“I respect that you don’t eat meat. Please respect that I don’t eat fake meat.”
The Teen Titans have a long history in comic book form. The team first appeared in 1964, gaining their own ongoing series in 1966. The team originally consisted of the young wards of older heroes — Robin, Kid Flash, Aqualad, Wonder Girl, and Speedy (Green Arrow’s ward) — but would later gain other standalone teen characters. The title has been reinvented several times, and continues on to today.
The Teen Titans cartoon launched on the Cartoon Network in 2003. The quintet featured heroes drawn from the comics, mostly from the ’80s revival of the series, including:
* Robin (voiced by Scott Menville): The de facto leader of the Titans. Bold, fearless, and intense, he focuses with laser-like concentration on his goals. While there’s no indication in this season which Robin he is from the Batman continuity, in the early comics he was Dick Grayson, and there’s been hints in later episodes that that’s who he is here too. But, in the interview supplements they say he’s Tim Drake, the third Robin introduced in the comics in 1991.
* Cyborg (voiced by Khary Payton): Part teen. Part machine. All…uh…teen superhero? Cyborg was injured in a sporting mishap and was transformed into a…uh…cyborg.
* Beast Boy (voiced by Greg Cipes, Club Dread): The little green dude can transform into any animal, small or large. Over the course of the season, we see him as a humpback whale, elephant, rhinoceros, and rat, among other creatures. I think I saw a llama in there somewhere.
* Raven (voiced by Tara Strong, The Powerpuff Girls): Dark, brooding Raven is not of this world — her father is the demonic ruler of an alternate dimension. She controls her powers by keeping a tight rein on her emotions.
* Starfire (voiced by Hynden Walch): An alien princess, Starfire is the polar opposite of Raven. Her powers depend on harnessing her emotions, though one would wish that she would harness the English language as well.
Over the course of the season, the Titans laugh, love, and kick some ass. Let’s go!
* “Divide and Conquer”
As the intro to the Teen Titans, the pint-sized heroes deal with Cinderblock as he breaks into prison to free a shape-shifting prisoner. We soon learn he’s working for Slade (voiced by Ron Perlman, Hellboy), an enigmatic villain bent on…well, whatever enigmatic villains are bent on. There’s a squabble between Robin and Cyborg, but they soon learn to work together.
Starfire’s sister, Blackfire, is visiting Earth. She’s far cooler than her little sister, and quickly bonds with the Titans. Problem is, she’s on the lam, and is all too willing to let the intergalactic police nab her sister instead.
* “Final Exam”
Slade recruits three graduates of a school for young mutants (school for mutants…where have I heard of that before?) to destroy the Titans. The Titans try fighting them one-on-one, but get their butts handed to them. They learn that by working together, they can defeat any foe.
* “Forces of Nature”
Thunder and Lightning come to town…literally. The brothers, personifications of their titular weather patterns, like to cause chaos. They become unwitting pawns to Slade, trying to get closer to destroying the Titans.
* “The Sum of His Parts”
Cyborg must deal with the limitations of his mechanical parts as the Titans face off against Mumbo (voiced by Tom Kenny, Spongebob Squarepants), a trickster magician.
I have to give the writers credit for the restraint in waiting six episodes to make a reference to Poe. Beast Boy and Cyborg accidentally invade her psyche as Raven must face her inner demons — literally. Beast Boy and Cyborg witness the various parts of Raven’s personality — the emotions she suppresses to keep her powers in check — as Raven deals with her father, a demon of pure rage. Marks the first appearance of Puffy Ami Yumi’s Japanese version of the theme song.
The Puppet King (voiced by Tracey Walter, The Silence of the Lambs), obsessed with the Titans, attempts to trap the essences of the real Titans within marionettes while replacing the real heroes with doppelgangers he can control. He successfully “switches” Robin, Cyborg, and Beast Boy, but Starfire and Raven escape — though their essences trade bodies in the process. Not only must the girls rescue their compatriots, they also must learn to harness their emotions to use the other’s powers effectively.
