Ten years ago at Comic-Con in San Diego, Warner Brothers Animation and DC Comics announced a new initiative where they would be making PG-13 animated films for the straight-to-DVD market. The first three films announced were Superman: Doomsday, Justice League: The New Frontier, and Teen Titans: The Judas Contract. Although the first two films came out and were a success, the Titans film was delayed, and ultimately, cancelled, due to brand awareness not being high enough (despite the fact that the Teen Titans animated series had been an enormous success on Cartoon Network.)
Well, good things come to those who wait, as 10 years later, the Teen Titans: The Judas Contract movie finally hits Blu-ray/DVD (April 18) and digital download (now). So was it worth the very long wait? I'm going to go out on a limb and say absolutely. And believe me, I'm a tough customer. See, The Judas Contract just happens to be my favorite comic book storyline of all time, and the reason I'm the hardcore comic book fan I am today. So I went into this with, shall we say, a raised eyebrow...especially after the original Teen Titans animated series kind of took this story and softballed it big time.
The original comic book storyline on which this film is based ran over two years, and took the readership by total surprise. During the early '80s, the two biggest hits in the comics world were X-Men and New Teen Titans...and they were constantly being compared to each other. When Titans introduced new member Tara Markov, who was a plucky, sarcastic 15 year old who controlled the earth and went by the code name Terra, fans cried foul and said she was a rip-off of the X-Men's own junior mascot Kitty Pryde. But Titans creators Marv Wolfman and George Perez had an ace up her sleeve, and a year into Terra being a member, they revealed that she was actually spy, planted on the team by their mortal enemy, the mercenary Deathstroke.
While fans (like a ten year-old me) fervently hoped that their new favorite sarcastic teen hero was really a triple agent, and would show her good side before it was all said and done, Wolfman and Perez gave the fans no such comfort. Terra turned out to be true sociopath, rotten to the core, and any affection she showed her teammates--especially Beast Boy, who was in love with her--was nothing but an act. As a young reader, my heart was broken...but man, I knew I had just been taken along for an excellent ride. It was my first lesson as a kid that a good story often gives you what you need, and not necessarily what you want.
So how does this shortened, new retelling stack up to the original classic? Pretty damn well, I must say, resulting in one of the best DC animated films to date. Yes, there are some huge changes from the original comic: for starters, two key members of the comics team aren't really a part of this adaptation. Cyborg has been "graduated" to the Justice League in recent years, so he's been replaced by the Jaime Reyes version of Blue Beetle (Jake T. Austin). Donna Troy/Wonder Girl only has a "blink and you miss it" cameo. And the Damian Wayne version of Robin (Stuart Allen) has a major role, despite not even being a glimmer in Bruce Wayne's eye when the original comic was written. Titans villains the H.I.V.E. and Brother Blood have been combined into one threat.
But ultimately, none of these changes really matter, because director Sam Liu and writer Ernie Altbacker get so much of the essence of the comic right. Most importantly, they nail the characters and relationship of Terra (Christina Ricci) and Beast Boy (Brandon Soo). Just as in the comics, Beast Boy is a jokester who uses humor to hide the pain of his unique nature, but who eventually opens up his true self to her. Terra, on the other hand, is made completely uncomfortable by the loving group the Titans represent, not knowing at all how to deal with these selfless people, so utterly unlike herself. Just as in the comics, you feel her barely contained disgust at this family of do-gooders at all times.
Another aspect of the comics that the film gets perfect is the relationship between veteran Titans Nightwing (Sean Maher) and Starfire (Kari Wahlgren). Batman's first sidekick and the alien warrior princess may seem like an odd romantic match, but the film perfectly captures what made these two into comics' power couple for so long (You even get their first meeting, in an adorable flashback sequence that should delight most old school Teen Titans fans). More than that, it makes Starfire the leader of the team, something she wasn't in the comics, and it's a welcome improvement that enhances her character.
The voice cast, almost all of whom carry over from previous DC animated films, are uniformly great. Sean Maher continues to shine as Nightwing, and Brandon Soo is an excellent choice for Gar Logan/Beast Boy. He and Christina Ricci are the heart of this story after all. Taissa Farmiga takes more of a backseat as Raven from the last film, but is no less perfect in the role. And the late, great Miguel Ferrer gaves us a truly great version of Slade Wilson/Deathstroke. The action beats are terrific, especially when Nightwing takes on Deathstroke in battle.
One aspect of the comic that remains controversial, and one fans might be wondering about, is that of the sexual relationship between Terra and her much, much older partner-in-crime Deathstroke. In the movie, this is toned down quite a bit. Tara clearly wants to seduce Deathstroke, but he resists her advances, promising to consummate their relationship once she betrays the team and gets the job done. Was it important that they delete the ickier aspects of their relationship for the movie to work? Not really, especially since both characters are contract killers and not good people. I'm not sure why I'm supposed to be extra bothered by their having a sketchy relationship, as they are both amoral villains. But today's attitudes about such things are not what they were 30 years ago, so it's understandable why it was changed.
This movie has the unenviable task of not only adapting a beloved comics storyline, but also serve as a sequel to recent DC animated films like Justice League vs. Teen Titans and Batman vs. Robin. That it manages to do both successfully is a credit to all involved. I sincerely hope we see more adventures with this Teen Titans line-up in future films, especially with all the teases this movie leaves us with for possible future stories.We DC animation fans simply can't live on Batman and Justice League stories alone.
Teen Titans: The Judas Contract is now available via digital download, and hits Blu-ray and DVD on April 18.
4 OUT OF 5 TITANIC BURRITOS:
Which Titans stories would you like to see adapted next? Let us know down below in the comments.
Images: Warner Brothers Animation/DC Comics