking off the least-likeable elements of The Venture Bros., but it always seems like such a, well, un-Deathstrokey plan.  "Why Deathstroke, and why now, in this story?", in the absence of any apparent long-running "he's our villain, we always fight Deathstroke" thing, remains a nagging question.

Maybe you noticed that out of all the several varieties of comedy catalogued, "character" didn't come up, and that's because the Titans, though amusing as a mass of surprisingly antisocial jerks, are distinguishable inasmuch as they are "Robin" and "these other four obnoxious fucks."  Functionally interchangeable, further differentiation can be achieved mostly by whichever particular irritating speech pattern each VA has settled into after five years with them, and Walch and Cipes seem to be in a competition to be the worst.  It's close to a tie: Walch's Starfire isn't that bad inherently, as her problem boils down to the screenplay's insistence that it's funny when Starfire inserts inappropriately-placed definite articles into her speech (she's an alien), and this was like hot needles in my ears but also not the achievement of the VA herself; so instead the victor is Cipes, who presumably didn't write his lines either, but whom I am relieved to have discovered might well be the world's single whitest man, because his Beast Boy is an unholy stereotyped melange of "street" that never quite decides precisely which dialect it's stereotyping, so it practically feels like the race it's racist against is the human one.  With any individual flopsweaty joke, or even whole sequence, just wait a minute, and a new one'll be along directly.  But this is the movie's persistent problem, that it only ever solves, and obviously not for very long, when Robin dumps their butts.

"Unlikeable and completely fungible characters" is a danger, I expect, that an anarchic episodic comedy getting translated into a feature-length movie could easily fall to, but who knowsmy strong assumption would be that a 381-episode show is better at this, but I'm not immediately compelled to find out.  Still, enough of Go! To the Movies is a blast that even its weakest sequences can be appreciated as expressions of its freewheeling personality.  I admire the sheer commitment to the bit by everyone, from the screenwriters to the animators to the songwriters (it certainly "counts" as a musical, and all the songs are good and funny in some way or another, including the rap).  This extends to the VAs, who are nothing if not committed.  The good parts outweigh the bad by a lot; the best parts are a riot.

Score: 7/10

*In the same vein, I was tempted to bump this up to a nice, robust 8/10 purely on the basis of its final frame gag, which is one classic troll.


  1. *cue Ron Paul "It's Happening" meme*

    Aw! You finally did it! I'm thrilled to have finally worn you down enough to watch it and write up a review! Hahaha. Thank you! Honestly. I don't know anyone else who has watched it to my knowledge, so I was curious to get a feel for what someone thought. I enjoyed the heck out of it and found some of the aspects you found grating enjoyable. Like the characters. I agree that the songs are fantastic and fun. In particular, Upbeat Inspirational Song About Life is legit a song I've played way too much. The fact that Michael Bolton is part of it and the ensuing dialogue after the Titans hit him are just icing on the cake. The time travel scenes, between the Back to the Future references and actual comics elements, are another real high point for me. Turning the crystals of Jor'el's machines into a techno bop was a lot of fun, too. I really need to watch it again as it has been years since I last did. I'm curious to see how it has held up. As you mention, the precognitive sarcasm of things has really panned out in the ensuing years including a show about the Batmobile existing. Anyway, thanks again for the review!

    1. I live to please.

      I did likewise enjoy the Kryptonian crystal rave. Good little movie and if I could stomach Beast Boy for more even a second, it'd be a great little movie.

      I kinda wonder if they knew Pennyworth was in the offing when they made their Alfred: The Motion Picture joke, or if it's just you can't do satire anymore.

    2. Today's satire is tomorrow's reality. Look at the whole "The Simpsons predicted it" concept. Or the fact that The Onion's satire all too often is a legit headline later. We live in interesting times as they say.

    3. I think I'd still prefer Sideshow Bob to most if not all actual Republican candidates. (By happenstance, I watched the one where he ran for mayor earlier today and the "nothing but extended evil cackling" acceptance speech got a big laugh out of me.)