Review: Titans

I really liked Titans. It’s got a great cast, coherent arcs for most of the characters, a brutally violent and dark world with a surprisingly emotional heart, and a good deal of the relationship dynamics that I’ve always enjoyed in young superhero team-ups without the degree of camp found in the Arrowverse collection of shows (the omnipresent Greg Berlanti is an executive producer for the various shows falling under the Arrowverse, as well as for Titans).

The core composition of the Titans in this incarnation ultimately consists of Dick Grayson’s Robin (played by Brenton Thwaites), Raven (Teagan Croft), Starfire (Anna Diop), and Beast Boy (Ryan Potter)–though all but Dick, who is haunted by his history as the Dark Knight’s sidekick, are basically only known by their civilian names, with but brief allusions to their eventual aliases. These four are occasionally joined by Hawk and Dove (Alan Ritchson and Minka Kelly), Wonder Girl (Conor Leslie), and Robin 2.0, Jason Todd (Curran Walters). I loved basically every character and thought that each actor did an impressive job with what they were given.

Each version of Dick Grayson is my favorite until the next version I encounter, so Thwaites’s turn as the character is currently at the top of my list of incarnations, but he might actually stay there. Dick’s so haunted by his past, by what he did as Robin, by how his gradual turn to greater violence tarnished what his alias was supposed to stand for. So much of his time is spent hating what Batman did to him, but in the end, I was left with the impression that, for all Batman’s faults, no one was more to blame for what Robin became than Dick himself. Midway through the show, Dick finally makes the decision to fully reject his former identity, setting the stage for an eventual Nightwing getup in a future season, I imagine.

Raven, here just preteen Rachel Roth, actually kicks the narrative off. Rachel runs away from home after someone kills her apparent mother and attempts to abduct her; in so doing, she flexes her buried dark powers. Rachel finds herself hunted by two factions: those who wish to destroy her, and those who wish to use her to release her demonic, inter-dimensional father. To the show’s credit, the loyalties of those pursuing her were often mysterious, leading to some fun surprises without ever leaving me with the feeling that the narrative unfairly withheld information. Rachel is the gravitational force in the narrative that pulls the other heroes together. She is understandably angsty, fearing the darkness inside her and obviously traumatized by the events that start off the season. She first goes to Dick because of a recurrent vision, and she quickly depends on him, seeing in him a sort of mentor similarly dealing with a dark internal impulse, even though Dick wants nothing more than to walk away. (The relationship reminded me in many ways of that between Wolverine and Rogue in 2000’s X-Men film adaptation.)

Anna Diop plays an amnesiac Starfire, operating under the human name of Korey Anders. She comes to after an apparently violent car chase, under fire from gunmen, with a few obscure clues to her background. For most of the season, she does not know her mission or her true identity as an extraterrestrial, but she is able to quickly discover that her purpose had something to do with tracking Raven down. Korey is a fun counterpart to Dick; both are incredibly driven, clever detectives, and absolutely brutal fighters, but Dick is typically dour while Korey seems to mostly be having a blast. She has fun when she fights, coming across as cheerily psychotic. She also kills–a lot. That’s a little unsettling at first, until it sort of becomes a joke. Dick has Batman’s code and practically begs Korey to restrain herself, most of the time. She’s not the naive, fish-out-of-water character I’m used to, but there’s some shared DNA with past versions, scrambled to fit the darker, more “mature” tone of Titans.

Beast Boy–Garfield Logan–is the most tangentially connected to the characters, but he provides a lot of the soul. He’s sweet and funny and caring, and while he has a traumatic past as well, he’s had years of quiet existence with a family of sorts (the introduction of the Doom Patrol was as clear a backdoor pilot as I’ve ever seen, so it’s no surprise that they’re getting their own spin-off series). He also has an unsettling arc in which he channels the more lethal elements of his shape-shifting powers, though his natural lightness and cheer mostly allow him to cope. Mostly.

Hawk and Dove have an interesting interconnected past with Robin, and a later episode more fully fleshes out their backgrounds. I’ve never really cared for Hawk and Dove, nor have I given the characters much of a chance, but I liked them here. They’re rough-and-tumble street-level vigilantes who are, somewhat ironically, perhaps the most connected to the larger universe of superheroes outside of Robin and Wonder Girl. Wonder Girl is retired, now a photojournalist who improves the world through activism and investigative reporting; as Donna Troy, she’s an important mentor figure to Dick, and she proves to be a valuable ally toward the end (she also makes clear that the Justice League exists–or existed–in this universe).