* “Deep Six”
Trident, master criminal from under the sea, steals a boatload of toxic waste. While tracking him down, the Titans team with Aqualad (voiced by Wil Wheaton, Star Trek: The Next Generation), then kick undersea booty. (By the way, this Aqualad bears no resemblance to the original Titans member or to Aquaman, though his powers are similar. And Wil Wheaton is Da Man.)
After coming as close as he’s come to facing Slade, Robin goes vaguely Batman-ish, trying to crack the clues to find his nemesis. A new villain, Red X, appears on the scene and seems to know the Titans’ every move…and Robin always seems to be otherwise occupied when the Titans face him. X deals with Slade to bring him a disc full of information…and it doesn’t take much to guess who Red X is. This ep is a winner!
This ep is a loser! The Titans are captured by Mad Mod (voiced by Malcolm McDowell, A Clockwork Orange), a “groovy” trickster who wants to teach them a lesson, literally. The gross overload of Cockneyisms and art design like trippin’ on LSD while high on pot makes this a real stinker.
Grade: F, possible F-
* “Car Trouble”
Cyborg builds himself a sweet ride, only to see two hoods who look like rejects from Lupin the Third steal it, only to have Gizmo (who we met back in “Final Exam”) steal it.
* “Apprentice” (Parts I and II)
At long last, the Titans face Slade. He threatens to blow up the entire city, and as the Titans track down the bomb, Robin splits off to nail Slade…falling perfectly into the villain’s trap. The bomb is only a decoy so that Slade can infect the other Titans with nanobots, which he can use to kill them with the push of a button. That means he can blackmail Robin into becoming his apprentice and to do his bidding, which includes killing his teammates.
It’s difficult to pin down Teen Titans. On the one hand, it seems like the creators — Glen Murakami, Bruce Timm, and Sander Schwartz — pitched it at a younger audience. After all, they’re the Teen Titans, and kids like watching those their own age or a little older. The art style is bold and funky, full of bright colors and strong lines. The action is always kinetic — this isn’t a show that stops to catch its breath. It carries a strong anime influence, though from the sort that appeals to pint-sized okatus, like Pokémon or Dragonball Z, not Ghost in the Shell. The characterization is straightforward, without the complexities Timm et al brought to Batman. There’s a simple moral to every story, though the lesson to be learned amounts to “work together with your friends” so often, you’d think that the Titans would work together like a well-oiled team by the third episode. They’re pretty dense.
But on the other hand, this parent would be hesitant to let his child watch it. I have a three-year-old son who is obsessed with superheroes. We watch Batman and Superman and Justice League on a regular basis. He’s watched every live-action comic book film my wife will let me show him (so Batman yes, Blade no). There’s just something about Teen Titans that makes me uneasy. Perhaps the youth of the characters worries me he’ll want to imitate their violent behavior. Perhaps it’s the teenage angst, which he can worry about when he’s old enough to inherit my Nine Inch Nails albums. I think what really concerns me is…well, some of you are going to think it’s kinda silly. I grew up in a very conservative Christian household. My parents would’ve never let me watch this cartoon — which is the furthest thing from my mind, mind you. See, Raven is part demon, and invokes her powers with an oddly authentic sounding incantation — far more authentic sounding than the pseudo-Latin J.K. Rowling uses in the Harry Potter novels (which don’t bother me a bit). The subject is subdued in most episodes, but “Nevermore” is definitely out of bounds for the Little Dude, and “Switched” really toes the line. I’m particularly concerned about exposing Gavin to that sort of demonic imagery and “Satanic” content until he’s old enough to formulate his own thoughts on that subject matter. I’m no prude and I’m far from a Bible-thumper — remember when I mentioned Nine Inch Nails? When he’s a teenager, I’m sure we’ll both enjoy Buffy the Vampire Slayer together. I just want him to be ready for that sort of thing.
