When The Judas Contract originally ran in Tales of the Teen Titans in 1984, comics fans were stunned by the tone and events of the now legendary storyline. Thirty years later, the new animated film adaptation of those comics may not have the element of surprise, but it still nails most of what made them such a great read all those years ago.
Written by Marv Wolfman and George Perez, with line and color art by Perez and Romeo Tanghal, Dick Giordano, Mike DeCarlo, and Adrienne Roy, along with lettering by Ben Oda, Bob La, John Costanza, and Todd Klein, The Judas Contract came at a time of especially fierce competition between Marvel and DC. Business was booming for superhero series and creative talent pushed themselves to beat out friends and enemies at the rival company. Once the story arc wrapped up, The Judas Contract went on to become an event mentioned in the same breath as The Dark Phoenix Saga from Marvel’s X-Men comics. But while both storylines center on a character’s disturbing secret behaviors being revealed, The Judas Contract hit harder because it was set against a backdrop of younger heroes who were still trying to figure out who they were.
The care taken to prioritize that essential element is what makes The Judas Contract more than just a by-the-numbers, comic-to-animated-film adaptation. The movie features a multigenerational roster made up of younger heroes of various incarnations of Titans teams, so we get to see Damian Wayne as Robin and Dick Grayson as Nightwing on the same squad. This Judas Contract presents Starfire as team leader. It’s a good change, which makes this iteration of the Teen Titans feel more like a mentoring initiative.
Much of the plot will be familiar to those who’ve read the Teen Titans comics that this film is based on: super-assassin Deathstroke has taken on a contract to kill the Teen Titans, who he also wants dead for personal reasons. Meanwhile, various members of the team are going through their own transitions, like feeling homesick, taking romantic relationships further, or yearning for a love of their own. The Teen Titans concept works best when it shows young heroes figuring out how to come into their own identities and there’s a lot of that on display in The Judas Contract movie. We see Beast Boy as his usual jokester self but also see how it hides his loneliness. Blue Beetle—in the spot traditionally taken by Cyborg, who’s a Justice Leaguer in this continuity—also deals with his own sort of alienation, thanks to the hostile, sentient symbiote responsible for his powers.
Deathstroke’s client is still Brother Blood, religious leader of cult and superscience terrorist organization HIVE. But the super-assassin also known as Slade Wilson—in an excellent final performance by the late Miguel Ferrer—has different reasons for wanting the Titans dead in this version of The Judas Contract. His motivations tie back to a trio of recent Batman animated movies—and the film also gently references last year’s Justice League vs. Teen Titans—but you don’t need to see those movies to enjoy this one.
Speaking of Slade, it’s important to note that the pivotal character revelation in The Judas Contract—namely, new member Terra, who is actually a double agent working with Deathstroke to destroy the Teen Titans from within—remains largely unchanged. The manipulative relationship between the teenage girl and older mercenary is there with all its slimy subtextual creepiness. A tragic backstory laden with abuse and prejudice is added to explain why Terra he turned to villainy but it doesn’t feel like an egregious retrofit.
Unlike the controversial sequences added to create a dysfunctional romance between Batman and Batgirl in The Killing Joke movie, these extra beats don’t inject more squirminess to an already familiar story. They do the opposite and attempt to humanize Terra. She’s not any more likable, per se, but it’s easier to understand where her tormented personality comes from. The other Titans attempt to make her feel welcome and supported in a series of lighthearted moments but she doesn’t know how to escape her own tortured psyche.
Those lighthearted moments provide the necessary contrast to make the drama pop, but are also an important nod to the current status of Titans fandom. Over the last decade, the most popular versions of the Teen Titans teams have been the goofier, more light-hearted ones seen in Cartoon Network’s various animated series. A whole generation of fans first encountered Raven, Beast Boy, and the others through those shows, which have been the polar opposite of the more serious tone of the team’s comics history. What’s most admirable about this film adaptation based on older Titans material is how it shows the roots of the sillier iterations that have followed.
The Judas Contract is one of those comics stories that is totally about the Twist. Without that sense of betrayal, it’s more or less a standard-issue genre piece. The film tries to ameliorate the uncomfortably sexualized portrayal of a female character while preserving the shiver-inducing depravity of her deception. It’s a tricky dance that’s mostly successful because this adaptation taps into that specific energy of the Wolfman/Perez comics, even though it’s got different characters and changes that reconfigure the original execution.
The Judas Contract channels the flirty, hormonal, troubled, and fitful maturation that these characters have gone through in the comics, shows how their friendships helped them and also made them more vulnerable for a shocking betrayal. This is a well-handled adaptation that will let new viewers understand why its source material is so beloved.
Teen Titans: The Judas Contract is out now on digital streaming services. A physical release is coming next week.