Finally, Jason Todd is…incredible. He’s a shitty little punk always itching for a fight. He’s not nearly as clever or educated as Dick, he doesn’t have the natural athleticism and acrobatic ability of the former aerialist, and he looks like he’s a week overdue for a bath. But he’s scrappy and can pack a punch. Recruited by Batman after attempting to steal the tires off the Batmobile, he’s having the time of his life. He loves what Batman’s given him, and he’s initially awed to meet the original Robin, but his hero-worship ends quickly enough. He’s quite willing to break the rules, drinking underage and getting in bar fights and beating up cops for fun and petty revenge. He’s a total asshole, and I love him. I now fully understand Tumblr-culture’s “trash son” meme. He’s my trash son. Jason Todd is just having the fucking time of his life, and he’s loving every minute of it.

On Jason Todd, executive producer Greg Walker said in an IGN interview:

What I really love about [Jason] as a character is the unbridled sense of self that he has–there’s a lack of . . . maybe self-awareness, but for sure self-consciousness in terms of how he comports himself and how he moves through the world . . . . He’s completely seemingly unaffected by darkness – he kind of embraces it or walks right through it. He’s a breath of fresh air and that’s what I love about him, he’s got a punk rock, no-holds-barred attitude that’s massively unburdened. There’s a lot of energy that comes with that.

To that I say: yes. Exactly. All that. 100%. I love Jason Todd. This is a remarkable turnaround for me; prior to this, I mostly knew him as the Robin who was killed, or peripherally, as the Red Hood. He was uninteresting or a non-presence to me. And now, he’s just the coolest. “I kick ass with Batman and I fucking love it.” Yes you do, Jason Todd, and good for you.

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Ahem. My point is, the characters are well-acted and well-written, and you’ll probably fall in love with at least one of them–especially if you can give the show room to do its own thing, rather than merely adapting comics arcs or characterizations previously established in the Teen Titans or Young Justice cartoons.

There are villains, too, but the show so far is really more about the heroes. The villains are obstacles, not so much compelling on their own. Even the updated Nuclear Family (in this version, brainwashed assassins) still takes a backseat to the heroes. I hope future seasons introduce more interesting antagonists to the heroes, but I’m glad that this origin story gives the audience plenty of time to get to know the new versions of these heroic characters.

The show is rather violent and bloody. I wouldn’t mind that toned down a little bit. There’s a scene in the first episode, after a woman is shot, where the camera lingers on her bullet-hollowed forehead as it bleeds on the floor, and I was annoyed by the fixation, the silent declaration that this is the MATURE version of the Titans. But a lot of the violence just drives home how brutal the vigilante lifestyle really is, the lengths a hero must go to. I think this is clearest in Hawk’s backstory: there’s something a little broken about these characters, some hurt that they channel into violence against others. If they didn’t act from a cause, from some belief in upholding justice, they’d probably all turn to petty crime or militarism. That said, I cannot emphasize enough that there’s some humor and a lot of heart to the show. It’s a story about found family and emotional healing. It still feels like a Berlanti production about young-adult superheroes.

Executive producer Akiva Goldman told Deadline Hollywood, “We wanted to arrive at a tone that wasn’t as welcoming as some of the DC shows have been, nor as nihilistic as some of the films have been.” I think that they more or less hit that balance. It’s not as grim-dark as the worst excesses of the DCEU, but it’s not a campy teen soap opera like the Arrowverse shows. Without getting into spoilers, I will say that the show wavers toward grim-dark in the season finale. While I’m sure we’ll see a quick reversal of fortune in the next season, it nonetheless felt like a tonal shift with an unnecessary cliffhanger, leaving the central narrative of the entire season unresolved. Cliffhangers are fine, but it would have been nice to see this first act actually reach a conclusion. If nothing else, the finale highlights what a careful balancing act the intended tone of this show can be.

Overall, though, this was consistently enjoyable to watch. If you skipped over this first season, give DC Universe a trial run. Titans is easy–and fun–to binge.