Last week, the upcoming streaming service DC Universe unveiled the first trailer for Titans, a live-action adaptation of comics’ long-running Teen Titans team. The nearly two-minute preview wastes no time establishing that this will not be the Teen Titans you know, via a dark look, an ominous tone, and a depiction of Robin as a sword-wielding, baddie-slaying, bone-splitting badass. And as for his mentor, Batman? “Fuck Batman,” he hisses. It’s an old move, one that comic-book adaptations have borrowed from comics themselves: Want to get fans’ attention while letting them know that this is a grown-up version of the characters they grew up reading? Throw in some F-bombs. Slit some throats. Make it grim and gritty (just one won’t do). Turn your hero into a take-no-shit dispenser of justice with an attitude from hell, a tortured borderline psycho who blurs the line between good and evil. And, well, pardon me while I yawn.
While it’s always best never to judge a project by its trailer, Titans looks tired, the TV equivalent of one of the many comics that tried to ape Frank Miller’s groundbreaking 1986 The Dark Knight Returns without realizing it worked only because it wasn’t like other comics, mistaking rage for depth and violence for maturity. Its focus on Robin doesn’t help matters because there’s already a compelling version of the character appearing on television and, as of this week, in movies: the one found helming the Teen Titans in the Cartoon Network series Teen Titans Go! and the new film Teen Titans Go! to the Movies, the most psychologically complex superhero in either medium at the moment.
You don’t have to look any further than the highly entertaining new film, whose plot revolves around Robin’s unhappiness that a movie has never been made about him, to see why. In an early scene, the Titans sneak into a premiere of the new movie Batman Again, which is preceded by trailers for films starring Batman’s butler Alfred, the Batmobile, and Batman’s utility belt — but no Robin. He doesn’t take it well, and for the rest of the film we watch Robin go through a range of emotions from inflated bravado to something close to a nervous collapse as he simultaneously leads his team of teenage superheroes into a confrontation with the villainous Slade (voiced by Will Arnett) while seeking Hollywood stardom. He’s at once extraordinary and fragile. He lets his successes inflate his ego and his failures come close to undoing him. He’s admirably heroic when he’s not being a buffoon. He’s, in short, a three-dimensional character in a mostly two-dimensional world, and Teen Titans Go! to the Movies takes him on a twisty emotional journey.
A bit of history makes it easier to appreciate the accomplishment. Introduced as “the sensational character find of 1940,” in Detective Comics No. 38, Robin for many years helped ground and humanize Batman, giving kid readers a tagalong proxy for the Dark Knight Detective’s crime-fighting and giving Batman something to care about other than dispensing bad guys. That relationship evolved over the years. When the original Robin, Dick Grayson, grew older, he joined the Teen Titans in the 1960s, a team whose adventures appeared in an on-again, off-again title shining the spotlight on sidekicks. That changed in 1980 with the arrival of the Marv Wolfman– and George Perez–created The New Teen Titans, which gave DC Comics an ongoing superhero soap opera to rival Marvel’s X-Men, with Robin at the head of a group that included Raven, Starfire, Cyborg, and Beast Boy — the daughter of a demon, an alien princess, a half-mechanical former athlete, and a kid who could turn into any animal, respectively.
Robin’s growing independence from Batman and his love for Starfire served as ongoing plots for the book, and though the lineup and creative teams shifted over the years, it’s Robin (voiced Scott Menville), Starfire (Hynden Walch), Cyborg (Khary Payton), Raven (Tara Strong), and Beast Boy (Greg Cipes) who became stars of the Cartoon Network series that ran for five seasons and 65 episodes between 2003 and 2006. Justly well-liked, the series put an anime-inspired spin on story lines mostly inspired by the Wolfman–Perez era. It ran its course and then it went away, with the cast likely believing they’d said good-bye to their characters.
They hadn’t. When producers Michael Jelenic and Aaron Horvath developed Teen Titans Go!, which is now over 200 episodes into a run that began in 2013, they brought back the original cast for a show that bears little resemblance to the previous, largely straight-faced incarnation. That’s one willfully perverse touch among many in a show seemingly designed in equal parts for 7-year-olds with a silly streak and comic-book fans with a deep knowledge of DC continuity, one in which fart jokes live side by side with references to Mister Freeze–branded ice cream. (Tagline: “You scream.”)
