The Teen Titans: Judas Contract arc in the classic Teen Titans series by Marv Wolfman and George Perez is one of my top five favorite comic stories ever and, perhaps even one of my top two.
Wolfman/Perez wove a story with many elements, including the descent into pure villainy of Slade Wilson/Deathstroke, the ascent of Dick Grayson from Robin to Nightwing, and the introduction of the a hero, Jericho (Joe Wilson). (Not to mention that the same team also created Starfire, Raven, and Cyborg, among others, and revitalized Beast Boy in their classic run.)
But at the heart of ‘Judas Contract’ is Terra Markov, a 15/16-year-old who is basically a psychopath with even less moral compass than Slade/Deathstroke.
In the comics, Slade takes the contract offered by H.I.V.E on the Teen Titans because his son Grant originally had the contract, failed, and died as a complication of the powers gifted to him by H.I.V.E. That gives Slade’s taking up of the contract poignancy, as completing it becomes an obsession with him. Any means to this end.
So how does all that translate to the screen?
Better than I expected, especially given the writers of the film were hampered by other events in the recent DC animated films that limited their story choices, but not enough to fully satisfy me.
SPOILERS FOR THE FILM BELOW
In the comic version, Slade’s obsession drives the plot and leads him to make mistakes, like taking on the unstable Terra as a partner. However, that obsession is muted in the film because his obsession is now about having lost what he had with the League of Assassins, a loss he blames on Damian Wayne/Robin, who is part of the film version of the Titans. That defangs a huge chunk of what make the original story resonate because in capturing the Titans, Slade keeps his word but loses the humanity he had left.
In the film, he has no humanity to lose.
The film begins with Starfire’s arrival on Earth, as she’s being pursued by Gordanian slavers. It’s a terrific sequence that recreates the origins of the Wolfman/Perez Titans. It also sets the groundwork for the romance between Dick Grayson and Starfire, which is one of the best parts of the movie, complete with double entendres. Yes, I do like Barbara (Batgirl) Gordon and Dick together but I have a soft spot for Kory and Dick too and they’ve rarely been written as well as they are in this film. Sean Maher makes a charming Dick.
The Titans team that Terra joins consists of Starfire (the leader), Raven, Beast Boy, and Blue Beetle. It’s terrific to see Starfire in such a leadership role and all the women in the film are written well, even the villains. There are hints that Beetle still can’t control the bug that’s the source of his powers and I expect an upcoming DC direct-to-video film will tackle this storyline, one that happened in the comics in his own original series.
Jaime (Beetle) is a good substitute for Cyborg (who is a founder member of the JLA in this universe) and it seems to be a team of friends who trust each other. But we all know what’s coming. The title is “Judas Contract” after all.
As in the comics, Gar and Terra have a bond that Gar pushes and Terra refuses to acknowledge. Her betrayal doesn’t have the oomph of the comics’ version because, this time, we all know it’s coming. However, a later betrayal does hit hard, and that was a great twist.
That brings me back to Terra. In a terrific bonus feature on the Blu-ray, Wolfman and Perez talk about how they always planned for Terra to betray the Titans and be sexually involved with Deathstroke, and how they loved her storyline, even plotting out her eventual death due to madness one night at a diner. (The men say that none of the diner patrons, oddly, seemed perturbed about two men plotting the death of a teenage girl. Perhaps they knew it was fiction.)
There have been fan debates galore over Terra and her sexual involvement with Slade Wilson in the years since. Yes, Slade is a statutory rapist, of course. But comic Terra was more complicated than a young, unwitting victim in his scheme. She had her own agenda, in that she hated heroes and everything they stood for. A psychopath, as Wolfman/Perez call her, someone who simply would not or could not get past her hatred and anger. Yes, it was wrong of Slade to become sexually involved with her–even Slade realizes how wrong it is–but Terra is a three-dimensional character who would do evil things on her own. Just because.
Perhaps Terra’s role in the storyline was easier to take because the comic had numerous three-dimensional female characters with agency already in the book, from Starfire to Donna Troy to Raven and even, occasionally, Frances Kane. It’s not the type of story I like for teenage girls but it fit in the context of what Wolfman/Perez wanted to do.
However, the film skips over that squicky element. Somewhat. It shows Terra trying to seduce Slade and him turning her down. It’s unclear whether Slade believes this is wrong or whether he’s holding out sex as a carrot in order to keep Terra’s loyalty. I’m not sure if this is worse or better than the comic version. It certainly draws more sympathy to Terra, especially in light of Slade’s later actions.
Indeed, in one of the most chilling sequences in the film, we see the young Terra being tortured by a mob who call her a witch. That’s a rough sequence and part of why I’d never recommend the movie for younger viewers. At least 13, perhaps even 16. Slade rescues her and begins his manipulation of her reliance on him. On the one hand, that makes her more sympathetic but, on the other, it also makes her more of a victim, being manipulated by an older man. The comics Terra was victim to her own unstable emotions but not a victim of any person.
One of the better direct-to-DVD DC animated films that I’ve watched. It’s far superior to the adaptation of “The Killing Joke.” But as an adaptation of the original storyline, it’s missing the essential something that would move it from good to great.