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Friday, February 17, 2017

Justice League vs. Teen Titans: A Breakdown & Analysis

            

          The Teen Titans have been a long-standing staple in the annals of DC Comics mythology.  The summer of 1980 saw creators Marv Wolfman and George Perez relaunch the team with the “New Teen Titans” which brought back fan-favorite characters Robin/Dick Grayson, Wally West/Kid Flash, Donna Troy/Wonder Girl, Garfield Logan/Beast Boy and introduced new characters Victor Stone/Cyborg, Kori’andor/Starfire, and Raven.  This re-invention of the Teen Titans ushered in a new era of comics and created one of the most beloved on-going series at the time as Wolfman and Perez injected a sense of drama and growing pains into young characters trying desperately to find their identity outside of standing in the shadows of the Justice League.

            While the characters of the Teen Titans have found great success in mass media through the 2003 Teen Titans animated series, which drew a lot of inspiration for the characters and storylines from Wolfman and Perez’s run, and in 2010’s Young Justice animated series, Justice League vs Teen Titans is the first full-length animated feature to explore these characters in such a way.  So, how good was this adaptation?  Well, considering it took the #5 spot on my Top 10 Comic Book Movies of 2016, I think that’s a good indication.



            In this review, I will break the film down into seven categories:  Story, Casting, Character Design, Animation, Score, Editing, and Action.  I have replaced the two categories of Costumes and Cinematography from my previous reviews with Character Design and Animation as I feel that these are more applicable to the animated features, but explore the same qualities of Costumes and Cinematography.  As always, everything presented in this review are my own thoughts and insights.  My goal here is not to change anyone’s mind or to say that I’m right and others are wrong.  With that, I hope no one takes offense to anything said here and gets a chance to maybe gain some insight into this film.  Without further adieu…. TITANS, GO!

STORY:  Since 2007, DC Universe Animated Original Movies has released 27 animated features.  Some have been amazing (Justice League: Flashpoint Paradox, Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, Batman: Assault on Arkham) and some have been not so great (Superman: Doomsday, Justice League: Throne of Atlantis).  Fortunately, their track record has been more on the side of great than on poor and Justice League vs Teen Titans joins the greats.



            One of the things that has always made the Teen Titans a fascinating group to read about in the comics is that most of them have constantly walked in the shadows of their Justice League mentors, constantly fighting to achieve their own identities as heroes away from them.  Watching these teenaged heroes come together to support each other and help one another grow and this movie captures that beautifully.  Written by comic and television scribe Bryan Q. Miller, this story is a fantastic amalgam of the classic Raven introduction story told by Marv Wolfman and George Perez in the 1980’s with an updated roster of heroes that currently exist in the DC Universe such as Damian Wayne as Robin.

            The heart of the story rests in the two characters of Raven and Robin (Damian Wayne) as they each struggle with the darkness of their origins as they are both children of demons.  While Damian’s demonic lineage is more metaphoric as he is the grandson of Ra’s al Ghul, Raven’s origin as the daughter of the demon Trigon is quite literal and also causes the central conflict of the story.  As Trigon seeks to break the dimensional barrier and take over the Earth, Raven struggles with the knowledge that she is his doorway to achieving these nefarious goals.  While Raven and Damian share their struggles of escaping their evil fates and represent the darker elements of the film, the supporting characters of Starfire, Beast Boy, Blue Beetle, and Cyborg represent the more hopeful and cheerful side of heroism while also showcasing the positive and supportive environment that the Titans team offers each of these young heroes.



