The split demographic for this cartoon seems to be under-twelves who like fart and poo jokes and over-fifties who like Silver Age DC Comics … so you shouldn’t pay any attention to critics who assume the point of a joke about the Challengers of the Unknown is that no one has ever heard of them rather than that we know and love the Challs yet have to admit they aren’t lasting pop culture presences like their immediate successors the Fantastic Four. Compared to the turgid messes of Batman v Superman and Justice League – both of which get lampooned, alongside a transfranchisal running joke that threatens to make the Green Lantern movie into the punchline pariah representative flop of the era – this fizzes over with genuine, gosh-wow love for DC’s enormous catalogue of cool characters while indulging in the kind of fond joshing that made the Lego Batman Movie work. The film is a spin-off of Teen Titans Go!, which was a chibi (super-cute/childlike) makeover for the 2003-6 Teen Titans cartoon show, which drew on successive iterations of the DC title that began as a way of getting all the sidekick characters (except Jimmy Olsen) their own team and evolved into a supersuccessful adolescent angstfest in parallel with Marvel’s X-Men in the ‘70s and ‘80s. This manages to reference pretty much every previous iteration of the Titans, including Young Justice (which went for straightforward heroics while TTG was playing for silly charm) and various animated and live-action takes (a grim ‘n’ gritty TV series reboot is in the works, with a swearing Robin).
These Titans – Bat-sidekick Robin (Scott Menville), green morphing Beast Boy (Greg Cipes), cyborg Cyborg (Khary Payton), alien princess Starfare (Hynden Walch), goth sorceress Raven (Tara Strong) – are a bunch of hyperactive kids (they seem more like pre-teen titans) who don’t make much of a fist of crime-fighting and get patronised by the likes of Superman (voiced by Nicolas Cage, who didn’t get to play the role a generation ago for Tim Burton), Batman (Jimmy Kimmel), and the rest of the Justice League. A particular bone of contention is that all the real superheroes have big franchise films about them, and Robin is seething that there are movies in the works starring Alfred, the Batmobile and Batman’s utility belt – but not him. Incidentally, while poking fun at Ryan Reynolds’ Green Lantern is acceptable, this holds back on mentioning what happened the last time Robin got title billing in a theatrical release and killed the Bat-franchise for a decade. To land a movie deal, the Titans need an arch-nemesis whose name sounds cool when spoken in a slow sneer like ‘Lex Luthor’, ‘Sinestro’ or ‘the Rainbow Raider’ … which brings in Slade (Will Arnett), not here known as Deathstroke or the Terminator and annoyed that he keeps being mistaken for Deadpool because ‘I came out way before him’. NB: Deadpool was Marvel’s parody of Deathstroke, but has eclipsed his inspiration … you know, the way the gang from Scooby-Doo are around long after everyone has forgotten that they were a straight lift from characters on The Loves of Dobie Gillis. Yes, a bunch of kids competing to say ‘Slade’ in more dramatic and drawn-out ways turns out to be irresistibly funny.
Slade steals an all-purpose plot device and superhero director Jade Wilson (Kristen Bell), who is plainly up to no good with her plan to stream superhero movies to every screen in the world, cannily breaks up the gang by offering Robin a shot at movie stardom while putting the rest of the Titans on the bench. It’s serviceable enough as plots go – frankly, it’s got more thematic confidence and narrative drive than 75% of other comic-book-derived movies and the story is still only an excuse for an outpouring of edge-of-frame gags which will make this pretty much endlessly rewatchable. Think the Deadpool movies are fast-paced and full of incidental humour? You’ve not seen anything yet. Note the splendid movie parody posters exploiting DC sub-franchises – like the scarred dinosaur starring in Jonah Rex, the fish-fish star of Aquamanatee, the hugfest that’s the girly version of BvS (Batgirl and Supergirl) – and a table of Justice League-themed snacks I’d demand at my birthday party if I were eight (the Zatanna cupcakes with top hats look scrummy). Also: a Stan Lee joke cameo about Stan Lee joke cameos, Swamp Thing grows a psychedelic afro, the Atom (Patton Oswalt) does a splat gag that’s coincidentally in Ant-Man and the Wasp, a hilarious time travel sequence undoes a host of secret origins (directing Mr and Mrs Wayne away from Crime Alley and suggesting they go home via Happy Street), and a routine about using super-powers to batter Shia LeBoeuf to a pulp will appeal to all ages. The heart aspect comes in the team’s sweet support of their friend Robin even when he’s being a dick – though he doesn’t seem to be Dick Grayson, since Nightwing is sat behind him in a cinema scene – and I loved the homemade Robin movie the Titans cobble together (and tape over a VHS of Young Justice).
Directed by Aaron Horvath – who co-wrote with Michael Jelenic (producer of the equally charming Batman: The Brave and the Bold cartoon series) – and Peter Rida Michail, this has got so much going for it that you’ll let the few duff gags slide. My only real cavil – the rap-type Teen Titans theme the gang sing to annoy gargantuan baddie Balloon Man (Greg Davies) is convincingly irritating, but not a patch on Puffy Ami Yumi’s classic Teen Titans theme (repped here in a blah remix). And those of you who are waiting for DC characters like Detective Chimp to show up on the big screen, this is probably you’re only chance … and sadly I suspect that goes for the Challengers of the Unknown too, though they at least get a splendid running gag.
Oh, the supporting short The Late Batsby – featuring Batgirl rushing to join her gal pals to fight Mr Freeze – is sweet too.