The Judas Contract is not only the best Teen Titans story of all time, but one of the most influential stories in comic book history. Fans have wanted DC to adapt the story for their animated line for several years. Finally, after a decade of false starts, good intentions, and bizarre stops, we got our adaptation, and all in all, it was…fine.
The hallmarks and iconography are all there. Nightwing is kicking major ass. Terra’s story is heartbreaking. Deathstroke is a piece of human garbage who just wants to get paid. But there are major differences between the animated film and the comic; some of them work out great, while others, well, they defy logic and make you question if this script was just given the Judas Contract title to sell a few extra Blu-rays.
In short, The Judas Contract is a great movie on its own, but as an adaptation, it’s a body without a soul. For this article, we’ve collected 8 things it got right, and 7 things it got wrong.
-- SPOILERS ahead for Teen Titans: The Judas Contract --
When The Judas Contract was first published in 1984, it sent shockwaves through the industry. Terra had betrayed the team. She was chain-smoking and was in a sexual relationship with Deathstroke, the damn near elderly assassin. Dick Grayson gave up being Robin and became disco sex symbol Nightwing.
In the adaptation, things are even edgier. There’s more blood, sex, and swearing here than Game of Thrones or Deadwood combined—not in the same scene, of course, though that would have been an interesting alteration. People are routinely cut to death and shot full of holes. There's even a scene of a young Terra being dragged by a motorcycle and beaten savagely by an angry mob.
If that isn’t to your liking, the relationship between Dick and Kori is given great focus; not only in the complexities of living and working together, but the fact that these are two young, good-looking people who do little more than punch folks in the face and have sex. Despite the unlikely world they inhabit, the obvious story of first love is a universal one. Oh, and there are plenty of "Dick" puns. Because why wouldn’t there be?
Terra, the infamous traitor of the Teen Titans, was only introduced in the previous animated movie for a quick cameo. In the source material, Terra was a Titan for more than a year before she turned on the team. That gave us more than enough time to care about and adore her. In the real world, she debuted shortly after X-Men’s Kitty Pryde, so most fans assumed that Terra was meant to be the cute-as-a-button Kitty equivalent. Instead, in the comics, she turned into an absolute tragedy; the story of someone broken, deceived and deeply mentally disturbed betraying the only people who ever cared about her.
But, nah, let’s just condense this complicated story into just over an hour and shoehorn more characters in to vie for already minimal screen time.
The fact the Terra is evil is telegraphed a mile away, and succeeds in only making the Titans look like idiots. Do they even realize what genre they’re in? After all, these are Twitter-obsessed snarky millennials! The shifty new kid is always really a bad guy! TVTropes warned us! They warned us!
Originally, Terra was mentally unstable. In the Judas Contract animated adaptation, she isn’t crazy; she’s conflicted. She resents having powers and thinks people that do are too dangerous; the Teen Titans, as a team, are a risky bet. And she has a point. What’s more dangerous than hormonal teenagers with superpowers?
Terra’s backstory shows her being treated as a witch for her abilities. She’s barely a child and she’s being beaten, bludgeoned, and tortured by her neighbors. While still essentially marketed toward children, and despite the already graphic content of this adaptation, to see a child bleeding profusely and getting a gun put to her head is tough to process.
By making her a bit more sane in this version, Terra is responsible for her actions, making her more complicit, and adding a little bit of levity in allowing her to redeem herself slightly by committing mass murder to save the Titans. Look, that’s as uplifting as The Judas Contract gets.
Damian Wayne is tough to deal with, but he has an undercurrent of respect for the Teen Titans. Terra is just a bad person. It’s been a year since she joined that team, and she’s still mean and obnoxious to everyone. Then she’s thrown a poorly animated surprise party. No wonder she hates them. How badly do they need team members that they’re willing to tolerate how awful she’s been to them and throw her a party celebrating it?
Then again, maybe this scene is actually genius. Maybe they really are desperate for team members. After all, these Teen Titans don’t know a world where super-crime and metahumans aren't a common occurrence. It’s a more complicated and dangerous world. Maybe this is an example Terra’s own dislike of the superpowered bunch: they’ve made the world worse. This party is all their fault!
And that pop song. That pop song that plays over the montage of selfies. It’s a mess of autotuned, EDM-influenced, modern club kid bubblegum crap—Oo-whoa oo-whoa. If Sia couldn’t write and had a nasal blockage the size of Rhode Island, this would be the outcome.
On top of the world!
In the words of Eddie Blake, “God help us all.”
One of the most shocking things in the original Judas Contract story was finding out that Deathstroke was having an affair with the underage Terra. Not only was he a soulless killer, he was also a statutory rapist.
Here, Deathstroke is grooming her, but it’s Terra who is pressuring him into sex. Sporting makeup like a geisha lolita and wearing only a teddy, she attempts to seduce him. It’s incredibly creepy (yay?) which lets us know it’s still beyond wrong, but Slade rebuffing her feels unlikely. It rings false to the character of Slade and almost demands that we cast a sympathetic eye on him; the same man who, one scene later, tortures Robin—a ten-year-old. He may have been baited into the latter, and he seemingly has no intention of ever following up on his promise to be with Terra once the mission is done, but still. Ew.
