‘Teen Titans Go! To The Movies’ makes the case for animated superhero movies to be more than just studio B-sides.
In a year dominated by superhero movies, you’d be forgiven for thinking that Warner Bros. Animation’s Teen Titans Go! To The Movies was the one title you could miss. While the movie is based on the popular Cartoon Network series and features a slew of celebrity cameos – including, but not limited to, Nicolas Cage‘s turn as a befuddled Superman – the cartoonish nature of the movie made it seem considerably slighter than its cinematic universe counterparts. Imagine my surprise, then, when I discovered that Teen Titans is not only a delightfully bubbly movie about friendship and the power of silliness, it also contains enough tongue-in-cheek jokes about modern superhero movies to put even the Deadpool franchise to shame.
But Teen Titans is more than just a clever takedown of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and the DC live-action movies. This film is also Hollywood’s most compelling argument yet for more high-profile animated superhero films. Like The LEGO Batman Movie before it, Teen Titans leans heavily into its cartoonish aesthetic to engage with its comic book heritage on its own terms. Bright, kid-friendly, and unapologetically cartoonish, Teen Titans shows that you don’t have to be a live-action blockbuster to make an impact with superhero fans. If we’re lucky, Warner Bros. will recognize the good thing it has going.
Without diving too much into the reception of movies like Wonder Woman and Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice – that is ground well covered at this site and many others – it’s worth noting the surprising gap in quality between the Warner Bros. live-action superhero movies and their animated counterparts. For years now, Warner Bros. Animation has been turning some of DC’s most iconic crossover events into standalone movies; many of these films have been direct-to-video releases, with the occasional one-night-only Fathom Events release mixed in for good measure. Recently, though, Warner Bros. has expressed a willingness to move its animated titles beyond the small screen. There’s a major difference, say, between The Killing Joke popping into 1,300 theaters for a single night and The LEGO Batman Movie grossing $311 million worldwide. Similarly, Teen Titans is set to land in more than 3,000 screens across the country and pull in upwards of $20 million in its opening weekend.
Should these trends continue, we may very well recognize 2018 as a turning point of sorts in how major studios approached their animated releases. The Incredibles 2 may not have been as awe-inspiring as its predecessor, but it was still a well-received film full of dynamic action sequences and a heartfelt examination of a changing family dynamic. Teen Titans also walks a fine line between generations, balancing an endless barrage of self-referential superhero jokes with the kind of vibrant visual children’s entertainment that made Adventure Time a mainstay. And if we look ahead a few months, we see Disney getting into the action with Spider-Man: Into the Spiderverse, arguably the most highly anticipated superhero movie of 2018 (non-Black Panther category). These movies, animated are not, are holding their own critically and commercially against their live-action peers.
What truly separates these films from the pack, however, is the variety of animation styles they bring to the table. You can love (or hate) the Marvel Cinematic Universe house style, love (or hate) the grim aesthetic of the DCEU, but there’s no denying that these movies are limited by their adherence to the shared vision of the franchises they inhabit. Not so with the animated films. In 2014, MovieMezzanine’s Michael Mirasol tackled this very subject, arguing that the limitless boundaries of the medium gave comic book creators great opportunities to pursue their visions. “It is not a weakness for a superhero film to resort to animation as a means to showcase its story,” Mirasol wrote. “When done right, it can be the best way to highlight the inherent joy in the possibilities of its improbability.” This is particularly noteworthy when you realize Mirasol’s article predates Marvel entries like Dr. Strange and Thor: Ragnarok, films which lean heavily into the visual stylings of their comic books and create landscapes that land somewhere between live-action and cartoon.
To continue to thrive, superhero movies are going to need to tell new stories and target new audiences, and this will understandably butt up against the limitations placed on these movies by their studios. But imagine what would happen if the stories drove the visuals? Rather than try and justify how Suicide Squad and SHAZAM! can possibly co-exist in a single shared universe, what if Warner Bros. allowed their target audiences to dictate how the movie unfolded? The cartoonish Teen Titans style may not be the right fit for every movie, but that seems to be the point: animation as a medium has evolved to allow for a plethora of artistic interpretations, and audiences are comfortable engaging with these films on their own terms. If the final movie delivers on even a fraction of the trailers’ promise, I cannot imagine anyone arguing that Spider-Man: Into the Spiderverse is a ‘lesser’ entry in the franchise than, say, The Amazing Spider-Man 2 or Spider-Man 3.
To sum it all up: last week, in response to some of the, ah, confusion regarding the MA-rated Titans trailer, RogerEbert.com editor Matt Zoller Seitz explained why live-action movies will always be the dominant mode for comic book adaptations (even if they shouldn’t be). “[We’ve] collectively been led to believe that the big budget, live-action Hollywood film is the ultimate legitimization of the thing we love,” Seitz explained, “and all other forms constitute ‘settling.'” If fans are able to recognize the inherent potential of the animated format for superhero films, then maybe we’ll recognize movies like Teen Titans as more than just a diversion from the main event. Animation may very well hold the key to the future of superhero movies. Let’s not let this medium get bogged down in yet-another legitimacy crisis when we could be moving things forward by leaps and bounds.