Commissioned essay for Shane DeNota-Hoffman. Thanks for backing my Patreon, Shane!
It’s July 28, 2015. The top song is Omi with “Cheerleader”; The Weeknd, Wiz Khalifa, and Taylor Swift also chart. The top movie this weekend is Ant-Man, closely followed by Pixels and Minions; lower down in the top ten are Inside Out and Jurassic World. In the news, NASA’s New Horizons craft performed a flyby of Pluto, the first ever, two weeks ago; on the 20th the U.S. and Cuba reestablished diplomatic relations after 54 years of mutual hostility; Nintendo President Satoru Iwata died on the 11th and historical fiction author E. L. Doctorow died on the 21st.
There is, perhaps, a question to be asked in regards to the lightening of the DC Animated Universe that will occur in the wake of Batman: The Animated Series: why? The argument for it has been largely couched in quasidiegetic terms thus far: there is no room within the brooding darkness of BTAS for teamwork or lesbian love, so Harley Quinn sets in motion the tonal shift that leads to the destruction of Krypton. Of course, written out like that, from a consensus-reality perspective it’s utter nonsense.
But there is a reason to start pulling away from the aesthetic of Batman: The Animated Series. That reason is, in a word, grimdark.
The dominant aesthetic of narrative entertainment in the 1990s, grimdark was to story what grunge was to fashion and music: a rejection of happiness and traditional notions of beauty, instead celebrating the dingy, drab, gritty, and angsty. This is not to say that grimdark is inherently negative any more than grunge was: it gave us Batman: The Animated Series, for starters, not to mention the entire cyberpunk genre of science fiction, the modern crime drama, and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine (grimdark being always a relative term; DS9 and BTAS may be shiny, happy rays of sunshine compared to most cyberpunk, but compared to prior Star Trek and Batman shows, they’re extremely dark and brooding).
However–and it is here that the topic of this essay becomes relevant–there are two major issues with grimdark. The first is that grimdark and superheroes are fundamentally incompatible, because the darkness within the protector fantasy is that it’s the same thing which drives people to vote for Donald Trump and other authoritarian leaders: the desire for security and the fear of change. Superheroes stop being superheroes when they are given the grimdark treatment; to use the classic example, Watchmen doesn’t work because it takes superheroes seriously, but because it demonstrates that taking them seriously makes them impossible. Similarly, Deadpool works where Man of Steel and Batman vs. Superman rather infamously don’t because, first, Deadpool isn’t a superhero and makes that very clear from the start, and second, because Deadpool resolutely refuses to take its subject matter remotely seriously.
The other issue is specific to superheroes as children’s entertainment, which of course they always have been. The problem here is that angst is fundamentally an adolescent emotion; this is not to say that only adolescents experience angst or that angst is inherently immature, but rather that the feeling of angst signifies that one is in need of change and growth in order to move beyond that angst, which of course can occur at any point in one’s life, but is particularly associated with adolescence. Nonetheless, grimdark retains a generally adolescent tone. For the teen, who generally speaking exists in a state of perpetual angst, happiness is a memory of childhood and therefore childish, and so the inescapable, grinding misery of grimdark is attractive. Similarly, the brooding hero who bucks conventional morality, as well as grimdark’s (usually) higher levels of violence compared to other media, are both emblematic of power and rebellion, which teens in the process of establishing independence from their families often crave.
Generally speaking, however, the signatures of grimdark entertainment–violence, relentless misery, and “moral ambiguity” (usually of the “being a terrible person for an ostensibly good cause” variety rather than any actual ambiguity)–are not what we typically regard as being appropriate for children. Which, 650 words into the essay and 300 after the point at which I declared them relevant, brings us to Teen Titans Go and “The Return of Slade.”
2013’s Teen Titans Go is a spinoff of the 2003 cartoon series Teen Titans, which in turn is based on the DC Comics superhero team of the same name. The first two years of the Teen Titans cartoon thus overlap the last two years of the DCAU, but despite sharing a number of creative figures and deriving from the same comics line, it is not generally regarded as part of the DCAU. Notably, in 2004 series creator Glenn Murakami stated that the reason the characters in the show don’t have secret identities is because he deemed that potentially confusing for small children, and executive producer Sam Register said that the show was deliberately designed to appeal to younger children than the DCAU, 6-to-8-year-olds as opposed to the DCAU’s 9-to-14.
