There’s nothing subtle marketing-wise about the latest animated DC movie, “Justice League vs. Teen Titans,” timed to hit the streets mere days after “Batman v. Superman” made its debut. Yet the super-team showdown largely fizzles in this latest offering, which rather squarely focuses on a more serious take on the teenage heroes – generally played for comedy in their TV incarnation – at the expense of their more famous elders. Throw in a subpar villain, and it’s more disposable than the best entries in this animated franchise.
For starters, this latest movie (a brisk 79 minutes) essentially picks up where the 2014 release “Son of Batman” left off, introducing the young son that Bruce Wayne (voiced again by Jason O’Mara) never knew he had, Damian (Stuart Allan). Of course, he’s not just any kid, having been raised by maternal grandfather Ra’s al Ghul and trained in the ways of the League of Shadows, rendering him a pint-sized psychopath, with formidable ninja/assassin-type skills to go with his antisocial tendencies.
Because this is animation aimed at those well-versed in DC Comics lore, the story can conveniently pick up in the middle, finding the Justice League battling the Legion of Doom (the bad guys include Lex Luthor), while Damian, now serving as the latest Robin, sits idly by looking bored. In short order, it’s decided to place him with the Teen Titans, an idea toward which he’s as hostile as everything else, despite their efforts to be welcoming and integrate him into the group.
Soon enough, though, it’s on to the main event, as crises go. Turns out Raven (Taissa Farmiga) – whose companions are Beast Boy, Blue Beetle and Starfire – is the progeny of a massive Devil-like creature named Trigon (Jon Bernthal), who is intent on reclaiming her, and of course enslaving our world. That includes a black ooze that can place the heroes under his mind control, among them Superman (Jerry O’Connell), who, it’s been pretty well established, you never really want on the other side in a fight, even when he’s in a sort-of trance.
Directed by Sam Liu, from a script by Bryan Q. Miller and Alan Burnett, the movie does find some humor in the character interactions, while approaching the threat primarily from the perspective of the Teen Titans. It also finds time to drop in a pretty lame musical montage set to a rock song and an extended sequence at an amusement park, which mostly just feel like pandering to whatever teen non-titans can be lured into the tent.
Inevitably, it all builds toward a battle royale, with members of the two teams first facing off over tactics, then uniting in an attempt to beat back the seemingly unstoppable Trigon (whose name, unfortunately, sounds less like a world-conquering demon than a brand of water softener). It’s also a rather transparent way to force both Raven and Robin to deal with their family issues, which are, admittedly, pretty severe, even by the standards of angst-ridden adolescents.
Warner Bros. has set the bar admirably high with these animated films, from the casting to the subject matter, which is aimed at fans without explanation or apology. Yet as the studio has become more prolific — delivering a new title every few months — there has been a perhaps-inevitable dilution of the quality, with more stories that feel worth anteing up for the price of a comic book, but not necessarily a special-edition Blu-Ray. Perhaps that’s why by the time someone finally gets around to uttering the line, “Teen Titans, Go!,” it really does feel like time for them to get going already.