In April of 1940, about a year after the debut of arguably their most popular character, Bruce Wayne/Batman, DC Comics debuted “the sensational find of [that year]”, Dick Grayson/Robin. Since then, Batman’s pixie-boots-wearing partner has changed outfits and a number of different characters have assumed the mantle as the Dynamic Duo of Batman and Robin have become an iconic staple of DC Comics. Considering my fondness for the character and those who assumed the mantle over the years, what better way to celebrate this dynamic debut debut than to dedicate every Sunday of April to celebrating the character?
Released: 4 April 2017
Director: Sam Liu
Distributor: Warner Home Video
Stars: Sean Maher, Kari Wahlgren, Stuart Allan, Christina Ricci, Gregg Henry, and Miguel Ferrer
Dick Grayson/Nightwing (Maher) rejoins his old team mates, the Teen Titans, who are now training a new generation of costumed heroes. Alongside their newest recruit, Tara Markov/Terra (Ricci), the Titans work to end the maniacal aspirations of Sebastian Blood/Brother Blood (Henry). However, things escalate when Blood hires mercenary Slade Wilson/Deathstroke (Ferrer) to kill the Titans and the team are faced not only with Slade’s burning desire for revenge against them but also a very real threat from within their ranks.
The Teen Titans first came together in the pages of The Brave and the Bold #54 in 1964, some four years after the debut of their adult counterparts, the Justice League of America. The team was comprised entirely of the teenage sidekicks of DC Comic’s adult superheroes, potentially to appeal to younger audiences. The team had a relatively consistent presence throughout the 1960s and 1970s but was given new life when writer Marv Wolfman and George Pérez, who introduced characters like Victor Stone/Cyborg and Princess Koriand’r/Starfire who would become synonymous with the team for years to come. One of the team’s most celebrated stories was “The Judas Contract” (Wolfman, et al, 1984) in which they were betrayed by one of their own thanks to the machinations of the vindictive Deathstroke. An animated adaptation had been in the works for some time but, after a few false starts, finally came to life as part of the DC Universe Animated Original Movies series. The film, which was the third in this new animated continuity of films and iconic actor Miguel Ferrer’s last role before his untimely death, made over $3,250,000 in home video sales and was modestly received compared to what had come before it.
The film begins with the original incarnation of the Teen Titans – comprised of Dick Grayson/Robin (Maher), Wally West/Kid Flash (Jason Spisak), Roy Harper/Speedy (Crispin Freeman), Garfield Logan/Beast Boy (Brandon Soo Hoo), and Karen Beecher/Bumblebee (Masasa Moyo) – meeting Starfire (Wahlgren) for the first time. If you’ve watched the awesome Teen Titans (2003 to 2006) cartoon before then many of the Titans’ characterisations will be instantly familiar: Robin is the composed leader, Beast Boy is the comic relief, Kid Flash is impatient, and so forth. This version of Starfire, while still being somewhat naïve and innocent, is far less childish compared to her counterpart; however, she nevertheless forms an immediate bond with the team after learning to communicate through kissing.
We then jump ahead to “NOW” to find Brother Blood and his lover and right-hand, Mother Mayhem (Meg Foster), packing up their most recent Hive base. Choosing to ignore Deathstroke’s warning, the cult are caught completely off-guard when the Titans – now made up of Nightwing, Starfire, Beast Boy, Rachel Roth/Raven (Taissa Farmiga), Jaime Reyes/Blue Beetle (Jake T. Austin), Damian Wayne/Robin (Allan), and newcomer Terra – break into the facility using Terra’s power over earth and rock. Nightwing, who has only recently rejoined the team, finds it difficult adjusting to the new dynamic, which places Starfire as the field commander, but his experience and combat strategies are nevertheless appreciated by Starfire and his older teammates. There is, however, some discord within the team; not only are Nightwing and Starfire a little distracted by their intimate relationship outside of the team but she doubts her place as the team’s leader (despite Robin approving of her) and Robin constantly clashes with Blue Beetle over the unpredictability of Jaime’s alien Scarab suit. Still, the team takes out Blood’s goons and reconvenes at Titan Towers, where their teamwork and interpersonal relationships are developed a little more. Damian continues to have a somewhat disconnected and abrasive personality and remains fully committed to his role as Robin (he’s the only member to never appear outside of his costume during the film) and, interestingly, the film makes a subtle allusion to unpredictability of the Scarab to puberty during Jaime’s video call with his parents (Maria Canals-Barrera and David Zayas, respectively) and his interactions with a young girl he is attracted to that helps to highlight how, despite their superpowers or physical abilities, the Teen Titans remain just that: troubled teenagers trying to find their place in the world.
Brother Blood is a ruthless zealot of a man; having organised Hive into a cult-like following, he believes that he has the gift of foresight and is fully willing to kill any who blasphemes against his beliefs. Regularly bathing in the blood of his enemies to maintain his youth and vigour and with a penchant for hanging out in graveyards, Blood has constructed an elaborate machine that is powered by the lifeforce of those connected to it that he plans to use to absorb the Titans’ superpowers and abilities to become a demigod. To that end, he hires Deathstroke to deliver the Titans to him, a task he takes great pleasure in given his past history with Damian and has prepared for by augmenting his already-impressive physical abilities by regularly bathing in a Lazarus Pit.