            Obviously, with a title like “Justice League vs Teen Titans”, it’s assumed that we’re going to see some epic fights between these two teams, right?  Right.  But often times, these kinds of conflicts feel forced where it’s played more as a novelty just to get more people willing to watch.  Here in lies one of the greatest elements of the movie: the reasoning and motivations behind the Justice League members fighting the Teen Titans is caused by demonic possession brought on by the arrival of Trigon.  What makes this so compelling is that while all of these young heroes struggle with the insecurities and fears of never being able to live up to the legends of the Justice League, it’s this team of Titans that are able to not only avoid being possessed, but are also able to hold their own against the League and take a stand against Trigon.  Where the League failed, the Teen Titans were able to step up and take control of the situation.  That makes for not only an inspiring story, but also an entertaining one.  Where the Justice League functions like a professional MLB team, the Teen Titans are a team in the minors.  What this does is create a sense of angst and doubt that they will succeed.

            I’m going to give Story 5/5.  While the main plot of Trigon looking to invade and take over the Earth is extremely compelling and captivating, the heart of this story lies in the characters and the private moments that they share.  In the scenes where the Titans are talking amongst themselves or at a carnival acting like adolescents, that is where we are able to identify with these characters and truly care about them and become invested in their success which I feel is always the most important in superhero stories.  I was also very impressed with how they blended the classic elements from the original New Teen Titans comics of the 1980’s with the modern look and feel of the New 52 comics without feeling forced or out of place.  It shows why the stories Wolfman and Perez created will remain constant classics that will stand the test of time.



CASTING:  DC Comics animation has an outstanding legacy of voice talent for their animated features and tv series.  Many viewers are most familiar with the Teen Titans animated series from 2003, so there were of course going to be those loyal fans who associate the voices of characters from that 2003 series with the characters being portrayed.  However, the new cast assembled for this animated feature live up to the high standards set by that show and create something that both new and old fans of the Teen Titans can enjoy.

            Returning voice talent includes Jason O’Mara as Batman, Jerry O’Connell as Superman, Rosario Dawson as Wonder Woman, Christopher Gorham as The Flash, Shemar Moore as Cyborg, Sean Maher as Nightwing, and Stuart Allen as Robin.  New additions to the DC Animated Universe includes Jon Bernthal as Trigon, Taissa Farmiga as Raven, Jake T. Austin as Blue Beetle, Brandon Soo Hoo as Beast Boy, and Kari Wahlgren as Starfire.  Each actor brings their own unique tone to their character and as many of these actors have voiced their characters before, we can start to hear that they are becoming more comfortable in their roles. 

            I’m going to give Casting 4/5 Stars.  While I think everyone cast does a great job in their roles, there’s a part of me that really feels that the movie and performances would have been stronger had they re-cast the former actors from the 2003 Teen Titans animated series.  While this current ensemble of actors captures the youth and sense of hope that this young team of heroes needs to embody, I can’t help but feel that the former actors would have really helped this feature to come alive even further.  The biggest benefit for this film is starting to recognize the voices of the Justice League members as those characters now that we’ve been exposed to them in those roles for a while now.



CHARACTER DESIGN:  DC animation has always delivered character designs loyal to the source material.  However, one of the aspects of animation that can create a divisive opinion is of the animation.  For example, while I love the storyline of Superman vs The Elite that was adapted in the animated film, I strongly dislike the chosen character designs.  They looked a bit too cartoony for my taste and took away from the serious nature of the storyline.

            Fan-favorite character designer Phil Bourassa has been the lead character designer on DC animated projects for some time now, most popularly with Young Justice, Justice League: Flashpoint Paradox, and the CW Vixen series.  Bourassa has a fantastic talent of incorporating all of the classic and important elements of the costumes and designs from the comics, but implementing them into his own style that lends a realism to the costume constructions.  He does this especially well with young characters as his style leans more towards slender, lean figures.  Again, this is perfectly evidenced in his previous work on the Young Justice series and you can see where he incorporated some of his past designs from that series into this feature.



            Some of the better designs in this film are with the characters Robin, Starfire, Blue Beetle, and Cyborg.  These characters not only retain their iconic comic book look, but their costumes also have a bit more detail and texture than other characters within the feature do, namely the armored characters like Blue Beetle and Cyborg.  I was most impressed with how they were able to incorporate the look, color, and aesthetic of the 1980’s comics with a modern touch glazed over it.

