The humor is the big surprise in DC Universe’s kickoff live-action series TitansOctober 10, 2018
Batman and Superman have had such a pervasive presence in American popular culture that plenty of people who’ve never read a comic book know their pertinent biographical details: the murdered parents, the exploding planet, the Batmobile, Kryptonite, and so on. The DC Comics super-team sometimes known as “the Titans,” on the other hand, have starred in multiple animated series, a few straight-to-video movies, and one feature-length theatrical cartoon released just this past summer. And yet only devoted comics fans are likely to know much about their history and mythology as a group.
That’s why it matters that Titans is going to be the first original scripted series on the new DC Universe subscription service. When the show’s first season premiere becomes available on Friday, October 12th (with a new one arriving every Friday thereafter, for 12 episodes in all), it’ll signal to superhero buffs that this channel is aimed squarely at them. DCU’s announced 2019 lineup — which will add deep-cut DC favorites like Doom Patrol, Swamp Thing, and Stargirl — should drive that message home even harder.
But what kind of DC Comics connoisseur will these shows be for? The ones who love the imagination and whimsy of the 1950s and 1960s “Silver Age”? Those who prefer the social relevance and sophisticated themes of the 1970s and 1980s? Or people who dig the infinite variations of the reboot-happy 21st century?
One of Titans’ producers is Greg Berlanti, who helped develop the CW’s zippy “Arrowverse,” which includes the relatively sunny Supergirl and DC’s Legends of Tomorrow. But judging by the three Titans episodes that DCU supplied in advance to critics, the tone of this new series is more inspired by Netflix’s Marvel Comics shows, and in particular Daredevil and Jessica Jones. The visual design is all dim lighting and deep shadows. The action sequences are bloody and bone-crunching. The characters swear, even more than Netflix’s foul-mouthed Marvel heroes do.
At its core though, this is a version of the Titans that fans will recognize, under all the dark shading and character-tweaks. And that’s largely due to the way Berlanti and his primary co-producers, Geoff Johns and Akiva Goldsman, treat the team’s 1980s origin story as a cornerstone superhero comics text, up there with Batman and Superman’s backstories.
Brenton Thwaites stars as Dick Grayson, the now-grown ward of billionaire Bruce Wayne. By day, Dick works as a Detroit cop. By night, he fights crime in the Robin costume he once wore as Batman’s sidekick. In Titans’ first episode, Dick takes in runaway teenager Rachel Roth (Teagan Croft), a powerful empath with a mysterious past, who senses a connection both with Robin and with Kory Anders (Anna Diop), a super-strong amnesiac who’s been tracking Rachel for reasons she can’t fully explain. By the end of episode three, the trio is traveling together, and have briefly crossed paths with Gar Logan (Ryan Potter), another adolescent on the run, who has the ability to transform into animals.
The early Titans episodes suffer from the usual prestige TV bloat, teasing a larger arc while slowly — so, so slowly — introducing the characters. The first three hours begin with what looks to be an extremely decompressed version of the “Titans assemble” story, which the first issue of The New Teen Titans handled in about 24 pages back in 1980.
The New Teen Titans, written by Marv Wolfman and pencilled by George Pérez in the early 1980s, was DC’s attempt to compete with Marvel’s popular 1970s revival of the X-Men. Both were super-teams that failed to catch on in the 1960s, but became sensations a decade or so later with new lineups, a broader narrative scope, and a heightened level of character angst. The 1960s Teen Titans comics were primarily noteworthy for putting superhero sidekicks (Robin, Kid Flash, Wonder Girl, and the Green Arrow’s ward Speedy) in wild adventures that sometimes encompassed hippie youth rebellion and psychedelia. The New Teen Titans was meant to be more ambitious, and more mature.
Wolfman and Pérez’s approach worked. For the first few years of their collaboration, The New Teen Titans was one of the best-selling titles on the newsstand, drawing readers with its stunningly detailed art, outsized emotions, and sprawling, intertwined storylines that covered alien invasions, demonic cults, international assassins, inner-city blight, and more.
