When the animated Teen Titans transitioned over to the decidedly younger-skewing and humor-based Teen Titans Go! in 2013, it marked the beginning of a series that has gleefully skewered the conventions of the superhero genre — and the children’s TV show format in general — for five years, providing plenty of laughs, absurdist comedy, the occasional life lesson and mostly a delightful nonstop stream of insanity in short little daily bursts.
Now the team — historically, a revolving squad of teen heroes whose first DC Comics appearances date back to 1964 — have made the jump to the big screen with everything you love about the nutty TV show intact. That’s a considerable achievement since the show’s episodes usually run for 11 to 12 minutes and we’re now talking about a 90-minute movie. But the whiz-bang lunacy of Teen Titans Go! to the Movies makes that hour and a half flash by faster than Wally West (sorry), while its meta take on its own existence and that of other superhero films make it smarter than many of its targets.
Written by series showrunners Michael Jelenic and Aaron Horvath (the latter of whom co-directed with Peter Rida Michail), Teen Titans Go! to the Movies glides along on a plot that’s simplicity itself: longtime Batman sidekick Robin (voiced by Scott Menville) is frustrated with his utter lack of standing in Hollywood. He’s seeing spinoffs such as Alfred and Utility Belt go into production before getting his own movie, and resolves to take any action necessary to rectify that.
Dragging teammates Cyborg (Khary Payton), Starfire (Hynden Walch), Raven (Tara Strong) and Beast Boy (Greg Cipes) along with him, Robin makes his pitch to powerful Hollywood filmmaker Jade Wilson (Kristen Bell), who admonishes them that no one takes the Titans seriously enough for them to rate their own franchise. So Robin and the gang set out to change that by confronting Slade (Will Arnett), a supervillain whose biggest issue is that people keep mistaking him for Deadpool (in the comics he’s actually known as Deathstroke and is the long-running arch-enemy of the Titans).
The Slade/Deadpool running gag is just one of the many ways in which Teen Titans Go! to the Movies lovingly pokes fun at the entire superhero universe in general. Robin’s — and Hollywood’s — obsession with superhero movies is another, while the ongoing stream of in-jokes provides lots of knowing laughs for diehard comics fans while the kiddies giggle at the film’s broader humor.
For example, Nicolas Cage voices Superman, a wink to fans who know that Cage came thisclose to portraying the Man of Steel for director Tim Burton in the aborted Superman Lives (and we would be remiss if we didn’t suggest you further investigate this by watching the documentary The Death of Superman Lives: What Happened? by filmmaker Jon Schnepp, who we sadly lost last week at the age of 51). Meanwhile, Arnett’s growl as Slade is almost identical with the rumble he deploys as Batman in The Lego Movie and The Lego Batman Movie, demonstrating how interchangeable the genre’s hero/villain identifiers can be.
But perhaps the single funniest sequence in the movie is a time travel riff in which the Titans, having decided that having a few less superheroes in the world would help their cause, venture into the past and alter the origin of every major superhero with predictably grimdark results. That they have to go back again and reset every origin story — a sly comment on the endless amount of times we’ve seen how Batman, Superman and others have become who they are — is a prime example of the movie’s slyly wicked humor.
Make no mistake though: this is still a kids’ movie primarily, and it works on that level magnificently, with brightly colored scenes, screen-filling musical numbers and a sprinkling of gentle potty humor all in evidence. Yes, the movie does get a bit long and there’s an extended action finale that kind of forgets to make fun of that sort of thing, but the film regains its footing when Robin’s final speech is cut off by the other heroes, who acknowledge that everyone just wants to go home at that point.
I was ready to go home at the end of Teen Titans Go! to the Movies, not in defeat or weariness, but rather with a giddy little smile playing around the edges of my mouth. My daughter, on the other hand, stood up and cheered at how “awesome” the movie was. The fact that the two of us could connect on how much we enjoyed this whacked-out little film — comic book nerd turned responsible adult and seven-year-old Raven and poop joke fanatic — perhaps makes the Teen Titans heroic in ways that Hollywood couldn’t begin to touch upon.
Teen Titans Go! to the Movies is out in theaters this Friday (July 27).