Superhero movie saturation is a key plot point in Teen Titans Go! To The Movies, which ironically enough arrived in UK cinemas the same week as another big comic book film, Marvel’s Ant-Man And The Wasp. Spun off from the similarly anarchic Cartoon Network series, this animated musical comedy imagines a market in which everyone, even DC Comics’ most obscure superheroes, is getting their own movie. Everyone, that is, except Robin.
The live-action Batman movies haven’t had a lot of time for him since 1997’s Batman & Robin. Since then, we’ve only really had a much-maligned Easter egg with Joseph Gordon Levitt’s character in The Dark Knight Rises and a more significant animated outing for Michael Cera’s take on the Boy Wonder in last year’s The LEGO Batman Movie. The Robin of Teen Titans Go (voiced by Scott Menville), isn’t best pleased about this.
After a public humiliation at the super-star-studded premiere of Batman Again, Robin’s fellow Titans – Beast Boy (Greg Cipes), Cyborg (Khary Payton), Raven (Tara Strong), and Starfire (Hynden Welch) – resolve to try and help him achieve his dream. Their best idea is to take on an arch-nemesis, in the shape of Slade (Will Arnett), but they bite off more than they can chew and wind up trying to save the world instead.
Since The LEGO Movie was released, Warner Bros has put out a number of winking animated meta-comedies in this vein, but this feels different in tone. The series must have an older fanbase that this is partly pitched towards, because this is absolutely jam-packed with gags that are going to go over kids’ heads, whether they’re deep-cut comics references or just deceptively dark for a PG certificate movie, while still being packaged in a noisy, colourful, child-friendly package.
To place it on a scale with other superhero comedies, this finds some hitherto unknown sweet spot between Deadpool and last summer’s Captain Underpants, while also coinciding with the more distant Jay & Silent Bob Strike Back. In relation to the former, the film reruns one of Deadpool 2‘s big gags in the second act. Maybe this film’s version feels darker because it’s actually in a family movie, but it’s also somehow funnier and more imaginative than its adult counterpart.
The sight gags and one-liners come thick and fast to match the hyperactive demands of the movie, but writers Michael Jelenic and Aaron Horvath deserve all credit for making it all as funny as it is. More than just taking swipes at DC’s darker live-action fare and cinematic universes in general (including an above-and-beyond cameo from you-know-who), it finds unexpected and even shocking punchlines for many of the gags you’ve come to expect.
It’s at least self-aware enough to cover its most predictable plot twist (which will be obvious even if you’re not up on your DC character names) by having another character immediately say they saw it coming, as if to flummox those in the audience who go to these things to do the “I understood that reference” routine.
The movie earns that because up to that point, its entire approach to making you laugh is catching you by surprise with how dark, or sudden, or unpredictably a setpiece ends. Whenever it zigs with an Everything Is Awesome-esque music number featuring Michael Bolton as a singing tiger, it zags with the utterly unexpected way in which that sequence ends. It feels a little overstretched, even at 88 minutes, but never fully outstays its welcome.
For one thing, it’s backed up by terrific voice work by the series’ cast, as well as Nicolas Cage, finally getting to play Superman, and Arnett, whose kiddyfied version of Slade has the same deadly skillset as his comic-book inspiration Deathstroke, but amusingly manages to fend off these junior heroes with his new superpower of gaslighting.
Teen Titans Go! To The Movies is a truly bizarre entry into the DC cinematic canon, sharpening the same sort of gentle meta-nudges we get in the LEGO movies to inflict the blunt force trauma of Batman V Superman and Suicide Squad. In short, it’s a DC film that absolutely does not take itself seriously. At times, it’s near impossible to tell who the actual target audience is meant to be, but it’s a vibrant and often staggering over-extension of the vogue for meta-humans and meta-humour.
Teen Titans Go! To The Movies is in UK cinemas now.