This version of the Titans arrived right as comics were about to undergo a revolution, both in content and commerce. The advent of the direct-market comic-book store — coupled with a wave of independent titles like Elfquest, Cerebus, and Love and Rockets, aimed primarily at adults — helped change the perception of the medium as mere juvenilia, and gave major publishers the license to fill even their legacy superhero franchises with more sex, violence, and despair.
As a comic in the 1980s, The New Teen Titans never crossed the line from what might be called “TV-14” to “TV-MA.” But the content was decidedly heavier than anything in Cartoon Network’s Teen Titans and Teen Titans Go!, even though both of those animated series have drawn on the characters and crises that the ‘80s Titans faced.
Given all that, it’s hard to say whether DCU’s Titans is “faithful” to the source material. It’s dourer than the original comics, but those stories weren’t exactly a barrel of laughs. And the characters have been altered, but not completely transformed.
The first big 1980s New Teen Titans arc introduced a somber, mature Rachel (a.k.a Raven), who brought together Robin, Kid Flash, Wonder Girl, Cyborg, the wisecracking Gar Logan (aka Changeling, formerly known as Beast Boy), and the optimistic, sensuous alien Koriand’r (aka Starfire) as part of a long-term plan to protect the Earth from being taken over by her father, an extra-dimensional demon named Trigon.
Titans’ first three episodes seem to be heading in a similar direction with their plot, as the heroes gradually find their way to each other, while being opposed by violent cultists. But here’s no Kid Flash, Wonder Girl, or Cyborg yet. (The latter two at least will reportedly appear eventually.) Raven is now a defiant teen. Starfire is a take-charge badass. Beast Boy, as of episode three, has no personality at all. Only Dick Grayson feels fully on-model, though he’s more like the 1990s version of the character, after he changed his codename from Robin to Nightwing.
Like Berlanti’s CW superhero shows, Titans doesn’t shy away from the trappings of the genre. The first three episodes keep the special-effects sequences to a minimum, but the characters who have superpowers do use them. And while Raven and Starfire don’t have costumes yet, Robin does — as do his two old acquaintances, Hank “Hawk” Hall (Alan Ritchson) and Dawn “Dove” Granger (Minka Kelly), whom he consults about his Raven situation in episode two.
But this new series is mostly an effort to rework the basic elements of the old Teen Titans stories for the era of Game of Thrones, which Raven actually enthusiastically watches on TV at one point. One of the show’s main writers is Goldsman, the Oscar-winning A Beautiful Mind screenwriter, who was previously heavily involved with Fox’s philosophical science-fiction favorite Fringe. The first two episodes are directed by Brad Anderson, who’s bounced between hard-hitting movies like Session 9 and Beirut, and sober TV dramas like Boardwalk Empire, The Wire, and again, Fringe. This creative team is making the kind of amped-up action-adventure where Robin will fling blades into the eyes of his opponents, and respond to a mention of his mentor by snarling “Fuck Batman.”
DC Universe has been promoting Titans’ brooding atmosphere, violent action, and flippant vulgarity for months, to the extent that the most surprising about the show may be its moments of levity and heart — particularly in the scenes between Raven and Starfire, who have a strong sisterly chemistry. Also, the basic Wolfman / Pérez mythology remains compelling, with its idea of troubled young heroes forming a makeshift family, drawn together first by circumstance, then by genuine affection.
That said, something The New Teen Titans and the ‘70s / ‘80s X-Men comics had in common was their breakneck pacing. Any given 12 issues from those respective runs could tell three or four full stories, while seeding half a dozen more. Conversely, a fourth of the way into Titans’ 12-episode first season, the team isn’t even together yet, and the threats they’ll be facing have yet to be defined. Titans has promise, and could be the draw the DCU needs it to be, if it’s going to thrive as a subscription service. But given the channel’s pedigree, it might’ve been more radical if the bosses had encouraged their creators to consider how prestige TV could be more like classic comics, and not vice versa.