Up, Up, and Animated!
2016 is going to be a make-or-break year for the DC Cinematic Universe. The endlessly-hyped Batman v. Superman came and went, leaving extremely split reactions across the board, with hopes now pinned on August's release of Suicide Squad pleasing more of the moviegoing public. But as fans wait to see if that potential blockbuster will be enough to rival anything from Marvel's powerhouse output, there are plenty of heroics to be enjoyed in animated form on the small screen. From adaptations of the company's most admired comics to quip-laden rides for the kids, DC's slate of cartoon features for 2016 is absolutely stacked, with three varied and entertaining flicks ready to be seen as we speak.
JUSTICE LEAGUE VS. TEEN TITANS
When you've been raised by a society of assassins, directing traffic must feel like a waste of your skills. Robin (voice of Stuart Allan) certainly thinks so, but after overstepping his bounds in helping the Justice League take down its newest foe, he's demoted to the team's junior league, the Teen Titans. Fellow fledgling heroes like Blue Beetle (voice of Jake T. Austin) and Raven (voice of Taissa Farmiga) try their best to welcome the prickly preteen into their fold, although he offers up plenty of resistance. But Robin will have to warm up to the idea of teamwork in a hurry, as a demonic presence arrives on a mission to possess the League's members and bring about the end of the world as we know it.
Using a bait-and-switch technique similar to what last year's Batman vs. Robin employed, Justice League vs. Teen Titans doesn't position DC's heaviest hitters as the chief baddies, so much as it makes them a pit stop on the latter squad's journey to the main villain. Their corruption arrives and is resolved fairly deep into the running time, yet the story's virtues of getting along as a unit remain at the forefront throughout. The prospect of DC spinning a teen-oriented yarn after committing so many movies toward proving its "mature" street cred left me nervous, but to the film's credit, it actually comes through with an interesting and mostly level-headed narrative. Though not flawless, Justice League vs. Teen Titans is never condescending, conjuring a fantastic premise that takes itself just seriously enough. Cheesy as the humor often is, it's welcome and smoothly-integrated (like when the Titans awkwardly try to act "normal" and have fun at a carnival), and the drama is kept at a nice, sub-preachy level. As with Batman: Bad Blood, the sheer number of characters we get in such a compact time frame means some are developed better than others, though the most important players (Robin, Raven, etc.) get their due arcs.
While the presence of the younger heroes may lead fans of their beloved cartoon series to anticipate a more potent nostalgia blast than it delivers, Justice League vs. Teen Titans is still a diverting romp, with danger and demon-slaying to spare.
BATMAN: BAD BLOOD
The unthinkable has rattled Gotham City. In the midst of fighting a brutal new foe calling himself the Heretic (voice of Travis Willingham), Batman (voice of Jason O'Mara) has vanished without a trace. With the city wide open for criminals to plunder, the Caped Crusader's pupils -- Robin (voice of Stuart Allan) and Nightwing (voice of Sean Maher) -- step up and try to topple evil in his absence. But as the dysfunctional duo is further joined by two vigilantes inspired by the Dark Knight, an old nemesis is concocting a nefarious new plot...one that will tear apart Gotham from the inside out.
While the string of animated exploits that preceded Batman: Bad Blood employed (to no avail) graphic imagery as a shortcut to be taken seriously, along comes this film with a story that, more or less, supports its self-professed maturity. At its core rests a fascinating premise, one in which those who've joined the Caped Crusader's war on injustice are left without their beloved -- and, in some cases, begrudgingly-beloved -- leader. Everyone involved reacts differently to Batman's disappearance, whether it's reflecting with rage upon missed childhoods or accepting that there's no other option now but to keep fighting and carry on his legacy. The full effect of this angle gets a little muddled with the more bat-themed do-gooders who enter the fray, but enough interesting ideas come through for viewers to ponder -- even as they're seeing a totally gonzo plot involving mind control and ninja nuns unfold before them. Neither the film's drama nor its moments of levity feel especially forced, bringing to the table the most balanced blend of entertainment and mature storytelling DC's direct-to-DVD excursions have seen in some time.
Though not the home run the Dark Knight's fans have been hoping for, Batman: Bad Blood is a quite competent caper, a sign that at least someone on staff has enough narrative know-how to steer the character's small-screen adventures in a more compelling direction.
LEGO DC COMICS SUPER HEROES - JUSTICE LEAGUE: COSMIC CLASH
Everything seems hunky-dory at the Hall of Justice...a little too hunky-dory. Sure enough, while the likes of Wonder Woman (voice of Grey Griffin) and Cyborg (voice of Khary Payton) keep busy playing hide-and-seek, the sentient robot Brainiac (voice of Phil LaMarr) is on a course to make Earth the next addition to his collection of shrunken planets. To make the process easier, he scatters the Justice League's most powerful members across different time periods. But ever prepared, Batman (voice of Troy Baker) leaps right into action, determined to rescue his crime-fighting comrades and send Brainiac packing.
DC's LEGO-inspired outings have always been ripe opportunities for the company to dabble in weirder storylines and laugh at its own expense, and Cosmic Clash is no exception. Right from the moment we find that this movie's take on Brainiac is as a world-conquering fanboy obsessed with keeping his playthings in perfect order, you can tell that it has a good sense of humor about itself and its audience. Though such jokes could've turned mean-spirited on a dime, they remain jolly and all in fun throughout, with some even tying into the flick's main message. We get plenty of jabs at Batman's habit of being overly prepared (which includes having appropriately-themed costumes for every time period he rushes off to), but these also lead into lessons on the value of thinking ahead. The film has a smart little head on its shoulders, and while the frantic pacing and near-omnipresent puns were undoubtedly crafted more with grade-schoolers in mind, its spirits are infectiously sunny all the same.
Cosmic Clash is silly, colorful, moves a mile a minute...and, in short, is everything a be-bricked superhero adventure ought to be.