Which is such a bummer, because the only reason I requested to review this disc was because I wanted Gavin to be able to watch it. Fact is, I watched it a time or two when Teen Titans first hit Cartoon Network. I never cared for it. I like Bruce Timm’s other comic book adaptations, particularly Batman, which so perfectly captures the Dark Knight that the live-action variations are almost superfluous. What really turned me off was the flashes of anime — for the adult viewer they intrude into the story (but then again, I’m not really much of an anime buff). Watching 13 episodes at once, I warmed up to it a bit, but for me the series really works best when it keeps things serious, not silly. “Nevermore” is an extreme example, and is the most blatant example of why Gavin doesn’t watch the show, but the focus on combat and serious psychological issues made it a stand-out. The eps that focus on the show’s enigmatic villain Slade are the best, particularly “Masks” and “Apprentice.” Ron Perlman is such a great choice for the voice of a comic book villain. Sure, he was great as a hero in Hellboy, but that rich, deep voice is the perfect match for a baddie. He never really does anything other than sound evil and try to destroy the Titans, but this is comic book drama — does the villain need anything do to other than fight the good guys?
The voice cast is uniformly excellent — I have the utmost respect for these unsung heroes of the entertainment industry. Most toil in obscurity, their résumés longer than Christopher Lee’s yet packed with roles like “Additional Voices.” Rarely do you see them working in live-action roles, and few people recognize their names, let alone their faces. But oh, the wondrous variety of characters they bring to life! Most of the time, you can barely recognize their voice from one part to another, for that’s the crux of their talent — creating with only their voice. Over the course of this first season, Teen Titans features many cartoon voices you’ve hopefully heard before, like Kevin Michael Richardson (The Animatrix), Lauren Tom (Amy on Futurama, though in live action she was one of the most memorable parts of Bad Santa), Tom Kenny (Spongebob himself), Rodger Bumpass (Squidward on Spongebob), and Clancy Brown (a well-known character actor, but who distinguished himself in the cartoon world for his pitch-perfect Lex Luthor on the ’90s Superman). Among the Titans, the most well-known voice is that of Raven, Tara Strong. The funny thing is, it’s a completely different character than you’ve heard her play before. Who would’ve known that the voice of Bubbles (Powerpuff Girls) or Timmy Turner (Fairly Oddparents) or Dil Pickles (Rugrats) could do something other than a squeaky-voiced kid of either gender?
This isn’t a disc for the gearheads out there, so I’ll cut to the quick and say the video (presented in its 4:3 TV aspect ratio) and audio (2.0 stereo) are fine. The extras have also been recycled from the individual volumes, but they’re interesting. “Finding Their Voices” is an eight-minute discussion of casting the voice talent to match the visions of the characters — and how sometimes the voice talent helped shape that vision. “Comic Creations” is 22 minutes focusing on the comic book itself. While there’s a lot of input from the show’s creators, comic book writer Marv Wolfman, and comic artist George Pérez, it still seems pretty superficial. I learned much more about the comic from reading Wikipedia (why is it that Wikipedia is such a treasure trove of minutia about the completely mundane?). The “sneak peek” at Hi Hi Puffy Ami Yumi is a 30-second commercial for the show, nada mas, nada menos. The Puffy Ami Yumi “featurette” is a painful 13-minute “interview” between stock footage of the Titans and the subtitled singers. Skip it, for the love of all things good and holy. If you gotta have your Puffy Ami Yumi fix, stick to the video for the show’s theme song — which, handily enough, is included. One puzzling extra is an episode of something called “The Hiro’s” (sic), a “Toon Topia” “show.” The only information I can find about it online is other reviews of Teen Titans discs saying they don’t know what the hell it is. Regardless, it resembles a pastiche of My Life as a Teenage Robot and Kim Possible, except with Asian leads, and is about eight minutes long. And if you act now, they’ll also include promo ads for other DC Comics adaptations, absolutely free!
In classic double-dip fashion, we’ve already seen — and reviewed — all these episodes before. But, at $15 a pop for those discs, anyone brave enough to want to collect Teen Titans on DVD yet hasn’t purchased those volumes would be better served by this $20 collection. Reading the reviews of the smaller volumes by my fellow judges, I see that I’m in the minority in not enjoying Teen Titans. I love cartoons — even supposed “kids” cartoons — but I’ve been spoiled by years of Batman, Superman, and Justice League (and don’t even get me started on the brilliance of Invader ZIM, the darkest kids cartoon ever made). I like my superheroes a little more serious, and the childish antics of Teen Titans just aren’t my cup o’ Mountain Dew.