There are many indelible lessons when your main movie theater companion is a toddler. For starters, you’ll quickly become known as the permissive parent. Because while you’re excited to have announced to your fellow parents that you saw Infinity War, Solo, Justice League or any other cultural touchstone that you/they would have otherwise missed due to having a small child tethered to you at all times, it’s an open admission that you’re letting a three- or four-year-old see a film the MPAA deems only appropriate for those over the age of 13, which isn’t call DCFS bad but certainly brands you as an irresponsible/selfish parent. (It’s probably also at least part of the reason why my four-year-old son likes to call me and/or his five-year-old sister “a stupid asshole” when he’s pissed at us and wants to name our new cat “Titties.”)
Speaking of being irresponsible, you similarly figure out rather quickly that you never let the toddler choose the films themselves. For example, when they say they want to see Maze Runner: The Death Cure, it does not mean that they can handle Maze Runner: The Death Cure, even if they’ve successfully made it through and/or dug films like The Last Jedi and Thor: Ragnarok. It is then, in fact, that you’ll learn that a toddler’s triggers are difficult to predict but easy to understand in hindsight. Or more directly, it won’t be all the zombies and killing of said zombies in Maze Runner: The Death Cure that freaks them the fuck out, it’ll be the injection of the antidote to the plague responsible for wiping out humankind across three movies and counting (or the eponymous death cure) that inspires panicked screaming and loud commentary such as “I’ve never been so scared in my whole life” and “I never want to leave the house again.” Their frame of reference might be limited, but given the number of inoculations and vaccines they’ve received in the three or four years they’ve spent on the planet, needles — even when used for good — are the ultimate fear factor.
Most of all, though, any semblance of taste you have largely turns to parental mush. That is, what brings them joy is what brings you joy. So maybe the geeks are right about The Last Jedi, and it completely shat upon the legacy of the original trilogy, smearing that shit all over the arcs and actions of the characters they grew up loving. All I can tell you is that I had a three-year-old sitting on the edge of my lap throughout, completely bought into what those beloved characters were doing this time around for a new generation like him, and who at the film’s conclusion, turned to me and offered a Siskel-and-Ebert-esque big thumbs up for everything that had transpired over the previous three hours. And honestly, that’s all I really remember about the film — hence the reason why I believed him when he said he could handle Maze Runner: The Death Cure. (I did not make the same mistake with Rampage, no matter the amount of whining and pleading.)
All of which is to say, take my opinions on film with a grain of salt. But I have seen a lot of them recently — including the much dragged Justice League, which I saw with my son and his maternal grandfather, who wanted to tag along to witness my son’s cinephile bona fides for himself. And while it, too, drew a thumbs up from the little man — he is not particularly discerning, awarding similar accolades to Sherlock Gnomes and Hotel Transylvania 3: Summer Vacation — even his enthusiasm couldn’t stoke mine. It is what it has been dragged for — a moody mess in which everyone looks disinterested and the complete opposite of the ever-better Marvel Cinematic Universe, which somehow works even though each film is mostly just a placeholder for the next. Same for all the other DC films — namely, Man of Steel, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice and Suicide Squad. (Basically everything other than Wonder Woman or anything involving Zack Snyder.)
Anyway, enough with the bullshit, what I’m really building up to is the acknowledgement that I’m uniquely qualified to put Teen Titans Go! To the Movies into the proper cultural context. And that context very much includes Justice League, Man of Steel, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice and Suicide Squad. (Again, pretty much any recent DC movie save for Wonder Woman.) In that these films would be so much better — and potentially even rival those of the MCU — if they had the fun, clever and relaxed spirit of Teen Titans Go! To the Movies. This was allegedly what Joss Whedon was gonna bring to Justice League, when Snyder had to tragically leave the film after his daughter’s suicide. But fuck if I could tell. In the end, it still seemed like a brooding clusterfuck to me, in which Ben Affleck was basically begging for the Joker, Riddler, Penguin and/or any other arch-nemesis to come through with a mercy killing.
My vote then is to let Aaron Horvath and Peter Rida Michail, the directors of Teen Titans Go! To the Movies, helm any DC movies that don’t involve Wonder Woman or legos. They get it, and while their self-awareness might be at Deadpool levels, it beats Snyder’s sullen hellscape where fun is as verboten as sunlight. At the very least, it would be interesting to see if they could get as meta with Affleck as Deadpool does with Ryan Reynolds (or as Kevin Smith gets with him).
