Last week, Andrew reached out to me and asked if I would be interested in reviewing Teen Titans: The Judas Contract. If I’m being honest, I wasn’t too excited to jump on the offer. I’ve reviewed a number of DC’s animated films since their relaunch, and have yet to watch one that I’ve thoroughly enjoyed. Up to this point, each film has suffered from the same problems: a poor script, misguided adaptations, and stiff performances. Considering my least favorite of all of these films is Justice League vs Teen Titans (the prequel to this film), that really didn’t help my enthusiasm.
But alas, I am a fan of the source material and I had the weekend off, so I figured I’d give the film a shot. Boy, am I glad I did because this is easily my favorite DC Animated film released in the last few years! It’s taken them a while, but DC finally got it right! Everything is top notch here: the script, the animation, the acting… It’s all good!
Note: This section can be skipped by those who have never read or have no interest in the source material. HOWEVER, comics WILL play a heavy hand in my review.
New Teen Titans: The Judas Contract
They were Earth’s teenage defenders–unbeatable and unstoppable. Riding high, they took an eighth member–a young girl–into their ranks. And she would be their downfall. From the retirement of Robin and Kid Flash, to the birth of Nightwing and the introduction of Jericho, to the ultimate betrayal of a Titan–“The Judas Contract” kept readers positively riveted during its initial run and still has fans talking today.
Tara Markov is a girl who has power over earth and stone; she is also more than she seems. Is the newest Teen Titan an ally or a threat? And what are the mercenary Deathstroke’s plans for the Titans?
To prepare myself for the film, I decided to pick up my copy of The Judas Contract and refresh myself with Marv Wolfman’s classic story considering it’s been more than a decade since I’ve read it. I remembered the overall premise, but the finer details were foggy. After re-reading the story, I sat down with a pack of Guinness, and prepared myself for the worst. All it took was the first scene for me to change my attitude.
I didn’t expect anything involving the original Teen Titans, so this came as a welcomed surprise. I’m a sucker for classic nostalgia though. The dialogue is questionable in some places, but overall the opening scene is a lot of fun with plenty of strong action. There’s also a decent amount of humor – particularly the lines about knowing various languages. My only hesitation at this point was that the scene has no real ties to The Judas Contract, so I wondered if this was the beginning of many misguided attempts at translating the story.
Lately, DC has made a bad habit of attempting to tell a story based on one of their graphic novels, only skew so far from the source material, or try to cram so many other plots from other graphic novels into it, that their scripts ultimately become a mess and they lose what made the source material great. So after the initial scene, I kept waiting for DC to repeat this trend… but it never happened. Instead, they decided to remain true to the graphic novel, only altering what they needed to, to account for a different team roster or to improve the circumstances of the story.
For those of you that aren’t familiar with The Judas Contract, it is arguably the Teen Titans story. If you ask comic fans what the best, or most well-known, Teen Titans story is, they’ll most likely tell you that it’s The Judas Contract. The comic is significant for many reasons, but mainly because it serves as a point of transition for the title. While the film doesn’t capture some of these elements, it does manage to lift most of the plots and themes – all of which are strong in their own respect.
The film balances itself well between all of the characters, and allows each of them an opportunity to stand out. I was actually curious who would end up taking the lead here – Dick or Damian, especially since Damian has a well-developed history in the animated universe – and was happy to see that it was, in fact, Dick. Surprisingly, Dick’s involvement in the plot is nearly a complete lift from the comic – all of which is masterfully performed by Sean Maher!
In my opinion, DC struck gold with this guy! For me, Sean is Nightwing, much in the way that Kevin Conroy will always be Batman. There’s just something about Maher’s charisma and emotional range that fits so perfectly for Nightwing. In fact, over a decade ago, I felt he would be the perfect actor for a live action version! I mean, look at the guy.
He even had Nightwing-esque hair in Serenity.
After becoming familiar with Maher’s work on Firefly/ Serenity, and Brian’s Song, he became my number one dream pick to play Nightwing, but I knew it would probably never happen. So having him take on Dick in this animated series is kind of like watching my dream come true!