Teen Titans did, especially after the first season when its creators became aware that they had significant in both the 6-to-8 and 9-to-14 age groups, incorporate season-long storylines, some of which could be relatively dark, such as the second season’s adaptation of the comics’ “Judas Contract” arc, or the fourth season’s reveal of Raven’s demonic parentage and subsequent role in bringing about (and then reversing) the apocalypse. However, even these arcs never descended into grimdark: they remained bloodless, had clear moral lines between good and evil, and always worked out to a win for the good guys in the end.
Ten years later, Teen Titans Go took a very different approach. Where most Teen Titans episodes followed the titular Titans in their superheroic adventures, with the occasional, usually comedic, interlude, introduction, or epilogue focusing on their lives as five apparently parentless and independent roommates in their early teens, Teen Titans Go is almost entirely a comedy about their day-to-day lives. Visually it is even more stylized and cartoony than its predecessor, which in turn was more cartoony and anime-esque than the DCAU, and it relies heavily on slapstick and visual gags, which were an element in the older series but didn’t dominate.
And therein lie the common complaints of Teen Titans fans regarding the spinoff: it’s too childish, too cartoony, all bright colors and silly jokes with no storylines or adventures. (Perhaps predictably, I rather like the scattered handful of episodes I’ve seen.) After all, how dare a children’s show be made with children in mind, rather than catering to people who were children a decade ago when its predecessor was new?
“The Return of Slade” is almost certainly a response to these complaints. Slade was the main villain of the first two seasons of the 2003 show, and his return appearances in the third and fourth season marked some of the darkest episodes of that show; the title thus appears to promise something more serious than is typical for Teen Titans Go, something more like what the complaining fans want. The episode then resolutely refuses to deliver on this apparent promise, cutting from the Titans leaving to deal with Slade to them returning after their adventure (which screen titles suggest comprised a three-part episode and a TV movie). Just to rub it in, the Titans talk excitedly about how “epic” the battle was, and Robin notes that Slade is now utterly defeated forever and can never return.
The bulk of the episode is actually about the consequences of Beast Boy and Cyborg requesting a clown for the victory party, despite Starfire’s fear of clowns and Raven’s assertion that clowns are for children younger than the Teen Titans. Despite Beast Boy and Cyborg’s vague childhood memories that clowns are “cool,” the goofy slapstick antics of the clown Robin hires for their party are rejected by them as “kid stuff.” In the face of Raven’s “told you so,” they deny that their nostalgia might be inaccurate, and instead try to make the clown “cool”–which in practice consists of making him uglier and more violent.
This isn’t exactly subtle; Beast Boy and Cyborg are depicted as being about the right age to have been 6-to-8-year-olds ten years ago, which is to say that this iteration of them are the right age to have been in Teen Titans‘ target audience. The thing they remember as being “cool” from their childhood–with teen boys’ notions of what’s cool, namely violence, cruelty, and corruption–was always for kids, and all their demands for it to be something other than it is are childish absurdities. This is not specifically a swipe at Teen Titans fans, however; Raven’s favorite show, a colorful children’s show called Pretty Pretty Pegasus, is corrupted by the transformed clown, in what is fairly obviously a reference to the occasional tendency of My Little Pony‘s teen and young adult fans to create violent or sexualized fanworks.
In both cases the criticism, as voiced by Raven, is the same: the demand that children’s entertainment cater to the tastes of older viewers is appropriative and damaging. It takes that which belongs by right to children and renders it inappropriate for and unavailable to them. It is, essentially, an attempt to steal candy from babies–proverbially easy to do, but reprehensible to attempt.
And more than anything else, that’s why the DCAU needs to lighten up, and why apocalypse/revolution is necessary: because superheroes belong to children, and BTAS is getting dangerously close to trying to take them away.
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