The latest DC Comics-based straight-to-home release animated feature is "Teen Titans: The Judas Contract," based on Marv Wolfman & George Pérez's classic 1984 story of the same name. "The Judas Contract" is scheduled for release this coming Tuesday, April 4, on digital formats, and April 18 on DVD and Blu-ray -- but before that, it was the subject of a spotlight panel and screening Friday afternoon at WonderCon in Anaheim.
On the panel: voice cast Sean Maher (Nightwing), Jake T. Austin (Blue Beetle), Brandon Soo Hoo (Beast Boy), Kari Wahlgren (Starfire) and Stuart Allan (Robin/Damian), plus DC animation veterans supervising producer James Tucker and character designer Phil Bourassa.
The panel started a little after 10:30 p.m. ET (around 7:30 p.m. local time), following a screening of the full "Judas Contract" feature.
Panel moderator Gary Miereanu started the session by pointing out that "Judas Contract" is the 29th DC animated feature, in the lineage that began in 2007 with "Superman: Doomsday."
Tucker opened the panel by discussing the challenge of adapting "The Judas Contract." "It's a classic story, it's so massive and really changed the trajectory of DC Comics when it came out," Tucker said. "There's a lot of history we had to honor when we adapted it." Tucker added that the "definitive version" of the story remains the comic book.
Bourassa talked designing characters for animation, while honoring the source material. "We have to organically and seamlessly weave them into our own narrative, and also adapt them into animation," Bourassa said. "Like Brother Blood for instance -- it's all context-based. It's all based on the needs and requirements of the story. What we really want to do is keep the spirit of the characters intact -- have it pass the 'squint test.' When you squint at it, does it look like the character from the comic."
Tucker told the crowd about the contributions of Miguel Ferrer, the feature's Deathstroke, who passed away in January. Tucker pointed out that Ferrer had been a part of DC animation since the late '90s, voicing the Weather Wizard in "Superman: The Animated Series." "He was a fan of comic books," Tucker said. "It was really a big loss for us."
Soo Hoo said he enjoyed portraying more of Beast Boy's "sensitivity" in "The Judas Contract." Austin pointed out that Maria Canals Barrera, who played his character's mother in "Wizards of Waverly Place," voices Blue Beetle's mother in the feature.
"They've learned how to work well together, and they've learned to use their weaknesses and transform them into their strengths," Austin said of the Teen Titans' dynamic. "It's great watching this film. There's so much intensity, humor." "It's not all fun and games, it shows a darker side to it," Soo Hoo added.
"Getting to see the personal side of the characters was so much fun," Wahlgren said. "I've always been such a nerd about the Starfire/Nightwing relationship." Wahlgren added that she loved seeing the personal side of the two characters in the feature.
"What I love most about Nightwing is his paternal instinct, and his desire to protect," Maher said, agreeing with Wahlgren that seeing the more down-to-earth elements of the characters adds to the narrative. "You empathize with the characters more, I think you're rooting for them more. When the stakes are raised, it makes it that much more urgent."
Austin said that the role of Blue Beetle has grown to mean a lot to him. "I've become a fan myself," Austin said. "Whether I'm a part of it or not, I want to continue being on this journey."
"I've become a much bigger fan of the DC Universe," Allan echoed, saying he wasn't too familiar with comics lore when he started playing Damian Wayne with 2014's "Son of Batman." "I loved coming in and playing Damian."
On the other side, Wahlgren said she started out as "a big comics nerd." "Now, to actually be able to create one of these characters, it's kind of a dream come true. I'm trying to play it cool, but it's so exciting."
"I've become mildly obsessed with Nightwing," Maher said. "Now I'm thinking about cosplaying him."
Turning to fan Q&A, the first audience member at the microphone asked, in Nightwing's absence, "Is Starfire still leader of the Teen Titans?" "Oh yeah," Wahlgren answered.
The next fan asked the panelists for their favorite parts of the feature. "I really like that opening," Bourassa said, which is a flashback featuring classic Teen Titans characters including Kid Flash and Speedy. "That, to me, felt like a really quintessential version of the Teen Titans."
A fan asked is the 2003 "Teen Titans" series influenced the animated feature at all. Tucker called that seires seminal, and said there are "bits and pieces" of that show in this feature.
Next audience member asked about creating the "emotional dynamic" between the characters. "It's really a collaborative effort," Allan answered. "As you play those characters more and more, it becomes easier to get into that dynamic, on an emotional level." "When you have awesome director and awesome leadership and you know where to take that character, it makes everything easier and makes it fun," Austin added.
Next question asked about adapting Terra into animation. "The original story was 30-plus years ago, and societal things have changed," Tucker answered. "We had to be a little subtler with it. Her relationship with Deathstroke is wrong. It's the wrongest of the wrong. We had to go at it very gingerly. Instead of making it from her point of view, we made it more, 'How does she feel about the situation?' In a way, she's being manipulated a little more. She's still bad, but you have a little more understanding for her than maybe in the original book. In the original book, she's colder, and later we find out more about her. She was very challenging, to work around that relationship with her and Deathstroke, and not make it too exploitative, and still honor what was in the comic."
Next question: Will Static Shock be included in animation plans? "I'd love that," Tucker said. "Phil actually worked on 'Static Shock.' I did too." Bourassa said he has a personal fondness for the character, and "We may see various iterations of him in the future."
A fan -- who made it clear she was not fond of "Teen Titans Go!" -- asked the panelists what they thought of the sometimes-polarizing show. Tucker was positive, and said, "I think there's room for various takes." "The other interpretations are just as valid," Bourassa added. "It's actually a strength. It shows how much range that particular cast has. I think there's enough Teen Titans to go around. It's all good."