I’m going to give Character Design 5/5 Stars.  The great thing with Phil Bourassa’s work is that he knows the iconic elements of the character costumes that he has to keep that make these characters identifiable, but he also recognizes where he can make additions and improvements to put his unique signature on their design.  He also recognizes what will look good in animation vs what looks good in comics.  With animation, if you try to incorporate too much detail, it does not animate well from frame to frame, so these character designs work flawlessly in this feature. 



SCORE:  Since 1992, DC Animation has had a long-standing record of success in their animated features when they started producing content.  Shirley Walker set the standard with her scores for Batman The Animated Series and Superman The Animated Series.  As the DC Universe Animated Original Movies were introduced, the scores have all been consistently good.  Obviously some works have been better than others, such as the scores by Christopher Drake for Batman: The Dark Knight Returns and Frederick Wiedmann’s score for Justice League: The Flashpoint Paradox.  Wiedmann returns for Justice League vs Teen Titans and I think that his does a decent job.

            With this particular score, Wiedmann achieves a great sense of suspense, action, and emotion that befits the story elements shown in this feature.  His strongest works are shown during the action sequences during the fights between the Titans and the League and again during the Titans’ battle with Trigon.  The sound gives a great sense of suspense and danger, but also creates a feeling of youth and fun, which is important in working to separate this team-up feature apart from the other Justice League animated features since these are more youthful characters having fun doing what they’re doing.  This is what this particular score should do because the central characters of this story are the Teen Titans and there should be a different sound to one of their battles than say during one of the Justice League’s battles.

            The problem that I have with this score is that it does feel very generic at times.  There are several moments that don’t have the charge and identity of the music used during the 2003 Teen Titans animated series.  I realize that I have been making a lot of mention of the 2003 series, but I feel as though that sets a great example in certain areas for what this feature should be trying to achieve.

I’m going to give the Score 3/5 Stars.  This isn’t a bad score by any stretch of the imagination, but it does feel somewhat repetitive of past works Wiedmann has done on Flashpoint Paradox and Throne of Atlantis.  Yes, each track captures the mood and intensity required of it in each scene, but it just lacks a unique identity to set this film distinctly apart from other DC Universe Animated Original movies.

EDITING:  If you’ve read any of my past reviews, then I’m sure you’re aware of the weight and importance I put on editing.  For me, this is an area where movies are made or broken.  While I feel in some sense animation gets a bit of an unfair advantage in that everything is meticulously storyboarded and assembled before the animation process, I think it can also be even more difficult than a live-action feature due in large part to the fact that the filmmakers have 75 minutes to tell a good story that develops their characters, but also balances between action and drama to keep their audience entertained.



            With the Justice League movies, fans have come to expect bigger action and spectacle than in the solo movie films.  And they certainly should expect that.  This is something that I feel Justice League vs Teen Titans does extremely well because the film deals with two teams-worth of characters and has to address all of them during the action sequences, but never once do you feel lost.  The feature intercuts across massive landscapes to show audiences what each character is doing at the same moment.  So, you’ll see Beast Boy and Blue Beetle battling demons together, then move to see Raven and Robin combating their families and inner demons, then you jump over to see Superman, Flash, and Wonder Woman battling Trigon’s sons and never once do you feel like the movie is over-stuffed with too many characters to follow.  Tracking this many characters is a truly hard task, regardless of whether you’re doing it in animation or live-action.

            I’m going to give Editing 4/5 Stars. Arguably the most impressive aspect with these animated features is their ability to tell a well-developed story with character development, while at the same time, keeping the pace of the film moving and not lingering on scenes for too long or jumping away from scenes too quickly.  There have been past features with DC that have been guilty of both, but Justice League vs Teen Titans moves at a great pace, gives each character the necessary amount of screen time, and captures the perfect balance between action and drama.