The movie seems to draw the line here, likely in reaction (at least in part) to the Bruce Wayne/Barbara Gordon debacle from The Killing Joke adaptation last year. Rather than provoke the outrage crowd into their usual mouth-foaming frenzy, writer EJ Altbacker accidentally created a structural misstep that robs Terra of a major part of her tragic story by implying that she has more agency than she does. Given how little Terra’s attraction means to the plot of the movie, it’s strange that this angle wasn’t omitted entirely.
In the original story, Brother Blood was just a means of bringing the Teen Titans and Deathstroke together. He was a two-dimensional villain with minor hints of potential. The fact that he wanted to take his religion public and make money off it was both chilling and clever -- we would make a Scientology joke here, but we’ll let it lie (wink) -- but he was just a babbling idiot in a bizarre costume. He would make spare appearances after The Judas Contract was published, but as a jobber villain.
In the adaptation, Brother Blood is much more intense, better organized, and substantially more powerful. In short, he’s an actual threat rather than just a plot convenience. The fact that Deathstroke even mentions how much a potential problem Blood is really bolsters the idea that the Titans aren’t just going up against a two-fold threat in Slade and Terra, but a pseudo-mystical fanatic that's looking to steal their powers. In the end, it takes the entire team, plus Deathstroke and Terra to bring him down, only to have an escape hatch ready in case he died. Now, that’s how you make a good villain.
When DC adapted The Dark Knight Returns, they handled the graphic novel like they were afraid it would crumble in their hands. In the end, they split it up into two volumes, and decided on a nearly panel-by-panel, line-for-line retelling. As far as the stories go, The Judas Contract isn’t much shorter in page count than DKR. DC is aware of how beloved this story is, so why not just do the same thing again? Retell the story. You don’t even have to split it into two releases if you’re worried the normies aren’t familiar enough with the source material to illegally download purchase two movies.
By changing so much of the original narrative, this adaptation feels more like an original movie that was given a last-minute rewrite and stamped with the Judas Contract title.
Some of the problems with these differences have very little to do with the story itself, but rather with the albatross around its neck, because, unfortunately, The Judas Contract’s biggest weakness is that…
A few years back, Warner Bros. wanted to make the animated movies more Batman-centric and focus on modern storylines that were more in-line with what was currently being published, hoping to have a mirroring continuity between the animated movies and the comics on the stands. Unfortunately, this was during DC’s New 52, where things were dark for no reason, Nightwing had that awful red costume, and continuity was all over the damn place.
With the desire to keep the Judas Contract adaptation in this animated continuity, we the audience (and writer EJ Altbacker) were stuck with what was already established, which included the heavily anime-influenced art that keeps the character’s faces featureless and expressionless. The results are strange. Rather than the obsession Slade has with killing the Titans, here, he’s only interested in getting paid -- and maybe vengeance on Damian because of the Son of Batman movie, which, admittedly, the viewing audience would like revenge for too. When Nightwing’s last-minute rescue happens, it feels out of place despite it happening in the comics, since a decent chunk of this movie was built up around Deathstroke and Damian’s feud.
Okay, this is really cool. Or, more accurately, a reason to celebrate doing the bare minimum. Deathstroke’s appearances in this shared animated universe have been less than great. In short, he’s been out of character. Sure, he’s still an assassin, but in Son of Batman, he was also this cookie-cutter villain bent on world domination. Gone was the intensely focused one man army. Now, he wanted an actual army to use against Ra’s al Ghul so the writers and animators can get paid to be able succeed where his former mentor had failed.
It was like having Black Manta as Orm’s underling in the Throne of Atlantis adaptation. It doesn’t make sense for the character—Black Manta takes orders from no one. Neither does Deathstroke.
In The Judas Contract, we’re back to basics. Slade is a scumbag who wants to fulfill his contract, get paid, and prove once again that he’s the best in the world. The best example of this is is just how easily he betrays Terra to Brother Blood. To him, she was just a means to an end; a weapon to use against the Teen Titans and a backup plan in case he couldn’t kidnap the entire team alive. It was lousy. It was narcissistic. It was Slade friggin Wilson.
Speaking of fixing character mistakes, we come to Nightwing. The animated universe has treated Grayson similarly to the comics. He’s always there when you need him, but he isn’t often well utilized or appreciated. Considering the upcoming (yet long overdue) Nightwing live-action film, it’s not a surprise that Dick has seen a swell of attention recently.
Both versions of The Judas Contract allow us to see what a great leader Dick Grayson is. He doesn’t have superpowers, but his presence commands attention and trust. Nightwing can come up with successful strategies to save the day from bizarre and sudden threats. Batman trained him to be the best. To be a leader. Grayson is so good leading that he turned a ragtag group of misfits into one of the strongest armies on the planet.
