Written PostCatching Up With DC Animation: Bad Blood and Justice League vs Teen Titans

Catching Up With DC Animation: Bad Blood and Justice League vs Teen Titans

OK, quick summary: I fell in love with Batman: The Animated Series when it first premiered back in the nineties.  Bruce Timm and Paul Dini forever defined Batman and so many of his supporting characters for me.  I believe that Kevin Conroy is the best actor to ever portray Batman on-screen, and Mask of the Phantasm is my third favorite Batman movie of all time (after The Dark Knight Returns and Batman Begins).  I watched and enjoyed all of Bruce Timm’s subsequent DC universe animated shows: Superman, Batman Beyond, and Justice League.  After a somewhat rocky first season, Justice League (later renamed Justice League Unlimited) became, for me, the finest superhero show (animated or otherwise) that I have ever seen, with sophisticated story-telling, a note-perfect voice cast, and gorgeous animation.  When it was announced that Bruce Timm would oversee a new line of aimed-at-adults, direct-to-DVD/blu-ray animated movies, I was super-excited.  But while there have been a few high points (most notably their adaptation of Batman: Under the Red Hood), these animated films have been extremely hit-or-miss.  A few years ago Bruce Timm left the project, and the new team decided to switch from one-off story-telling to developing a continuity between the animated films (a decision that I loved), while basing this new continuity on DC Comic’s latest revamp of their universe, nicknamed “The New 52” (a decision that I was not wild about).  Disappointingly, I have not at all cared for the first four DVD-movies set in this new animated continuity.  But I quite enjoyed last year’s animated release, Justice League: Gods and Monsters, in which Bruce Timm returned to tell an alternate-universe story of his own creation.  So what did I think of the latest two animated films that have come out in the past few months?


Batman: Bad Blood steps right into the continuity begun by Justice League: War, Son of Batman, Justice League: Throne of Atlantis, and Batman vs Robin It’s decently entertaining, I suppose, but it’s clear that this current wave of animated DC universe films is just not speaking to me at all.  There are some good bits in Bad Blood, but like the other films I found much of it to be humorless and somewhat dull, and I just don’t like this tone.  The opening of the story introduces the current DC Comics version of Batwoman, Kathy Kane, to the animated universe as she is witness to what looks like the death of Batman.  This forces former Robin, now Nightwing Dick Grayson, to become Batman, partnering up with the current Robin, Damian Wayne.  The two former sidekicks are joined by Batwoman and also the new character Batwing (also from the current “New 52” iteration of the DC Comics universe), a robotic bat-suit inhabited by the son of long-time Wayne family confidante Lucius Fox.  Together the four must try to discover Batman’s true fate and thwart a plot by Talia al Ghul and a fierce, adult-version clone of young Damian called the Heretic.

I like the basic idea of expanding the Bat-family by bringing in these new characters.  I don’t care for the Batwing character at all, but I love this version of Batwoman and was pleased to see her join this animated universe.  (I was particularly glad that they made very clear that she is a lesbian, as in the comics, even including a great scene in which she flirts with Detective Maggie Sawyer (not named, but that’s clearly who she is) in a bar.)  There’s some great action in the film, from the great opening sequence (in which Batman and Batwoman take on a cadre of supervillains in a warehouse) to the huge fight in the collapsing convent to the big finish in the floating Watchtower as it smashes through Gotham city.  (I really loved the design of that last sequence in particular, with the beautiful pink/purple clouds over Gotham.)

But while I was pleased to see this film try to adapt some of the story-lines from Grant Morrison’s spectacular run on the Batman comics (click here for my re-read of Mr. Morrison’s Batman saga), specifically the team-up of Dick Grayson as Batman and Damian Wayne as Robin, along with the Talia/Heretic stuff, sadly this animated adaptation contains none of Mr. Morrison’s wit and humor, nor his meticulous plotting, nor the constant edge of danger that permeates his work.  This is a fairly by-the-numbers story without many surprises.  (And some really stupid moments, the stupidest of which is probably Batwoman’s meeting her father on a bridge in the middle of a park, where anyone could see them, for him to give her some information.  Wow, way to protect your secret identity!  Why not do this handoff in, you know, one of your homes where no one else would be around??)

Like the other recent animated films, this movie tries to be adult but winds up being very juvenile.  There’s a lot of needless cursing (Black Mask saying “Gotham’s my bitch” really got my eyes rolling), and the perky-boobed design of all of the female characters rubbed me the wrong way.  Talia’s cleavage-bearing outfit was silly, and the Kathy Kane bra-and-panties fight in her home felt very gratuitous.  As I have written before, I am all for adult versions of super-hero stories, but these recent films have felt like a fourteen year-old’s version of what an “adult”  story would be, and to me it feels a little embarrassing.

I did enjoy the sense of continuity with previous stories.  When the film begins, Damian is still in the monastery where we left him in Batman vs Robin, and Dick Grayson later jibes Damian about his trusting the Talon in that film.  More powerfully, we got a great callback of Bruce Wayne’s lesson to Damian of “justice not vengeance” at the end of this film, as we see Damian’s growth over these various stories.  I also enjoyed the brief moment in which Dick is on the phone with a woman named Cory, which is a nice bit of foreshadowing of the next animated film, in which Starfire will appear.  I loved the very last shot of the film, in which we get a glimpse of one more member of the extended Bat-family: Barbara Gordon as Batgirl, looking just like the wonderful current look she has in the comics.  I’d love to see more of this character in a future film.

