Forget Batman vs. Superman, though a version of that fight happens here. When you have different generations of heroes, it’s got to be youth vs. experience, with Cyborg stuck in the middle. (Call that “old universe expectations” vs. “new universe expectations.”
Justice League vs. Teen Titans continues the animated continuity started by Justice League: War, itself a loose adaptation of the New 52’s Justice League relaunch almost five years ago. Since then, Warner Brothers Animation has released a new installment every year, building a Justice League of legend, alternating with Batman-related films that add detail, and more importantly, added Damian Wayne (Stuart Allan).
The troubled Son of Batman still struggles between his desire to be the best Robin and the training of his beloved grandfather, Ra’s al Ghul. His solutions to problems tend to be the most direct, violent, and incidentally destructive. When Batman (Jason O’Mara) brings his son to work as the Justice League takes down the Legion of Doom, the sudden possession of Weather Wizard by a demon from Azerath flummoxes the League, but not Damian.
As a result of disobeying orders and not understanding teamwork, the young Robin is sent to stay with the Teen Titans, here led by Starfire (Kari Wahlgren). This version of Starfire is older than what most animation fans are used to; she may still technically be a teen, but she’s far from the naive warrior princess that Teen Titans GO! features. She’s had a history with Nightwing (Sean Maher), and has an almost maternal role toward her charges.
But she still has a lot to learn about leading, much to Damian’s frustration. Raven (Taissa Farmiga) is a cipher, and Beast Boy (Brandon Soo Hoo) is too much a clown. And Blue Beetle (Jake T. Austin) has a barely controllable alien parasite on his back. As we all know, though, that doesn’t mean that Damian couldn’t stand to lighten up a bit, and learn to be a kid. If only Trigon (Jon Bernthal) weren’t trying to break through to our reality and reclaim his daughter. His chief weapon? The Justice League.
Writer Bryan Q. Miller, producer Alan Burnett, and director Sam Liu have built a strong animated universe with these heroes. There’s just never enough time to really develop characters that aren’t Bat-related. (Green Lantern and Shazam were just “too busy” to join in this adventure — and the promised Aquaman from last year’s adventure doesn’t even get a mention.) Though painting characterization in broad strokes, including the romance between Superman (Jerry O’Connell) and Wonder Woman (Rosario Dawson), it’s just enough to keep the League from being flat.
The Titans get the real focus here, maybe in hopes of spinning them off. (If Damian is in the group, can we count it as a Batfilm?) We get great glimpses of them in a carnival set piece – with a lot of casual throwaway bits that seem perfectly in character. And then the demons attack.
The new voice cast is pretty inspired, too. As Raven, Farmiga has the right rhythm without turning the demonic teen into a caricature. Bernthal is having a banner year as comic book characters, embodying Trigon well here following his run as The Punisher in Daredevil.
Character design is still heavily anime-influenced — and so is some of the action. When the Titans hear the call to action, the transformation sequence will look very familiar to anime fans. I will always miss the Bruce Timm-inspired designs that these movies used long ago. But that’s minor; these animated films provide the satisfaction that fans ask for when their heroes make it to the screen.