With Robin, Teen Titans Go! lets all previous incarnations of the character — the kid sidekick, the wide-eyed teen, the team leader with something to prove, the would-be lover — converge in one fractured psyche. The series, whose episodes occasionally end with one or more team members dead, gleefully eschews continuity, yet Robin’s slow voyage to insanity becomes something of a running subplot.
That he’s an overachiever leading a group largely content to veg out on the couch doesn’t help. In the season-two episode “The Best Robin,” Robin grows frustrated with the other Titans’ laziness, so he calls in his “other team,” an all-Robin lineup of three other characters resembling others who have taken on the Robin mantle over the years. Turning the tables on their leader, the rest of the Titans pit the Robins against each other using the logic, “They’re all Robins. They always have to be the best,” then watch as all four compete against each other until the original Robin, unable to take the competition, kicks the others out.
Robin attempts to present himself as an unflappable leader, but his tendency to see every imperfection as a threat undermines him at every turn. In “Baby Hands” he grows frustrated at his insubordinate teammates, whose offenses include making fun of his undersized hands. When one of the Titans’ archvillains wipes the memories of the others, Robin sees it less as a crisis than a chance to correct past mistakes, telling them stories of how he rescued them and asking them to refer to him as “King Robin.” It doesn’t go well, forcing Robin to swallow his pride and jog their memories by removing his glove and revealing his chubby, underdeveloped hands. The act of humility helps him save the day, but the episode stops short of suggesting anyone’s learned a lesson, with each team member emphasizing that they honestly don’t respect him — but do enjoy making fun of him.
Even in victory, Robin finds only defeat. In “The Mask,” Robin loses his mask then panics, fleeing back to the tower and telling his teammates they can never see his face for their own protection. In time, he reveals this isn’t because he needs to hide his secret identity but because he’s simply too handsome to walk around with his face uncovered. This seems like no problem to his fellow heroes, who swoon at his sculpted features. Even the defiantly indifferent Starfire, for once, takes an interest. But what would be a gift to others, is to him a curse, a distraction from his focus on self-improvement (and, to a lesser extent, fighting crime).
As the series has progressed, it’s revealed more of the tragic backstory that’s made Robin who he is. And ultimately, much of what’s wrong with Robin seems to be Batman’s fault. In the fourth season episode “Mo’ Money, Mo’ Problems,” the team visits Wayne Manor, a luxurious estate filled with items and locations familiar from various Batman films and television shows. (George Clooney– and Val Kilmer–related items have been relegated to a Dumpster.) But in spite of growing up surrounded by wealth beyond imagination, Robin was forced to adhere to a “No Reveling” policy, and to treat money as a vice. Taking his teammates to his childhood bedroom, he shows them a windowless space with some weights, a straw mattress, a bucket and a drain (“where I used to cry away my tears”). He even denied himself the one luxury he wanted: a poster of Bell Biv Devoe, explaining, “Their fresh beats and sweet lyrics got me through some tough times! Their behind-the-scenes turmoil taught me how to deal with conflict! And their elegant fusion of R&B and New Jack Swing inspired my embrace of mixed martial arts!”
The plot of Teen Titans Go to the Movies! doubles as meta joke about Robin’s second-class status in the world beyond comics. But, at least in the world of Teen Titans Go!, Robin’s inability to escape from Batman’s shadow has only made him more compelling. Most superheroes are lucky if they get any shading beyond their motivation and their means of acting on it. Spider-Man didn’t save his uncle, and with great power comes great responsibility, so he swings through New York. A super-serum created the super-patriot Captain America. Batman lost his parents so now he fights crime. Robin also lost his parents, but it’s what happened next under Batman’s tutelage that seems to have really messed him up. And nested in all the silliness of Teen Titans Go! there’s an ongoing critique of superheroes in general, one being rolled out in the midst of a superhero-dominated pop culture on a show airing several times a day on the Cartoon Network (and now being writ large at the movies). Robin dreams of pursuing justice, but at what cost? He may be perfect on the outside, but what does it matter if he’s broken on the inside? That’s a subversion of the character far more radical than having him snarl obscenities could ever be.