I continue to not like any of the character designs in this current continuity.  The animation is trying to be more detailed and “realistic” than the earlier Bruce Timm shows, but winds up looking bulky and weird, without any of the beauty and simplicity of Mr. Timm’s animated designs.  Bruce Timm’s Talia was sexy.  This more sexed-up, cleavage-bearing Talia looks silly.  And good lord, look at the weird shape of Bruce Wayne’s head when he’s not wearing the Batman cowl!  Come on.  OK, moving on:

Justice League vs Teen Titans.02.cropped

Justice League vs Teen Titans continues as now the sixth film in this new animated continuity.  After disobeying Batman’s orders during a fight between the Justice League and the Legion of Doom, Damian is assigned to the group of young teenage superheroes-in-training, the Teen Titans, overseen by Nightwing’s former (current?  It’s never made clear) flame, Starfire.  Damian is, of course, resentful of being demoted to the kids group and stirs up trouble.  But he gradually befriends the young girl, Raven, and when her demon father comes calling to try to destroy the Earth, Robin and the Titans band together to save the day.

I rolled my eyes when I read about this new animated film.  This seemed like a fairly transparent way for this animated series of films to cash in on the popular kids-friendly Teen Titans Go! TV series.  I wasn’t that interested in this teen group of superheroes, and while I enjoyed the issues I read of Marv Wolfman and George Perez’s fabled run on The New Teen Titans in the eighties, I don’t have any strong emotional attachment to that comic book series or to these characters.

As Justice League vs Teen Titans opened, I did not have high hopes.  While I enjoyed the action sequence that opened Bad Blood, this fight between the Justice League and the Legion of Doom was terrible.  I enjoyed seeing the Superfriends-inspired new “Hall of Justice” League HQ, but I was sad to see that all the Legion of Doom villains depicted here seemed to also be modeled after the dumb, one-dimensional Superfriends-versions of these characters.  The terrible, evil with a capital E version of Lex Luthor was particularly disappointing.  This is the Lex Luthor of this new animated continuity?  Sigh.  And are we supposed to be laughing at Solomon Grundy’s Hulk-ripped-off “Grundy Smash!” dialogue?  Double sigh.

But then, to my surprise, this actually turned into one of the strongest of this “New 52” animated continuity so far.  I found that I really enjoyed the depictions of all of the Teen Titan characters.  I give a lot of credit to Alan Burnett, who was a key figure back in the classic Batman: The Animated Series day and who has returned to DC Animation to co-write this film (with Bryan Q. Miller, who worked on Smallville and who wrote the Titans comic briefly).  Raven was particularly successful, which is critical because she’s at the center of the story.  Taissa Farmiga did terrific work voicing Raven.  But I enjoyed all the Titans characters.  This series used an interesting mix of Titans characters from different eras.  I like that they decided to make Starfire older than the other Titans, that worked well for the dynamics of the stories.  And while it is a ridiculous headquarters (why do these five characters need an HQ with a thousand rooms in it??), boy I did grin when that big Titans T-shaped HQ came on screen.  I was also pleased that they incorporated Cyborg into the story.  He’s a Justice League member these days, both in the comics and these animated films, but he began as a Titan and was a key character in the Wolfman/Perez run, so it was right that he was a part of this Titans film.

Unfortunately this film also has the juvenile tendencies of the other recent animated films, about which I have complained so much.  When we see the Titans transform into costume, before the battle at the fair, why do we linger on Starfire’s butt and crotch?  It’s weird.  And I’m not quite sure what to make of the moment in which, while Skyping with Dick Grayson, we see Starfire briefly reach over her computer in a way that her breasts are suddenly huge in the skype window.  They even animated Dick Grayson on the computer screen looking away (like a gentleman should), which made me laugh, though the childishness of that “boobs” joke was off-putting to me, and not what I’m looking for in a story like this.  Particularly in this film, which by featuring the young Teen Titans seems more aimed at kids than the other recent DCU animated films, I wonder who the folks behind this film think is their target audience.  There’s content in these films more adult than is appropriate for young kids, and yet these stories have none of the sophistication of the classic Bruce Timm/Paul Dini stuff, which I found (and still do) to be far more appealing to me as an adult viewer.

This film’s story also has problems.  From the title I’d hoped we’d see the JL and the Titans at odds for a legitimate reason, and for a brief second it looked like the film would deliver on that (with the two teams disagreeing over the fate of Raven).  But they quickly brush that aside for a silly mind-control development which I had little patience for.  Also, watching this film immediately after Bad Blood it felt like Robin had regressed.  They needed him to be the arrogant brat in this story, to stir things up with the other Titans characters, but by the end of Bad Blood I’d thought they’d grown beyond that.  Oh well.

Just as fun as the brief Barbara Gordon tease at the end of Bad Blood was the great Terra tease at the end of this film.  Boy, I would LOVE to see a faithful animated adaptation of the Judas Contract story-line someday!  That would be exciting.

As you can see, to my surprise I preferred Justice League vs Teen Titans over the Batman-centric Bad Blood, though I can’t say that either film was particularly great.  It’s a shame.  These feel like big missed opportunities.  Bruce Timm is returning to this animated series with the next film, an adaptation of the great but extremely controversial Batman story The Killing Joke.  I am extremely curious to see how they have adapted this very violent, difficult story.  I look forward to that.