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Teen Titans Go! to the Movies. Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

Why Teen Titans Go! is DC Comics' most successful TV series

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Jul 26, 2018, 12:30 PM EDT

A superhero show featuring a team that's more likely to face off against Santa Claus than super villains might not sound like a recipe for success, but somehow Teen Titans Go! has parlayed its absurdly comedic tone into a winning formula. The Cartoon Network series, now in its fifth season and about to make its feature film debut, has become one of the most popular children's programs on TV, but also, arguably the most successful DC Comics series airing right now, full stop.

While The CW's Arrowverse shows (Arrow, The FlashSupergirl, and DC's Legends of Tomorrow) are building an impressive primetime universe, and other DC dramas like Gotham, Black Lightning, Lucifer, and iZombie have found loyal audiences, none of these live-action series are as broadly popular — or as prolific — as the misadventures of the Teen Titans. This is all despite (or perhaps because of) the fact that these animated misfits spend more time eating waffles and making fart jokes than they do actually fighting crime.

Teen Titans Go!'s immature humor has served as an engine for more than 200 episodes, ranking as Cartoon Network's No. 1 show in premieres among all kids (boys and girls) ages 2 to 11, and it’s the No. 1 animated show among boys 6 to 11 across all kids cable programs. And in total audience — including parents and other adult fans — the show regularly draws over a million viewers. On any given day, Cartoon Network packs three to five hours worth of the show into its schedule.

The episodes are just 11 minutes long, but are smartly written, stuffed with jokes both broad and meta, and often include original music. Reliably ridiculous plot points — debating the merits of burgers vs. burritos; squad leader Robin nagging his teammates about doing the dishes and cleaning their rooms — have made the show a favorite of kids, and more than a few adults. In short, Teen Titans Go! is something a lot of other superhero shows aren't: fun.

The series premiered in 2013 in the shadow of a much more serious version of DC's famous junior Justice League, who first appeared in the comics back in the 1960s. The anime-style Teen Titans was canceled by Cartoon Network in 2005, but fans kept clamoring for a revival. What they got was a series of goofy shorts, titled New Teen Titans, as part of the network's Saturday-morning DC Nation block in 2012. Teen Titans Go! sprang from the DNA of those shorts. "They showed that there could be a more fun comedic take with these characters," says Michael Jelenic, who executive produces Teen Titans Go! with Aaron Horvath.

Jelenic had a background in superhero and adventure animation, working on Batman: The Brave and Bold and ThunderCats, while Horvath's credits were more on the comedic side, including Cartoon Network's farcical adaptation of MAD magazine.

"What the studio wanted to do was make something accessible," Horvath tells SYFY WIRE. "They didn't want to make it necessary for the audience to have seen the original series. The stakes weren't high, it wasn't like we have to save the world. All these early episodes were what would a teen superhero be. They use their powers in casual ways."

They were lucky to have inherited the cast of the original Teen Titans: Scott Menville (Robin), Greg Cipes (Beast Boy), Tara Strong (Raven), Khary Payton (Cyborg), and Hynden Walch (Starfire). The group had developed a winning chemistry, giving their characters well-defined personalities (uptight Robin, sardonic Raven, flighty Starfire, and the juvenile bromance between Cyborg and Beast Boy).

"As weird as our ideas are, what grounds it is our cast," Jelenic tells SYFY WIRE. "They have such natural chemistry that you want to spend time with them regardless of when they're talking about 401(k)s and rental properties." (Yes, Teen Titans Go! has really featured those unlikely topics in episodes.)

While the cartoon has been a welcome antidote to the relentlessly dark tone of the DC movies like Man of Steel, Batman vs. Superman, and Justice League, and the frequently grim arcs on Arrow and The Flash, not everyone has embraced the humor. Social media has emboldened older fans who don't like seeing their beloved Titans throwing more punchlines than punches. "I'm told the show is very successful, but when I go on Twitter it seems like we've done a really bad job," Jelenic says with a laugh. "I've had people add me on Facebook just to tell me something insulting."

Jelenic and Horvath have managed to find the humor from the hate, penning several episodes that poke fun at this line of criticism. The episode "Let's Get Serious" guest starred characters from Young Justice, a dramatic action cartoon featuring similar DC Comics heroes, who were not impressed with the Titans. "You and your team have brought nothing but shame to all superheroes," Aqualad told Robin. "The Teen Titans are a disgrace. You are a mockery of everything the world holds sacred about superheroes."

There's also a recurring villain named Control Freak who challenges the Titans to get their act together. And in Teen Titans Go! to the Movies, Superman — possibly the most polite superhero ever created — chides the team and calls them "goofsters."

The film (opening Friday, July 27) was a reward of the show's overwhelming success, and will likely extend the fanbase. Horvath and Jelenic wrote the script (Horvath directed with Peter Rida Michail, a frequent director on the series) and their team pulled together the 84-minute adventure—almost eight times longer than a typical episode—in a year, all while continuing the "very aggressive schedule" for the TV show that they famously joked about in the Emmy-nominated 200th episode. "I think this is the fastest and cheapest theatrical animated movie every made," Jelenic says.

Teen Titans GO! to the Movies

Credit: Warner Bros. Animation

The film's plot sees Robin desperate to have a feature film made about him, given the ubiquitous superhero movies that are being churned out. Since nobody (including movie producers) takes the Titans seriously, the team decides they need a villain to give them some legitimacy. Enter Slade, known as Deathstroke in the comics (the original cartoon used his first name to avoid the word "death" in a children's show; Teen Titans Go! stuck with it as an homage). Throughout the film the character is confused with Marvel's Deadpool, which becomes one of many very meta jokes. (Pardon this geeky clarification, but, if anything it was Deadpool who was inspired by Deathstroke, who debuted in 1980, more than a decade before Marvel's "Merc With a Mouth.")

Wil Arnett became a fan of the show from watching with his kids and signed on as a producer on the film. The star of The LEGO Batman Movie was eventually asked to voice Slade, bringing a deadpan seriousness that plays well against the Titans' goofiness. "When you have Will Arnett as a producer it makes everybody take us a little bit more seriously," Jelenic says. "You have Aaron and me in a room with movie execs and we make people feel weird and awkward. But Will is attractive and charming, and they were like, OK, we'll let you make the movie."

Early reviews for the film are overwhelmingly positive. A sixth season of the series has not yet been officially ordered, but it seems inevitable. That would bring the show to more than 300 episodes, an impressive legacy in a short-attention era with the churn of new series that rarely make a lasting impact. And that is nothing to laugh at.