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Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Static Thoughts - Teen Titans Go!

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Edited by Robert Beach 

I am an unapologetically huge fan of Teen Titans Go.  Cartoon Network’s third shot at the Teen Titans franchise through this latest reboot is an unquestionable win, my favorite adaptation of these characters, and honestly one of the funniest superhero spoofs produced.  And yet, I feel bizarrely alone in my love for Teen Titans Go.  

Whenever the show comes up in conversation the universal response seems to be a wistful sigh of disappointment that I wasn’t talking about the 2003 TV show or Young Justice.  Why is this?  I’m not saying the previous incarnations were bad but the fact there were beloved previous versions of a thing didn’t stop us from loving Batman: The Brave and The Bold or even the upcoming Lego Batman movie.  Why is Teen Titans Go so overlooked by so many?

A big part of the reason Teen Titans Go gets so overlooked seems to be its focus on comedy rather than strict drama.  This is actually pretty common in superhero comics as stuff that’s quite clearly whimsically goofy or tongue-in-cheek tends to be quietly pushed to the side by hardcore fans for fear that it’ll cast aspersions on the stories being told.  

The most obvious incarnation of this is Batman’s history and the way fans spent decades and decades pretending that the version of Batman that fights aliens and hyper-imps were somehow less valid than the tortured avenger crying out for mommy and daddy.  Apparently, this particular fan insecurity extends to the Teen Titans as well, which makes a certain amount of sense given the Titans’ weird place in the DC universe.

Most DC properties exist in some form of relationship to live action adaptations.  Wonder Woman persists in people’s minds through the lens of Lynda Carter, Green Lantern is pretty badly colored by his 2011 movie, and Christopher Reeve will forever be people’s knee-jerk conception of Superman.  

For the Teen Titans, their only member to have made it to the live action world is Robin and he’s spent several decades as either Burt Ward or Chris O’Donnell as people from all corners complained about how lame he was. 

That kind of thing has more or less shaped the worldview of Robin to see him as a more whimsical or childish superhero component.  Given that, the fact that the two major Teen Titans adaptations prior to Teen Titans Go were serious affairs, directly clashing with public perception of their core character, fans of those adaptations have always had to struggle to portray their fandom as serious and not frivolous.  So, Teen Titans Go reverting to a comedic approach seems like an invalidation of all that work but really it’s the complete opposite.

Firstly just the fact that something is a comedy doesn’t mean it required less work or dedication to produce.  This is one of those weird misconceptions because telling a joke requires you to seem laid back and relaxed even though good comedic timing, well-crafted punch lines, humor that’s hilarious enough to warrant repeat viewing are all incredibly difficult to craft.  

Being funny is hard but Teen Titans Go is really funny.  The show consistently puts together terrific jokes with the kind of humor you come back to time after time and can be found funny by kids and adults. 

None of the characters ever feel short changed and all of them are funny in a unique way.  Starfire’s unique approach to language is the best “fish out of water” running joke since Galaxy Quest, Raven’s sarcastic put downs are worthy of beloved dry wit characters like Parks and Rec’s April Ludgate or Rossa Diaz from Brooklyn 99, Cyborg’s enthusiasm is cut from the same cloth as the best comedy of Andy Samberg, and Beast Boy’s selfish id is the core of great comedy. 

Actually, the series Teen Titans Go most resembles is It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia.  The set-up of the characters as a group of self-centered people with very little conception of how their actions impact others is comedy basics but the level of selfish unawareness that informs the Titans and Always Sunny’s gang is about even with one another. 

It’s such a weird parallel that they’ve even done shockingly similar episodes.  Teen Titans Go’s episode ‘Bad Dudes with Rad ‘Tudes’ was a hilarious surreal parody of the late '80s early ‘90s sports movie pretty much exactly in line with Always Sunny’s ‘The Gang Hits The Slopes,’ another scathing parody of late ‘80s early ‘90s sports movies.  The biggest connection, however, comes in the twin characters of Robin and Dennis Reynolds. 

I get the impression Robin is at the heart of why a lot of fans don’t like Teen Titans Go as he’s pretty much the exact opposite of every onscreen Robin we’ve ever seen.  He’s a neurotic, control freak, perfectionist with a serious paranoid streak and an incredibly creepy obsession with his teammate Starfire. 