My praise for performances doesn’t stop there, either. Stuart Allen returns to voice Damian Wayne, and does a great job as well. Ironically, I wasn’t a fan of Allen early on, but he’s grown as an actor over the years, and now feels so in tune with Damian, that I don’t think anyone could do a better job.
Damian’s history with Deathstroke is played upon here, and it helps add to the overall stakes of the story. If you remember, Deathstroke turned on Ra’s and the League after Ra’s named Damian as his heir. Their rich history from previous films allows for some great moments and dialogue. The exchanges between these two are some of my favorite, especially a moment when Deathstroke calls Damian a “dick.” And while Damian doesn’t have as much to do in this film as he has in past films, Deathstroke has plenty!
Having been recast by the late Miguel Ferrer, I went from dreading Deathstroke’s involvement in the film, to absolutely loving it! Ferrer is a great improvement over Thomas Gibson’s take on the role in Son of Batman, and it’s a shame that the actor passed away earlier this year because I would’ve loved for him to return to the role sometime in the future.
Those of you that are familiar with the comic might be a little disappointed with Deathstroke’s role though. While he’s a total badass and still has connections with H.I.V.E., his backstory and origin aren’t explored. This was a crucial part of the comic, and was the first opportunity readers were able to learn who Slade Wilson really is. I figured the film would alter it considering Slade’s past with the League of Assassins in this continuity, but I didn’t expect them to completely gut it. In fact, they pretty much castrate anything tied to Slade from the comic. His ex-wife is nowhere to be found, nor is Jericho – something that might serve as a deal breaker for many comic book fans. Thankfully, his history with Damian helps maintain a personal attachment for Deathstroke in this film.
Terra also faced some substantial omissions from the comic. She is the newest member of the Teen Titans, so a chunk of a time is spent setting up her powers, her relationship with the team, and her overall arc. The biggest negative with her, is that she doesn’t have the foundation that was built for her character in the comics. This is the first time we’re seeing Terra in the animated universe, so her journey feels a little rushed. In the comics, she was a featured member of the Teen Titans for more than a year before the Judas Contract. She also has family ties to another hero in the comics (her half-brother, Geoforce, the one-time leader of Batman’s Outsiders), another element that is void in the film. Yet somehow, despite the lack of texture, I still enjoyed Terra quite a bit here!
Most of this is due to the outstanding performance of Christina Ricci, but the writers also deserve some praise for making the most of each of Terra’s scenes. They do a lot with the character in a small amount of time, and made a respectable judgement call to avoid any attempts at building mystery with the character, and decided to just get to the point. Surprisingly, I end up liking Terra more by the end of this movie than I did when I read the book. Yes, there is a distinct reason for that – something I’ll touch on in my breakdowns – but a win is a win. Her relationship with Gar is also better here – again for many of the same reasons Terra is more likable in general.
On top of the great character moments, a solid plot and great action drive this film. The stakes feel personal, because the characters and circumstances are written in a way that’s believable. The action scenes are peppered throughout the film strategically to help maintain a fast pace, but the story never feels like a collection of fight scenes. Instead, the action compliments the story by helping develop and tell the story.
The film also contains a mature tone. This is an aspect that the previous films have included, but they weren’t always done well. In the past, it was almost as if the writers wrote the script, then said, “How can we make this feel more adult?” then proceeded to add mature elements. They never felt completely natural (*cough* Ubu hiring hookers in Son of Batman), but I found Judas Contract to be the exception. There are a ton of tongue-in-cheek, sexual references between Dick and Kori that should fly over the head of children, but will land perfectly with adults. I know I laughed quite a bit, but it is also fitting for the characters.
The matureness of the film also extends into a darker tone as well. H.I.V.E. and Brother Blood don’t show much mercy, and Deathstroke doesn’t hold back either. There are also some conversations that feel completely on-point between Deathstroke and Damian, where the two don’t hold anything back in respects to being PC or kid friendly. I mean, it’s not like anyone is dropping “f-bombs,” but these are two people who were raised to kill people for a living, so you shouldn’t expect Saturday morning cartoon dialogue from them.
