Teen Titans: The Judas Contract
The Judas Contract is one of the most famous DC superhero storylines ever, from a period when The Teen Titans was one of the most popular books coming out. It was highly ambitious, combining
- fighting a killer cult, with Brother Blood and his followers
- questions of trust, as a Titan betrays the team
- insinuations of sex between Nightwing and Starfire (one of the most shocking and memorable points, given the timeframe)
- the origin of Deathstroke, a mercenary villain out to take down the team
- Robin Dick Grayson becoming Nightwing for the first time (as the Batman editorial group was introducing Jason Todd)
- Kid Flash retiring
- the introduction of Jericho, the first Titan solely designed by artist George Pérez (which may explain why he was mute, requiring more accurate body language and expressions)
- international geopolitics, as Blood ruled another country, complicating how to deal with him (and because, I suspect, it was thought then that freaky cult ceremonies and unthinking minions couldn’t take root in the US!)
Only the first three items make it into this movie (although one more is hinted at in a short after-credits scene), as the story admittedly had a lot going on. It had to, to justify taking up six issues and an annual (The New Teen Titans #39-44 and Annual #3, 1983-84) by Marv Wolfman and George Pérez. Teen Titans: The Judas Contract is an original animated movie out on home video April 18.
Rereading the comic story, which I did for research, was interesting — I’d forgotten how every character had to have a quip on every panel of a fight, and how much of what they were doing was narrated while they were doing it with copious thought balloons. But the fight scenes serve a purpose, beyond cool graphics — they reveal who cares most for whom, along with new character insights. I couldn’t say the same for the fight scenes here. They seem to be included just to meet some kind of required action quotient, and they mean that the deeper story is the one in the comics, not on-screen here. But it’s nothing unusual to say “the book was better” when it comes to an adaptation. Since I’ve known the comic book story for decades, I’m not sure how fairly I can evaluate this new animated version.
An introduction, showing how the Teen Titans of five years ago rescued Starfire from some demonic-looking pursuers, feels padded, as though added just to meet the 84-minute running time, and it raises more questions than it answers. I wanted to know what happened to then-members Speedy, Kid Flash, and Bumblebee, who aren’t mentioned again. (I’m glad that Bumblebee’s presence in the DC Super Hero Girls franchise seems to be driving more visibility for her elsewhere.)
It does show us a Robin in love at first sight. (The whole “we learn language by kissing” bit of Starfire’s helps, too.) I like Speedy noting that “looks can be deceiving” when everyone’s for rescuing the hot girl from her bat-winged pursuers. They’re just the latest incarnation of putting in a bunch of non-human, identical bad guys to beat up without a lot of moral concerns.
The main storyline is how the Teen Titans fight Brother Blood and his army while coping with new member Terra (Christina Ricci), who’s annoyingly full of herself. It turns out that she’s a traitor, planted by Deathstroke (Miguel Ferrer), who wants to take revenge on Robin’s “family”. In current timeline, this Robin (Stuart Allan) is the sword-wielding Damian who’s R’as al Ghul’s grandson, so both Robin and Nightwing are in the movie version of the story. That’s redundant, so for much of the time, Robin is a hostage. And good, given that he’s also a brat.
Using him and his grumpy persona makes it more difficult to portray Terra. She and her self-obsession really stood out in an era where team members acted like friends and teammates. Now, she’s less distinctive, as several other team members have their own mental problems. (Blue Beetle, subbed in for Cyborg, who’s been promoted in the animated universe to the Justice League, keeps fighting with his alien symbiotic parasite, for example.) The other Titans team members are Beast Boy (Brandon Soo Hoo), Starfire (Kari Wahlgren), Raven (Taissa Farmiga), and Blue Beetle (Jake T. Austin), plus Nightwing (Sean Maher), who’s no longer with the team but there to help fight Brother Blood (Gregg Henry) and be a couple with Starfire.
