Tangent time! One of my favorite episodes from The Simpsons has to be the second Treehouse of Horror special that aired back in the show’s third season. I thought that the various segments all had some horrific charm to them, the framing device was wonderful, but most importantly, I loved the monkey’s paw gag. If you’re unfamiliar with the concept of the monkey’s paw, it’s essentially a magical item that grants its users any wish they want, but twists them into some ironic fulfillment of the wish. For example, Lisa wishes for world peace, which is achieved at the cost of humanity being enslaved by the aliens Kang and Kodos. Can’t have war if you’re under a tyrannical dictator!
I bring this up because Teen Titans Go! vs. Teen Titans feels like it was made from a monkey’s paw wish. It has the return of the 2003 incarnation of the team (that’s good!) starring opposite of their Teen Titans Go! counterparts (that’s bad) featuring a conflict that spans across the multiverse with tons of different Titans teams (that’s good!) that mischaracterizes the 2003 team and makes them into caricatures of themselves (that’s bad).
In other words, we got the “real” Teen Titans back, but at what cost…?
Teen Titans Go! vs. Teen Titans
Director: Jeff Mednikow
Release: September 24, 2019 (Digital), October 15, 2019 (Physical)
For those who aren’t familiar with either series, Teen Titans was a 2003 animated series that aired on Toonami that developed a strong fanbase due to its strong writing and cast, both of which were able to balance darker and more dramatic plotlines with the occasional goofy episode. Such highlights include a race against the evil Ding Dong Daddy for the briefcase from Pulp Fiction, followed immediately by the team’s origin story where Starfire nearly brutally murdered the whole team for no reason. In short, it was awesome. A decade later, the series was rebooted as Teen Titans Go!, which was aimed at a much younger demographic and featured more songs, more gross out humor, and featured very few, if any, serious moments. So of course, classic fans have been decrying against Go! ever since, claiming that the characters have been “ruined,” and have been clamoring for a return of the classic series with a Season 6.
Teen Titans Go! vs. Teen Titans feels like a pilot for a hypothetical sixth season, reintroducing the cast to modern audiences. After the Go! version of Raven slowly loses control of her demonic powers, a small blue imp named the Master of Games appears before the Go! Titans, challenging them to a fight against their multiversal counterparts to see who the best team of Titans is. When it’s eventually revealed that this was a plot to revive the 2003’s version of Trigon, who died fighting against the team back in Season 4, both teams must learn to come together and stop Trigon from being fully revived and conquering the multiverse with his newfound power.
With a premise like that, I can’t help but think back to last year’s Teen Titans Go! To the Movies and how this should have been the team’s big theatrical debut. While some people appreciated the nods and winks at superhero movies from that movie, I feel like the stakes and fan service here would have been much better realized with the financing and grandeur of a feature film. Sure, the plot does come across as your average superhero team-up, but when the team-up is between two of the most popular shows in Cartoon Network’s history, it should have gotten a full budget to work with. Instead, it’s clear that the film is a lot more restricted, leaving us with a movie that frankly looks off.
For the most part, the movie is animated in the style of Teen Titans Go!, which is perfectly fine since most of the movie takes place in that universe. The issue comes when any other universe’s Titans share the screen, not just the ’03 versions. Anyone outside of the Go! cast feels flat and still, with the worst offenders being the versions based on pre-established universes. I was thrilled to see the Marv Wolfman and George Perez Titans appear in the promotional footage, as well as a brief cameo by the DCAU version of the team, but both are animated so poorly that they feel like something you would see out of a low grade Frisky Dingo knock-off.
The big draw for this version is, of course, the return of the ’03 Titans, who feel like a breath of fresh air whenever they’re around. 60% of the time it feels rejuvenating watching them kick ass and interact with one another, although they do have a tendency to be a bit too serious at times. While the ’03 Robin is off thinking up a plan to stop Trigon, Beast Boy and Cyborg are training because they need to be ready to stop whatever Trigon is planning. In theory it makes sense, but for longtime fans of the original series, most of their portrayals and actions don’t make sense. The joke is that they’re the serious and cool versions of the Go! cast, but they were never that serious. Again, they raced against a jive talking biker named Ding Dong Daddy. They can afford to lighten up a little bit.
In truth, this isn’t the ’03 Titans from their show, but as the fans claim they are. They’re everything that Go! isn’t, but as hard as it is to admit, the ’03 team weren’t all serious and determined. If this were really the ’03 Titans, we would have had more comedic banter between them, insights into their friendships, and undeniably more anime influenced expressions. Instead, we have what fans perceived the ’03 series was to them; serious, mature, and most importantly, not Go!. When a character early in the movie is screaming into the camera that the Go! team ruined their childhood as they cheer on the ’03 team, the message is loud and clear as all subtlety is thrown out the window. This is what the fans wanted, continuity be damned.
The presence of the ’03 team only confirms just how much better they are than the Go! team. Say what you will about the Go! versions of these characters, but at the end of the day, a team-up is at its best when both teams are able to shine equally. If one team over shadows the other, then the final product is lopsided and only one crowd is pleased. Sure, ’03 fans will mostly be satisfied with how they’re portrayed, but I can also imagine younger fans being disappointed at the Go! team’s mishandled representation. Robin is even more insufferable than normal and while the Go! Raven is the real heart and driving force of the movie, the rest of the characters all feel like afterthoughts. I never thought that I would be coming to the aid of the Go! versions of these characters, but for a movie built on the foundation of both teams coming together, it’s really more like both Ravens and ’03 Robin stop Trigon while the rest sit back and watch.
Between bouncing around at a frantic pace that goes through no less than five villains (arguably six) in a little over an hour, very little of the movie actually landed with me. It moves a little too quickly and rarely stops to take a breath. The scenes where both Ravens are talking to each other are easily the best scenes in the movie if only because they offer character development for both versions. We get to see the Go! version struggle with her humanity and the ’03 iteration counsel and guide her in a way that no one did for her back when she went through the same situation. There’s more heart and soul in those discussions than there ever was in Robin’s vanity project in Go! To the Movies.
With a little more time, effort, and budget, I truly feel like Teen Titans Go! vs. Teen Titans could have been a love letter to both generations of Titans fans, showing the best of both worlds combining together for one great movie. There’s a kernel of potential here, but it’s buried under a pile of decisions that left me scratching my head. Why do these characters look off? Why is their characterization off? Why aren’t I loving this more than I am? At the end of the day, the only answer I can come to is that yes, Teen Titans are back, but in name only. Monkey’s paw indeed.