Don’t fret though. Judas Contract doesn’t fall into the dark pits that have tainted the DC Cinematic Universe to the point that it’s dreary. The joy of this film is found in the characters and their own personal joy. Family is an ever present theme in the story, as well as what it means to be a hero. Beast Boy has some of the most inspirational and emotional moments in the film, and Jaime leads in a subtle way to prove that you don’t need to fight crime to be a hero. But seriously, expect to get a few goose bumps from some of Gar’s scenes.
By the time I reached the end of the film, I was upset that it was over. I wanted more. I wished Teen Titans was a television series because I wanted to binge the next twenty-plus episodes. This is the one DC animated film that manages to capture the magic that made Young Justice so popular. But I guess that’s what happens when you have a great plot full of believable characters and moments… You get a gem! And to think, I haven’t even mentioned the new team member that joins by the end of the movie, or the Kevin Smith cameo… Nerdgasm.
In the spoiler tag below, I’ve placed specific moments from the film that I did and didn’t like. Most of these are spoilers, so make sure you’ve seen the movie before you check these out!
The script. I’ve yet to watch Justice League Dark, but Ernie Altbacker does a stellar job here! DC needs to keep him. I feel as though he made the absolute best decisions in what to cut/alter from the original content, given the circumstances of what has already been developed in the animate universe thus far. If there is one thing I would have kept, it would have been a little bit of Slade’s history, including his ex-wife and Jericho. An additional ten or twenty minutes could have served this purpose, and I honestly wouldn’t have minded.
Nightwing. Dick Grayson FINALLY gets a leading role! Hopefully we’ll get a Nightwing film before Sean Maher gets tied up in other projects!
Terra. The only character that encountered a fundamental change, is Terra. Since she doesn’t have a history with the Teen Titans in the animated universe, the creative team abandoned the notion of building any mystery, and revealed she was a double agent for Deathstroke right away. I know some people will be disappointed, but it was honestly the best approach. Beyond that, the main change is that Terra isn’t a complete psycho here! In the comic, she is NUTS. Here, she’s more human, and becomes torn with the work she’s doing. She is committed to Deathstroke, but she’s also growing to enjoy the Teen Titans, their idea of family, and she is falling for Beast Boy.
The reason this works so well, is because you spend the arc of the story wanting her to turn good, whereas in the book, you just knew she was an evil psycho and wanted the team to stop her. Beast Boy is also impacted by this as well though. In the comic, he blindly embraces denial and refuses to believe that Terra is the terrible person that she really is. Here, he’s fighting for her to be the best she can be, because he’s honestly seen that side of her. It all makes Terra’s final stance more heroic and more tragic. And those chill bumps I mentioned earlier, if you don’t feel something during Gar’s “diamond” speech, then you have no soul.
The cast. I’ve praised the cast, but there is one actor that I just can’t get behind… And that is Taissa Farmiga as Raven. Her dialogue is so dry and bland that I really hope they recast her before the next film. Raven does have some cool moments though, but it’s all action-based.
The action. Speaking of the action… Holy crap did this movie have some good fight scenes! I enjoyed all of them (my least favorite was actually the epic end-battle between Brother Blood and the Teen Titans), but my favorite is probably the scene between Dick and Deathstroke that is a near lift from the comics! This scene was beautifully done, and a standout for me!
Overall: Teen Titans: The Judas Contract surprised me and turned out to be a real treat. This is one DC animated film that I will proudly display, and pull out from time to time! I won’t go as far as to say that it’s the best animated film ever made by DC, but it’s still damn good! The characters are presented well, the story is engaging, the message is inspirational, and the action kicks ass! In the end, Judas Contract is one hell of a fun ride!
Teen Titans: The Judas Contract is currently available on Blu-Ray, DVD, and in Digital HD!