Now, as my colleague Tim Grierson likes to say in such situations, here are a few other takeaways from Teen Titans Go! To the Movies. (Warning: There will be spoilers.)
1. The Robin mythology doesn’t exactly seem like DC canon.
For those unfamiliar with the animated Teen Titans Go! television series — or the endless clips of it my children watch on YouTube — the Teen Titans are led by Robin, the other half of the Dynamic Duo and Batman’s sidekick. (Re: canon: Teen Titans Go!, which is for the younger set, is actually a kiddie twist on an earlier Teen Titans series, which, per Wikipedia, “became one of the Cartoon Network’s most beloved and critically acclaimed series, renowned for its character development and serious themes.” More canon still: That show was based on a comic book series of the same name.)
Admittedly, I don’t know much about Batman or Robin beyond what Tim Burton, Joel Schumacher and Christopher Nolan have provided for me over the last couple of decades, but Teen Titans Go! To the Movie’s portrayal of Robin as a doofus with super small hands who is belittled by the rest of the DC Universe didn’t seem right to me. And so, I turned to MEL’s resident comic book aficionado Nick Leftley to help better understand the Robin mythology. “There’s a bunch of Robins, but the original was a circus acrobat whose parents get killed by gangsters,” he writes over Slack. (In fairness, in Teen Titans Go! To the Movies, Robin’s circus past is referenced a couple of times.) “Then he gets adopted by Bruce Wayne, who sensibly puts him to work helping him fight murder-clowns.”
“But he eventually leaves and forms the Titans, before he ditches the Robin thing and becomes Nightwing,” Leftley continues. “He even becomes Batman for a while when Bruce Wayne is dead — only he’s not dead, he’s an amnesiac and lost in time, pursued by an Apokalyptian hyper-adapter who took the form of a Satanic version of his own murdered father, sent by Darkseid, a personification of evil from, essentially, a world of living ideas. LOOK, IT WAS A LOT BETTER THAN IT SOUNDS. Then he went back to being Nightwing again.”
“In the world of the comics,” Leftley adds, “everyone likes him a lot more than they like Batman, because he’s funny, empathetic and has an ass you could bounce quarters off of.”
To better illustrate his last point, Leftley sent along the following image:
Now the bits from Teen Titans Go! To the Movies where Robin shakes his disturbingly shapely ass — for a children’s film at least — for the benefit of those watching in 3D make a lot more sense.
2. Nic Cage finally gets to play Superman.
I spend a lot of animated movies either trying to furtively look at my phone to figure out who’s voice I just can’t quite recognize or wracking my brain to place where I’ve heard it before. (It took me a good hour into Incredibles 2 to determine that one of the main characters was voiced by Catherine Keener.) For whatever reason, though, it only took about a minute for me to figure out that Superman in Teen Titans Go! To the Movies is played by Nicolas Cage. It’s, without a doubt, the best meta moment in the movie.
As USA Today explained over the weekend, “Cage’s love for Superman is pretty legendary. He was set to play the superhero in Tim Burton’s 1998 Superman Lives but the movie was scrapped and never went up, up and away. (It was the subject of a documentary, though.) Cage once owned a copy of Action Comics №1, Superman’s first comic-book appearance in 1938, but later sold it for $2.1 million. And his 12-year-old son Kal-El was named for Superman’s Kryptonian birth name. ‘It wasn’t really the version that Tim Burton and I had in mind, but it was just fun,’ Cage says about his Teen Titans cartoon role.”
3. Let’s watch some Gob Bluth clips.
Will Arnett served as a producer on Teen Titans Go! To the Movies and also plays Slade, the movie’s villain. His voice, of course, is impossible to miss. Inasmuch as it immediately recalls Gob Bluth — much more so than Will Arnett tbh. And Gob Bluth still is the most quotable comedic character this side of Borat. A trio of my favorite Gob moments/quotes:
To my ears at least, there also appears to be a smart Arrested Development easter egg in Teen Titans Go! To the Movies that seemingly recalls the Bluth family’s famous chicken dance whenever Robin attempts to establish his poultry-heavy catch phrase. (Imho, it’s a much stronger easter egg than the blink-and-you-miss-it presence of Tobias in Infinity War.)
4. There will be pearl-clutching.
There are countless shit and fart jokes in Teen Titans Go! To the Movies — as well as a really dark joke about Robin ushering Batman’s parents to a faster death (for Robin’s benefit, not to make things quick and painless). I, of course, was horrified that I brought a small child to such a moral travesty.