DC just can't reliably make a good superhero blockbuster these days. This has been frustrating to the studio and fans alike, especially in the wake of Christopher Nolan's revered Dark Knight trilogy and Patty Jenkins' beloved Wonder Woman movie, projects that show just how much potential lies with these characters. As far as interconnected cinematic universes go, Marvel seems to have figured out the formula, while DC wobbles between trying to set a contrast with its rival (darker tones; a supposedly filmmaker-driven approach) and baldly imitating them (hiring Joss Whedon to salvage Justice League; insisting on stitching together a cinematic universe at all).
Yet DC has had a lot of success outside of live-action tentpole films, particularly in animation, where the company seems far less concerned about triangulating for big-money success and playfully experiments with the company's stable of characters. Most DC animation is made for television or direct-to-video releases, but once in a while one escapes to a theatrical release, as Teen Titans Go! To the Movies does this week.
This is the first movie starring the Teen Titans, though this team of younger superheroes and/or sidekicks has been around for decades. The film is based on a Cartoon Network comedy series, which in turn was a riff on an earlier animated series (a darker live-action version is also headed to The CW later this year). Despite plenty of comics lore, the show and movie convert the material into a family-friendlier version of the Cartoon Network cult oddity Aqua Teen Hunger Force. Though Robin, Starfire, Cyborg, Beast Boy, and Raven are nominally superheroes, their show doesn't have them fighting much crime, instead following them as they bicker, cohabitate, and dance to their own theme songs.
That's mostly the story for the movie version, too, which finds arrogant leader Robin doggedly pursuing a movie of his own after noticing that every other superhero in the world seems to have one. Though there are also some confrontations with the villainous Deathstroke, here just referred to by his surname Slade (as well as his resemblance to Marvel antihero Deadpool), Teen Titans Go! To the Movies spends more cumulative time on gags, in-jokes, references, animation style switch-ups, and musical numbers.
Yet amidst Robin's irritation at his group's reputation as "goofsters," as a Nicolas Cage-voiced Superman refers to them, the movie is both genuinely satirical of the superhero craze and a credible, distinctive take on these characters. The movie knowingly underlines the adolescent impulses behind so many superhero stories, and makes the vastness of the DC universe (or superhero universes in general) feel both glorious and kind of oppressive. The lack of crime-fighting may be spoofy, but it's also true to some of the best moments of bigger superhero movies — the downtime between swirling vortex battles, where characters have some breathing room. The Teen Titans version of breathing room may be a bit more manic, but it is delight in its characters and world that makes it the best DC superhero picture since Wonder Woman.
Granted, that mostly just puts it ahead of Justice League, and maybe squeaking ahead of fellow animated offshoot The LEGO Batman Movie. But Teen Titans is also much better than Suicide Squad or Batman v. Superman, or pretty much any non-Wonder Woman movie DC has put out since the Dark Knight trilogy ended. This has happened before, too: In 1993, Warner released Batman: Mask of the Phantasm, a big-screen version of the popular Batman: The Animated Series (a show briefly parodied in the Teen Titans film). Though tiny in budget, it's a lot better than three out of the four live-action Batman blockbusters released in the '90s.
The success of these cartoons comes down to a willingness to reinterpret characters with both visual and thematic adventurousness. Many of DC's lumbering live-action movies could learn a lot from this approach — hell, some of the joke-friendlier Marvel movies could, too, as Teen Titans Go! To the Movies is less self-important than Infinity War and funnier than Ant-Man and the Wasp.
It turns out you don't need $100 million or more to make the most satisfying superhero movie of the summer.