Writer Marv Wolfman’s introduction in the comic reprint collection reveals the origin of the story: fans thought the Teen Titans were an X-Men ripoff, so “why not play with them a bit? The X-Men had just introduced a new member to their group, a young 14-year-old cute-as-a-button girl with incredible powers.” He says he wanted to make Tara Markov (Terra) do suspicious things and lie to the group, knowing that fans would assume that she was a hero because that’s what they already expected.
Instead, she was a spy for Deathstroke, the Terminator (one of the most comic-bookiest of comic book names ever), the first time, Wolfman claims, a member of a superhero group fit that role. She was also the first new member of the group in the Wolfman/Pérez run, and the first to die. (Although, typical of the genre, that didn’t last.)
There are additional key differences between the comic and this movie. In the cartoon, we don’t learn anything about Deathstroke’s family or motivations (beyond money for delivering the team to Brother Blood); instead, we see more of Jaime’s family and background, emphasizing his culture. That’s a positive change.
We don’t see Terra join the team here, but we didn’t in the original, either. However, her motivation for being mean is different. Here, she has traumatic flashbacks to being abused by those afraid of her powers; originally, she was just a psychopath, acting out of insane hatred.
In the book, Brother Blood is disposed of before the traitor storyline starts. Here, the two are interwoven, which I preferred. Having Blood hire Deathstroke (instead of the HIVE) makes for a tighter plotline, if the motive — to steal their powers — is more traditionally comic-booky.
Obviously, the standard art style used here doesn’t come close to capturing the feel or detail of Pérez’s work. If you haven’t seen the original, his pages had as many as 13 panels (when the average is closer to 4 or 5). I don’t miss the Nightwing disco collar costume, though.
Although comic-book scripting has moved on from the overwriting of the 80s era, I would rather have the clear motivations of the original than the lack of explanation here. Things are on-screen, I feel, because they were in the original story, not from any story need. I obviously can’t judge this as a new viewer, but I do wonder how clear the motivations will be and how much emotional impact they’ll have without the detail and history of the original.
The movie does do a good job of capturing the “family” feel of the team, with them working together and hanging out. And overall, because of the strength of the source material, and how much of it was brought over (or even improved), this is one of the best DCU animated movies in a long while.
My favorite bit of the movie, because I have a dark sense of humor, was whenever Mother Mayhem (Meg Foster) would show up near the end of a fight. She’d say to the fighters, “Your service has come to an end. Bless you, my son,” then shoot them in the head. That level of violence, plus the occasional swear word (I counted three), gives this a PG-13 rating. Oh, and there’s a Kevin Smith cameo, as Beast Boy goes on his podcast.
“Titanic Minds: Reuniting Wolfman and Pérez” is the standout extra. It’s 28 minutes of the two looking back over this work and reminiscing about how they got started and changes in the comic industry then and now. They talk about the story’s genesis and reactions as well.
“Villain Rising: Deathstoke” (9 minutes) has Wolfman, Pérez, and Mike Carlin talking about the character’s origin and motivations, mostly retelling the comic version.
The next DCU original animated movie, out this summer, will be Batman and Harley Quinn, and there’s a nine-minute sneak peek. It’s done in something closer to the animated series style, with simple, blocky shapes and Bruce Timm’s involvement. Kevin Conroy returns as Batman, but Harley has a new voice — Melissa Rauch (Bernadette on The Big Bang Theory). Nightwing is voiced by Loren Lester, who was previously the animated series Robin, a nice callback. And it’ll be fun to see Batman in something with more comedy.
There are also sneak peeks for two movies out already, Superman/Batman: Public Enemies and Justice League: The Flashpoint Paradox. Two episodes of Teen Titans, “Terra” and “Titan Rising”, fill out the set.
There’s a Deluxe Edition gift version available, which comes with a Blue Beetle figurine, as shown here. I would have rather seen a Terra or, if you wanted a continuing character, Starfire. (They’ve already done Robin and Nightwing in previous movie editions.)
(The studio provided a review copy.)