Wednesday, April 12, 2017

'Teen Titans: The Judas Contract' is one of DC's finest animation movies

Way to go, Warner Bros. Home Entertainment, Inc! I wasn't sure it was possible.

But sure enough, "Teen Titans: The Judas Contract" (out April 18) is the first DC Universe Original Animated Movie I've thoroughly enjoyed in many years. It's certainly the best one set in this New 52-style continuity that's not part of the Batman universe — and far superior to the largely forgettable and uninspiring "Justice League" titles.

Even more refreshing is for WB and DC Entertainment to release an animated flick that doesn't feature Batman or the Justice League. Let's see more of this in the future!

"The Judas Contract" is based on the classic 1984 story by Teen Titans co-creators Marv Wolfman and George Perez. They are one of the true Dynamic Duos of creative teams that easily rank among the greatest writer-artist combos in comic book history: Stan Lee and Jack Kirby; Lee and Steve Ditko; Chris Claremont and Dave Cockrum or John Byrne; Steve Englehart and Marshall Rogers; Frank Miller and Klaus Janson; Chuck Dixon and Graham Nolan; and Alan Grant and Norm Breyfogle. OK, you get the picture…

Outside of the film, check out the 27-minute featurette in which Wolfman and Perez share what makes their working relationship work so well. Definitely worth your time! How great to see two longtime friends share such insights — and all with no unnecessary movie clips or stills of comic-book pages! It's easily the best of the extras on the Blu-ray. (More on those later.)

"The Judas Contract" is a direct sequel to the inferior and poorly titled "Justice League vs. Teen Titans," which focuses on Raven and her ongoing battle with her demonic father. And since Deathstroke/Wade Wilson is the main villain and Damian Wayne's Robin has unfinished business with the assassin, there are ties to "Son of Batman."

But you don't need to have seen either of those animated movies to understand "The Judas Contract."

In this version of the Teen Titans, there's no Cyborg (he's busy filling racial diversity quotas in the Justice League — sorry, I couldn't resist saying that — again!) or Wonder Girl, although Donna Troy is teased to being in the next Titans movie in a very short cameo in the closing minutes. (Keep checking CCC for a review/retro-review of the DEATH AND RETURN OF DONNA TROY trade paperback.) Kid Flash and Speedy have cameos in the opening sequence set five years before "The Judas Contract" in which Dick Grayson's Robin and the team first meet Kory/Starfire. Can we say love at first sight?

The tumultuous and temperamental Terra has been a member of the Teen Titans for slightly less than a year. Starfire leads the team that includes Beast Boy, Raven, Blue Beetle, Robin and Grayson, who recently has returned to the fold as Nightwing. In a refreshing and inspired bit of writing, Starfire is characterized with much more depth and competence than the Wolfman-Perez comics; she's certainly not the golly-gee, clueless bimbo in the slapstick "Teen Titans Go!" cartoons.

Even the eagle-eared fan might not recognize Stuart Allen's Damian as his voice has started to change. So, as a result, Robin doesn't sound like he does in "Justice League vs. Teen Titans" — much less the latest solo Batman animated movie, the very enjoyable "Batman: Bad Blood" — as close to a Batman family story as we've seen yet.

This animated version of "The Judas Contract" is the first time I've fully understood the meaning behind the snappy title. This was a big "duh!" revelation (beware of a thirty-plus year spoiler!) as Judas refers to Terra, the Teen Titans traitor, and the contract is the one Wilson signed with cult leader Brother Blood, whose inclusion is unnecessary. (End decades-old spoiler)

"The Judas Contract," on the surface, is the story of Terra and Deathstroke/Wilson's manipulations, both within the Teen Titans and the way they attempt to with one another.

But what makes the story work is the rest of the team. There is actual chemistry between Nightwing and Starfire, unlike what I've read in the comics. Blue Beetle struggles with controlling his alien scarab along with how to connect with his father. He, Raven and Robin are the outsiders who have found a family with the Teen Titans. Beast Boy is far less obnoxious than his Bronze Age incarnation, but his crush on Terra is as unrequited as it is in the 1984 storyline.

True to the Terra character, Christina Ricci's earth-moving metahuman finds herself with a much stronger bond and attachment to her teammates than she expected. In the comics, Terra is much too pushy for her own good, making it easy for readers not to get too attached to her. But in the animated version, she remains aloof as a very moody, young teenage girl. Combine all this together and her agreement with Wilson to betray the Teen Titans is more difficult than she could have imagined when she first starts going "deep undercover." Grade: A

Blu-ray extras

The featurette on Deathstroke is pedestrian. But I appreciated hearing Perez and Wolfman describing the assassin as Captain America gone wrong and a twisted super-soldier whose "word is his bond."

Featured from the DC Comics Vault are two episodes from the "Teen Titans" animated series featuring Terra. This version has a vibrant personality and is an appealing young girl. This team incarnation, voice cast and the (thankfully) rare zany bits are precursors to "Teen Titans Go!" I assumed "Teen Titans" was a short-lived affair, but I was stunned when some quick online research revealed it aired for four seasons with 64 episodes.

Aside from the aforementioned casual sit-down reunion of Wolfman and Perez, the best extra is the sneak peak at the upcoming "Batman and Harley Quinn" animated movie.

Imagine the epic "Harleyquinaide" episode from "Batman: The Animated Series" combined with a "48 Hrs."-style team-up.

Oh — and Harley Quinn (the adorable Melissa Rauch from "The Big Bang Theory") has kinky intentions for Loren Lester's Nightwing, whom she had tied to a bedpost.

The talking heads and creative team try to convince us this isn't entirely related to "B:TAS," but that's hard to believe when Lester is reunited with the Batman Voice himself, Kevin Conroy. I was more convinced it's an edgier version of the same continuity when Nightwing silently mimics jacking off  — as if to say "jerk" — when he hears one of Booster Gold's suggestions for some C-class superhero assistance for the Dynamic Duo. That edginess was confirmed in a scene when Batman catches Harley Quinn straddling Nightwing.

The Timmverse-based "Batman and Harley Quinn" can't get here soon enough!

Extras grade: B+

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