Terra constantly feels underappreciated by the team and perturbed by Beast Boy’s constant attentions and remains dismissive and bitter towards their personalities, hobbies, or issues. Aggressive and snappy, Terra has little interest in helping others in a way that doesn’t involve busting heads with her powers and is weary of the team’s constant attempts to reach and befriend her. Tormented by memories of her life in Markovia, where she was beaten and hounded and accused of being a witch, Terra has grown angry at and resentful towards humanity and has no interest in serving it for the greater good. Thus, she willingly infiltrates the team on Deathstroke’s behalf and allows him to capture Damian for Blood. Terra is absolutely besotted with Deathstroke after he saved her life in Markovia prior to the start of the film; devoted to him, she sees him as more than a mentor and father-figure and constantly attempts to seduce him in some truly awkward scenes that have her dressed in an overly provocative outfit. Although he rebukes her advances, he nevertheless commands her complicit behaviour by promising that they’ll be a couple and take command of the League of Assassins once the contract is fulfilled. Thus, begrudgingly, she returns to Titans Tower, now equipped with an audio/visual link up to Deathstroke, to continue her subterfuge. Though her anti-social personality begins to crack when she sees just how appreciative they are of her and she even shares a kiss with Beast Boy, she nevertheless lures each of the Titans into a series of traps that lead to them all being captured by Deathstroke and placed in Blood’s machine.
Teen Titans: The Judas Contract shares the same quasi-anime, stilted animation as other DC Universe Animated Original Movies. Still, the animation and visual presentation is made more appealing due to the aesthetic distinctiveness of each of the Titans and their individual powers. Raven, for example, exudes dark, ethereal magic while Beast Boy cycles between a variety of amusing animal forms as part of his somewhat awkward and hyperactive personality. Unfortunately for me, many of the Team’s appearances are taken from their New 52 designs, meaning that Nightwing is wearing his awful red suit; however, Deathstroke more than makes up for this with his bad-ass outfit that is only made all the more intimidating thanks to Ferrer’s distinctive gravely tones. The voice acting, in general, is really good, actually; Stuart Allan is particularly great at capturing Damian’s dickish attitude, I’ve always had a soft spot for Christina Ricci (and it’s great to see her voicing Terra rather than someone more cliché, like Raven), and (though I’m not really his biggest fan) the film even includes a brief cameo by Kevin Smith.
Having the reveal of Terra’s dual nature quite early into the film makes for a great bit of suspense as we see her emotionally and physically manipulate each of the Titans into Deathstroke’s traps. The relationship between Terra and Slade has always been an unnerving and disgusting one full of appalling sexual subtext and this remains largely prevalent in the film as Deathstroke manipulates Terra’s motions in order to craft her into the perfect double agent. Even though Damian, with his unique insight into both Deathstroke and the League of Assassins, attempts to reach her, Terra is ruled by her bitterness and anger and is thus completely blindsided when Deathstroke betrays her in order to fully deliver on his contract with Blood.
In the finale, Nightwing frees his friends thanks to faking his death at Deathstroke’s hands and interrupting the party. Still, Blood is able to absorbs most of the Titans’ powers, which transforms him into a demonic creature and makes him more than a match for Starfire, Beast Boy, Raven, and Blue Beetle while Nightwing and Robin attack Deathstroke head-on in easily the film’s most impressive fight scene. Despite his near-unstoppable new powers, the Titans are only able to overcome Blood when Raven unleashes the full extent of her supernatural powers to strip him of his abilities and render him helpless, though Mother Mayhem kills Blood before he can be brought into the Titans’ custody. At the same time Terra, enraged at Deathstroke’s betrayal, mercilessly attacks and kills him with her incredible powers by bringing the entire area down him. Unable to live with her betrayal and pain, she then destroys the entire temple, taking herself along with it in recompense for her actions but, while Beast Boy is left heartbroken, the team honour their former comrade as a Teen Titan to the end.
As an adaptation of the source material, Teen Titans: The Judas Contract does the best that it can in its limited time; obviously, the story has been changed a little, the team is almost completely different, and even Deathstroke’s motivations are very different compared to in the original story but a lot of this is to be expected from the adaptation process. The film’s main concern seems to be with telling another story in the DC Universe Animated Original Movies series; however, while it might be beneficial to have seen Justice League vs. Teen Titans (Liu, 2016) for a bit of additional context, it works pretty well as a standalone story. I do question why the film went to the effort of including a prelude where an almost completely different version of the team first meets Starfire as this doesn’t really tie into the main story (maybe it would’ve been better to have the older team be comprised of grown-up versions of the characters seen in the prelude) and I also feel like the story might have been better served by removing Brother Blood completely and instead focusing on Deathstroke and his vendetta against the Titans as the primary antagonist. Still, it’s a decent enough animated venture and adaptation of the seminal storyline, with some engaging action and intriguing character beats and some great vocal work from Allan, Ricci, and the late, great Miguel Ferrer especially.
Did you enjoy Teen Titans: The Judas Contract? Were you a fan of the changes that the film made to the story and the new team line-up? Have you ever read the original comic book the film is based on and, if so, where does it rank for you amongst other Teen Titans stories? Who is your favourite Robin and how are you celebrating the Boy Wonder’s debut this month? Whatever your thoughts on this film, Teen Titans, and Robin, leave a comment below and thanks for joining me for Robin Month!