Welcome to our newest bi-weekly column, Prime Time, where different writers pick some of their favorite past shows and talk about what made them standout from the crowd. To read past installments, go here.
It’s no surprise that most of us on The Young Folks staff are big supporters of DC’s ventures in telling superhero stories through animation, from the infinitely praised Batman The Animated Series and Justice League Unlimited, to the far-too-soon-canceled Young Justice. All of which show off the pedigree of Cartoon Network and Warner’s greatest talent in animation and storytelling for shows aimed at kids.
Where all these shows hit the right notes, Teen Titans stands apart from the rest as something that belongs under the same pantheon of heroes, but clearly thrived on its unique breed of characterization, action and stylized quality deemed “Japanimation” by its showrunner Glen Murakami, an animation producer of Japanese descent. Having previously worked on Batman Beyond, Murakami’s goal was to allow Teen Titans a fluid change in visual style between serious American action cartooning to a Japanese “chibi” style in moments of comic relief, allowing their characters emotional flexibility in a 30 minute episode that Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman can’t express in a matter of two seconds.
It is arguable that some of the strongest adoration for the current Marvel Cinematic Universe and the DC Television Universe is based upon their well built characters and those ensemble casts performing as their own distinctive individuals in between scathing disagreements in their downtime, and the impressively choreographed teamwork throughout their action scenes. For young fans of the genre between 2003 and 2006, that excitement people experience now watching the ensemble cast in a film like Civil War, or in a finale of Legends of Tomorrow, were already had to watch DC animation, namely on Teen Titans. The team of 5 very different young teens had a rapport with one another that was unique and fully fleshed out throughout the show’s five seasons, and as the characters learn more about each other’s strengths, weaknesses, powers and desires, the viewer’s perception of them changes as well. Because of their growing pains of young adulthood through their adventures and heroics, the writers team had a ball throughout this series putting the characters into situations that real teens may find themselves on a day to day basis, and depict how someone who was actually between the ages of 13 and 18 may react and behave better than even the brightest moments of campy dramas like Dawson’s Creek or even Buffy the Vampire Slayer (how blasphemous of me, I know), and instead rivals the characterization work of teenagers on Nick’s Avatar The Last Airbender.
Robin, as the assumed leader of the Titans, has his first role here in anything outside of a comic book where he could stand outside of Batman’s shadow and prove himself to be more than a Boy Wonder, and actually highly strategic, intelligence, and a master of martial arts. In fact, there are only a handful of moments that allow viewers to even think of The Dark Knight in context of his relationship with Robin. These moments don’t beat the viewer over the head, but rather are an excitable allusion that doesn’t interfere with the storytelling. A lot of Robin’s qualities in this show reflect much of the self inflicted guilt of Batman’s, and often has his anger needed to be checked by his supportive friends. Especially considering the elusive Slade Wilson, alternatively known as Deathstroke (here played perfectly by Ron Pearlman) is Robin’s rival of the series, and that rivalry impacts him heavily knowing that the person who seems to understand him the most is the Titan’s most despicable adversary.
Starfire is by far the most powerful of the group, but also the most pacifistic among the rest to the degree of settling even the smallest squabbles within the team itself. She’s a character that is endlessly generous and optimistic but also has a social effect on the group that teeters on the tropes of a foreign exchange student that the show generally manages to avoid. As Starfire is from a completely different planet, her Tamaranian culture is foreign in every sense of the word to the rest of the team, and while there are general snide comments and reactions which act as a punchline to her traditions, her teammates are of a progressive nature. And when they aren’t, the show stops to recognize and address those facts. In addition to her being the fish most out of water in the group of misfit heroes, she also has several key moments that demonstrate a relatable sense of humanity when her sister Blackfire comes to town, depicting the kind of jealousy and anxiety that can come with a relationship with a sibling that is wholly based on rivalry.
Raven is easily the most introverted of the crew at Titans Tower, with a lot of deeply rooted family issues. While she at first comes across as the filler of the “goth” quota early on, it is quickly established that she has her reasons to keep to herself, and her powers requiring meditation as she embraces the darkness within her, thanks to training from monks of Azarath. While not everyone has friends with an inter-dimensional demon for a parent, the Titan’s empathy for Raven throughout the series, namely in the rise and fall of Trigon the Terrible, depict how she is able to decide for herself who she views as family after such an abusive and abandoning relationship. Her extreme introversion has reasons and purpose, and while her necessity for alone time is consistently joked about, the character often comes around realizing isolation isn’t the only way to solve her problems.
Cyborg is a character that was relatable back when the show aired for his love of both athleticism and technology in that he measured his own worth in his ability to constantly make himself better: both physically and digitally. He often pushes himself beyond his breaking point, which he at one point struggles with so much that Robin and the gang are required to talk some sense into him. Even more so currently, his connection to the technology that keeps him alive is just as relatable in the way that people tend to be exhausted in keeping their entire lives in a digital world, but also in a way reminiscent of Isaac Asimov-ian theories when Cyborg occasionally loses faith in his humanity and is even forced to surrender to his digital vulnerabilities when villains like Brother Blood acquire control of his hardware.
Beast Boy is the kid of the group, and when the show aired, was most likely the audience surrogate as the youngest on the Titan’s team. He’s your average kid who just wastes his spare time away on junk food, cheesy movies and video games, but also just happens to be able to transform into any animal in the world. His abilities make for some of the most creative action sequences in the series, and while he may seem one note early in the series, his character is surprisingly the one who grows the most, namely out of his hopeless romanticism for a girl named Terra. This is a more tragic subplot of the series, as it’s one of the few seasons that results in the death of a character, and it strongly impacts Beast Boy until he finally receives closure in the series finale. He’s also a vegetarian, considering he can, and has, turned into almost all the animals we eat.
As a five season run, concluded with a TV movie in 2006 that attempts to wrap things together, Teen Titans ushered in a new evolution of superhero storytelling through animation and exposed a wide audience, maybe even broader than that of the Justice League, to the heroes of the DC universe. It was a show that was launched with the intent to skew to a younger audience and caught lightning in a bottle until it was forced to grow with its fans and deliver strong characters and well established relationships between its heroes, and the writing team hit all the right beats of what it would probably be like to be a teenager on the west coast if you saved the world between homework and pizza parties.