The Teen Titans have been one of DC’s most consistent successes, especially since the turn of the century. But ever since they were first introduced (and then redefined into DC's answer to the X-Men), the team has had trouble balancing the inherent fun and drama of the premise behind "superheroes but also teenagers." For some reason, even though the most successful versions of those characters have embraced the emotion, excitement, and sheer joy of being young, DC keeps giving us grimdark versions of the franchise.
With the super dour looking Titans slated to premiere later this year, it has more than a few longtime fans of the franchise wondering, why can’t the Teen Titans just be fun?
Introduced in The Brave and the Bold #54, the initial lineup consisted of Robin, Kid Flash and Aqualad. They were soon joined by Wonder Girl and eventually Speedy, before blossoming into a full plethora of young DC heroes. Those original comics were products of their time, silly Silver Age stories at heart. It was a series that embraced the sheer ridiculousness of the DC Universe, while still taking fledgling steps towards engaging in real world topics, including counter culture and inner city struggles. It lasted 40 issues before it was canceled.
The series eventually returned as The New Teen Titans, featuring a cast of fresh characters like Cyborg, Starfire and Raven. Writer Marv Wolfman and artist George Perez helped redefine the team into the DC equivalent of the Uncanny X-Men, then going through an industry defining shift under people like Chris Claremont, Dave Cockrum and John Byrne. With that came a heavy dose of melodrama and an epic scope, which soon overtook the more relatable and relaxed elements of the team.
Something important to consider with all this: The X-Men, who were dealing with the Dark Phoenix and "Days of Future Past" and changing Marvel Comics forever, were also all adults. It kept the soap opera elements of the story from seeming too ridiculous. There was an ingrained maturity and expectation to the characters, who sometimes let their emotions get the better of them. Everyone had a sense of reason, even (and especially) when they disagreed with one another. That's a simple but important distinction, and helps keep the drama from getting out of control.
This is something “serious Teen Titans” stories have always struggled with; because they have a cast of teenagers, everything is the most important thing in the world, which means nothing really is. They’re young and reckless by nature, running hot and cold. Having them make life altering decisions every story got exhausting as a result. It’s why something like The Judas Contract, a very well-constructed and challenging story with a groundbreaking, fully unrepentant female villain, ends up getting overshadowed by the fact that Terra is, like, maybe 15 in that comic and walking around in lingerie for a grown supervillain. It’s literally watching a teenager playing dress up to seem adult. It feels forced.
Eventually (much like X-Men), the interpersonal drama and bonkers events got way out of hand, to the point where a de-aged Atom and multiple alternate universe people were running around on the team. The lighter elements of the premise were transferred over to the new Todd DeZago and Lary Stucker creation, Young Justice. This series was about the teen heroes of the '90s, like the third Robin, Impulse, Superboy and the new Wonder Girl, embracing the almost childish atmosphere for a blast of a comic. They had entire storylines where they fought villains at the Olympics, played baseball to save the planet, and had class president elections to determine who was the team leader. They were fun.
Of course, this being DC, it was never going to last. The team was eventually combined with the Titans to create a new Teen Titans book, which has been running off and on ever since. It's also kept the serious outlook on the franchise, with a lot of famously over the top moments in the last fifteen years. The current version straight up has a villain Guantanamo Bay in the basement. That’s crazy dark, you guys. Why are teenagers doing those things?
All these aspects of the franchise have been distilled into five television shows, each embracing a different aspect of the team -- for better or for worse.