ACTION:  With a title like “Justice League vs Teen Titans”, this film had a lot of fan expectation riding on it to deliver heavy action sequences and great fights, and the feature does not disappoint.  Sam Liu returns to masterfully direct this movie, with his previous credits including Superman/Batman: Public Enemies, episodes of Justice League the Animated Series, Young Justice, and Green Lantern: The Animated Series.  Liu’s experience with these characters and the limited time frame of a direct-to-video feature, he delivers one of the best movies in the DC Animated Universe and a large part of this is due to his use of action.

            Past DC Universe Animated Original Movies have used directors that craft complex fight sequences, most notably Jay Oliva who has directed Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, Justice League: Flashpoint Paradox, and Batman: Bad Blood.  While it is always very impressive to see these well-choreographed fight sequences that could stand on par with a live-action movie, Sam Liu utilizes a different approach which is more representative of comic book panels.  In comics, because you’re looking at a still image, you could not interpret an overly complex fight sequence that uses 4 different forms of martial arts.  You instead see iconic poses of punches, kicks, and tackles and this is what Sam Liu’s style takes inspiration from.  Yes, the action sequences are still very busy and well developed, but they’re not as drawn out and what this does is keep the camera moving and interweaving between characters and it keeps the story progressing.



            The two strongest action sequences of the film are in the middle when the Teen Titans fight the members of the Justice League and the climax when you see the League and the Titans teamed up fighting Trigon and his forces, creating a perfect balancing act between the seriousness of the threat they’re facing while exchanging jokes and one liners to create a sense of fun and levity.  The action is clean, concise, and used as a device to show the spectacle and fun of watching all of these heroes working together.  By keeping the action more simplistic and direct, it’s easier for audiences to transition from Superman fighting a possessed Flash, to Robin Starfire, Cyborg, and Blue Beetle fighting demon creatures in Trigon’s realm, to then fire back to Superman now having to fight a possessed Wonder Woman. 
            I’m going to give the Action 5/5 Stars.  Not overly choreographed or complex, the action of this feature really captures the epic scale necessary for these powerful characters, but also creates a fun spectacle that keeps the audience absorbed in what they’re seeing on screen.  The characters aren’t looking to have a 5 minute long hand-to-hand fight using 5 different types of martial arts.  Instead, they’re using their strength, powers, and team work to inflict the damage they need to in order to end the conflict as quickly as possible.  It really is representative of how action is depicted in comics.

STORY:  5/5
CASTING: 4/5
CHARACTER DESIGN: 5/5
SCORE: 3/5
EDITING: 4/5
ACTION: 5/5
OVERALL SCORE:  3.8/5 STARS


FINAL THOUGHTS:  As DC Animation is pumping out more and more of these animated features, the quality has fluctuated from film to film.  While some are very strong, others have felt very weak and rushed.  Justice League vs Teen Titans, for me, is easily one of the Top 5 best produced DC animated films that I would stand up next to the likes of Batman: The Dark Knight Returns and even Batman: Mask of the Phantasm.  Yes, those two films are completely different in tone than Justice League vs Teen Titans, but the reason I would hold this feature up next to those is because of the loyalty to the source material and the proper representation of these characters.  It honestly feels like a true adaptation of the best era of Teen Titans comics.  It incorporates the epic action and scale that general audiences crave to see with these animated features while committing to loyal interpretations and personifications of the classic Titans characters that long-time fans have always loved.  What has always made the Teen Titans such a fun and accessible group are the personalities of the characters, the youth they convey, and the growth we get to see them go through.  While the Justice League is always a great team to see, they aren’t as relatable as the Titans, in my opinion.  This is a great feature that can be enjoyed by both kids and adults and guarantees a great movie watching experience for both long time comic fans and people who have never read a comic before in their lives.

Top 10 Comic Book Movies Here


Written and Edited By, Witt Reese. Co-Edited By, Jack Flowers.

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