Created by DC in 1964 during the Silver Age, Teen Titans was a group composed of the sidekicks of more popular heroes back when that was a thing. It didn’t catch on until Marv Wolfman and George Perez revamped the concept into The New Teen Titans which was far more contemporary and a mega-hit. Decades later, while DC had several top-notch animated shows running, one hit television in a way that hasn’t been replicated since: Teen Titans.
Here was a show that ran six seasons (and a movie!) which has earned a rock-solid place in fans hearts, so much so that Cartoon Network actually brought it back which is impressive because the show was over for seven years. Compare that to the Powerpuff Girls, which was also a hit in its own right but was absent for much longer, and it shows how much people still care about the brand that CN would revive it not only first, but ahead of one of their other original series.
The basic premise of Teen Titans is 5 teenage superheroes living together and fighting crime in Jump City. It’s not explained for some time why they did this or where they came from before. Later on the show would fill in some blanks (one of the fun points of watching), but it was done sparingly. Cyborg had some kind of accident, Starfire was an alien prisoner who crashed on Earth and decided to stay, Robin and Beast Boy each wanted to break out on their own. Again, most of that came much later after fans fell in-love with the teens.
Most of the series alternated between high-stakes action and comedy by mixing Western and Eastern sensibilities and animated styles. It was a show that wasn’t afraid to do its own thing, but that was only one part of its appeal. The other was its characterization, it really made its cast feel like genuine teens and distinct personalities. I think anyone could watch this show and emphasize strongly with at least one of them: Robin was the driven/serious one, Starfire was the warm and friendly type, Raven was the goth girl who buried her emotions, Cyborg was the jock who liked to build stuff and Beast Boy was the fun-loving kid who struggles to be taken seriously. I’m simplifying them to their core, but over the series so much was done to make them even more layered. Robin was of course the most immediately recognizable since EVERYONE knows Batman, so they knew who Robin was. What was cool about Robin was you saw how different he was, but also how Batman had influenced Robin to always try his hardest even to the detriment of his health and relationships. Robin couldn’t even verbalize his feelings for Starfire outside of her battle prowess until the movie. He cared for her, she knew and we knew it, but it was outside his experience to talk about that because of his past upbringing. Starfire before the Titans was angry and quick to fight, but at the start of the series on we only see her trying to understand Earth culture and human relationships in abstract and simple terms. Raven for much of the show’s run is quiet and enigmatic, which is shown as her trying to control her powers and hide her parentage to the demon Trigun. Which actually contextualizes her membership in the Titans in a lot of ways: she wants to “redeem” herself for what she’s GOING to do, but she also likes having friends and belonging. It helps to explain her apparent disdain and maybe-crush for Beast Boy, who is all about goofing off. Which by the way, Beast Boy is the best in the show. He’s constantly having fun, but when he wants his teammates to take him seriously he struggles because A) he’s going against type, B) he’s not that bright and C) those moments are few and far between. That doesn’t make him less interesting; he’s an ardent vegetarian and like Robin comes from a more serious background. DC fans probably remember Beast Boy was part of the Doom Patrol which earns its name in the show for being really serious and kind of grim, which means when Beast Boy joins the Titans he can finally be who he wants. That leaves Cyborg, who should be the most depressing character in the show just like he is in the comics right now. Thankfully that’s not the case at all.
You could make the mistake of thinking Beast Boy and Cyborg are the same character and in some ways that’s true. They both love to eat, play video games and they’re each other’s best friends. Cyborg is the tech man of the Titans building their headquarters, car, jet/sub/spaceship, entertainment systems, etc. He also gets the least amount of backstory beyond his accident, but that’s because its not important to who he is now. The comics will ask ad nauseam “is he a man or a machine?” In the show this is never even considered. Cyborg, despite all of his mechanical additions, is certain of his humanity and holds on to it as hard as he can. His greatest fear in the show is becoming a full machine and losing who he is entirely. In many ways, Cyborg’s depiction is like someone using prosthetic limbs but is no less human because of them. The show makes a point again and again how Cyborg’s humanity is his greatest strength, which the comics could learn from. He’s not a depressing character, he’s a regular guy with machine parts but that doesn’t hold him back.
I haven’t even talked about the bad-guys yet, which were almost as good as the heroes. Being a Teen Titans property, Deathstroke was a given to appear. The writers smartly reinvent the character to a mysterious and calculating villain who constantly attacks the Titans, looking to exploit their weaknesses and drawing back when the odds turn against him. Slade (Wilson), not Deathstroke or the Terminator, was the main antagonist for much of the series before it brought in Trigon and the Brotherhood of Evil. There were also other more light-hearted villains such as Mad Mod, Mumbo-Jumbo, Control Freak. Recurring ones were the H.I.V.E students who were sort of the anti-Titans. Like the stories themselves, the villains could either be comedic or action-oriented in nature. Despite only appearing in two episodes, Malcolm McDowell’s 1960’s British obsessed villain Mad Mod remains my favorite bad-guy. He was as ridiculous as he was entertaining, which underscores another great thing about the villains: none of them were used more than necessary. If Brother Blood was needed for the plot, Brother Blood was in the episode. If the show wanted to highlight a specific character’s predicament, they’d use Plasmus or Ciderblock so they wouldn’t distract from the main plot.
The stories, by the way, were almost always great. The series didn’t make a habit of trying to send a message to viewers, but one of the points was to show that the five main characters needed each other. If one of them left, there was no Titans. When Starfire got sucked into the future, she found her friends had drifted apart and into lonely bitterness. Without Robin, the team lacked focus and had a hard time saving the day. If Cyborg or Beast Boy were missing, the team lacked the enthusiastic camaraderie that made them friends. Those stories are what set the show apart from your Justice League or Young Justice, the team were friends first and teammates second. It’s balance of action and comedy along the friendly dynamic made it very engrossing to younger viewers and those who wanted lighter viewing to the Timmverse shows. Of course this is why Teen Titans GO! gets so much fan ire.
It’s all comedy, lacks the deliberate characterization that the previous series had built and really, it’s not meant to be the old show. It’s meant to introduce new, younger viewers to the characters and if we’re honest with ourselves we’d admit its a good thing and exactly what the old series did.
I’m hopeful for Benjamen Percy and Jonboy Meyers’ new take on the property for DC Rebirth. Although I know Teen Titans is a series that needs to be part of the larger DCU, I desperately want it to be a comic that at least has a modicum of fun to itself. Let them be Teens, friends who fight and laugh with each other. It’s a take I think is worth trying, given the huge number of fans of both cartoon series.