In the adaptation, Dick fights with Slade in one of the best-choreographed fight scenes since Under the Red Hood. Grayson isn’t in uniform and doesn’t have his armor or gadgets. He just has his unrivaled ability to improvise. No, he doesn’t win the fight, but he outsmarts Slade long enough to completely undermine him and rescue his teammates, which brings us to our next point.
Dick Grayson showed incredible detective skills to lead him to figure out that Deathstroke was working with Brother Blood, that Terra betrayed them, and where he could find them all. With these incredible odds against him, Nightwing needed a clever plan to rescue his teammates. Well, it seems he didn’t. All he did was disguise himself in a cult robe and throw some wing-dings.
The story had done well in building the bad guys up into a credible threat -- only to be sabotaged by the oldest infiltration scheme in the book. It’s damn lazy. The solution should have found Nightwing executing a complicated, surprising, Batman-level plan. It would have made the moment more special and provided a bookending scene that further elevates Dick Grayson’s character that underlines his capabilities and reminds us why he’s the leader.
Instead, he just walks up on the stage, starts hitting people, and hopes to God that a well-placed Batarang will shut down that superpower-robbing machine thing. It was...underwhelming.
Well, at least Nightwing's stupid plan set off what just might be the best group fight the DC animated movies have ever produced. The battle is chaotic yet balletic. Everyone gets a moment to shine. Nightwing shows off his smooth acrobatics, Robin gets to cut loose and be as dangerous with a sword as possible, and Deathstroke casually murders people instead of saying “Excuse me.”
The rest of the Titans manage to take down an extremely overpowered Brother Blood thanks to the teamwork Starfire taught them. Raven was the standout there, using her dark magic to essentially rip apart the cult leader’s DNA and depower him.
The big moment is, of course, Terra’s full on tantrum that nearly kills them all. The extent of Terra’s geological powers is on full display as she moves the Earth in ways that nobody can overcome or escape. She uses it to move herself around, build walls, or act as a tidal wave of suffering. Terra nearly singlehandedly brings down Slade, as well as the giant underground colosseum they were fighting in. Of course, it makes little sense that Beast Boy was so easily able to unearth her afterwards, and even less sense that she was still stubbornly clinging to life. She had a mountain fall on her! What the hell?
Despite being stuffed with teenaged faces, The Judas Contract does offer some strong character scenes.
Both Nightwing and Starfire have leadership skills that make the team instantly listen to them, though the new kids still have trouble taking the lessons to heart. This plotline is easily one of the most organic in the story. Meanwhile, the cost of being a superhero is shown through Jaime Reyes. He wants nothing more than to reconnect with his family, but the scarab that gives him the Blue Beetle powers makes him too dangerous. Like Raven in the last Titans animated movie, Jaime wants to be a bit more normal, only to realize that neither of them ever really can be. The standout is easily Terra’s backstory, however. It’s altered and streamlined from the comics, and is one of the few tremendous improvements (the others being the fight scenes) the film made over the original series.
What’s most satisfying is that the Teen Titans don’t go out of their way to help Terra before she joined the fight. This person betrayed them in the worst way. Beast Boy’s sad, resentful glare before deciding to walk away and help his friends was particularly strong, and it shows his emotional growth throughout the film.
Man, what was that? Why was that? Kevin Smith’s appearance in the final scene takes away from the impact of everything that came before. His presence is out of place and destroys the suspension of disbelief. It manages to somehow break the fourth wall without trying. Including real life people into a fictional world only highlights the fact that what we’re watching is fictional, lending itself more to parody than any kind of attempt to align their world with ours.
It doesn’t help that Smith’s obsequious fanboying appears alongside what’s supposed to be a powerful scene where Beast Boy explains how things have changed and how he has changed too. The scene would work infinitely better if he was talking to Nightwing and Starfire about this. They are, after all, his oldest friends still on the team, and the pair act as mentors to him. It would show how close the team has become and how heavy the betrayal of Terra weighs on all of them.
It may have been intended as a harmless bit of fun on the part of DC and Smith, but this moment really should have gone to other characters.
At its core, and when it’s at its best, the Teen Titans are about young people trying to figure out who they are and where they belong. The superhero stuff—the powers, the battles—are metaphors for puberty and those first forays into the real world. The Judas Contract continues this exploration. Dick and Kori are the high school sweethearts trying to make it work as adults. Jaime’s new “personality” has made him a stranger to his parents. Damian puts on a front to keep people from realizing how badly he wants to fit in. Raven wonders if she can get away from the trauma her father put her through. Beast Boy is obsessed with social media, and his relationship with Terra is that first major unrequited love that ends without anything really resolved and sticks with you forever (or maybe we’re just projecting).
It’s the fact that the Teen Titans are identifiable through the otherworldly threats, green furry shapeshifters, and superpowered kids is a testament to the strength of the concept and the legacy of the franchise.
What did you think of Teen Titans: The Judas Contract? Let us know in the comments!