He’s constantly prone to spying on his teammates, freaking out because things don’t meet some arch conception of perfection he’s conjured in his mind and insisting everyone do exactly what he says.  In short, he’s a pitch-perfect parody of what someone who spent their childhood training under the world’s greatest crime fighter would actually be like. 

This is why I think it’s so unfair that Teen Titans Go is neglected or worse by so many fans because it’s not just funny it’s insightful.  Teen Titans Go is a comedy cartoon starring superhero but more than that it’s a parody of those heroes and the life of the superhero overall, that’s why their most consistent response to criticism is to make fun of themselves. 

Whenever people come down hard on Teen Titans Go for not being serious or having a more western animation style or simply not being the old show they love devoting an episode to how ridiculous people’s demands are.  That’s why the show’s best episode is still ‘Let’s Get Serious’ a massive parody of the overly serious nature of superheroes in today’s landscape and the bizarre demand that literal children’s characters be treated as bleak, gritty, drama. 

What’s more, the parody of the show doesn’t just come from glib observations about superheroes but rather an actual knowledge of the characters.  As I said, Robin works as a joke because someone who grew up under Batman, an insane perfectionist who keeps files on how to kill all his friends, would obviously be a neurotic hot mess. 

Meanwhile, Cyborg’s enthusiasm allows the character to bypass his tedious angst and jump straight to be excited over how cool it would be to have robotic super powers.  Starfire’s nature as an alien who doesn’t get Earth customs but is still incredibly glad to be involved is a new take on her character that also affords her definition beyond just being Robin’s love interest.  Beast Boy’s id as a reflection of how often he spends as an unrestrained animal and Raven’s snark as an immortal basically wasting her time with the team are other great additions. 

This even extends to the villains, taking one-note bad guys like Dr. Light or Trigon and turning them into great reoccurring characters.  I mention those two specifically because of how well Teen Titans Go revamps their characters.  

Trigon in the comics is just a big Satan stand-in notable only for being a rapist but the show re-imagines him as a cosmically powered nosey dad, while fellow rapist Dr. Light goes from one-note madman to a shockingly amiable bad guy with a friendly relationship with the Titans.  Both of these changes are for the better, giving the villains actual complexity rather than the illusion of maturity that so often informs them in the comics. 

All of this is why I consider Teen Titans Go not just the best adaptation of the Teen Titans, but also the best version of them overall, including the comics.  I was never actually a fan of the Titans in the comics but Teen Titans Go took them in a new direction and showcase new elements of the team that I found really enjoying and engaging and I think that’s why so many people overlook it: because it’s approaching the Teen Titans as something to be altered and changed to fit the show rather than simply adapted one-to-one for the screen. 

So much of Teen Titans Go is built around undoing or mocking stuff that’s pretty intrinsic to the mythos, like Cyborg’s existential quandaries or the romance between Starfire and Robin (or Beastboy and Raven for that matter.)  

So, for a lot of fans of the Teen Titans, the show and the comic, Teen Titans Go isn’t THEIR version of these characters and thus has to be inferior, because the chance that an animated kids’ show improved on the source material would invalidate the whole idea that the comics are already great mature stories to be taken seriously. 

This is actually a pretty common misconception in geek culture, the idea that the source material can’t be improved because that means it wasn’t a mature and incredible work in the first place that people have to take seriously.  Even in today’s time of geek cultural dominance and universal nerd interests I still see people getting insecure about their interests and whether or not people are really taking their funny book costumed crusaders seriously.  I think it’s the result of defining your own identity by the media you consume so you begin to perceive anything that critiques or mocks that media as an affront against you, in particular, sort of like how people sometimes perceive a critique of their favorite band as a personal insult. 

Whatever the reason, that kind of insistence on pre-existing perfection misses the whole point of comic books: that characters persist to facilitate experimentation.  The whole reason characters like Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman, Captain America, Thor, and yes the Teen Titans persist through the ages is because new writers keep wanting to tell stories with them that are radically different from what came before. 

Even the Teen Titans, as people think of them, are the result of radical reinvention by Marv Wolfman and George Perez.  Insisting that they or any other hero has been to perfection, well it’s basically calling it quits on that hero’s future potential, insisting that there’s no point in more stories or new ideas because they’ll never be as good as what’s already happened, it’s choosing for a character’s best days to be behind them and I don’t think that’s the Teen Titans, not yet anyway.  
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