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.

jason todd.png

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.

DC Weekend

I’ve been dealing with a cold since the end of the week, and I definitely hit bottom after running a variety of errands during the snow storm in Indy on Saturday. Since Saturday afternoon, I’ve largely alternated between sleeping, imitating sleep, and watching dumb movies and TV while prone or semi-prone on the couch.

It’s at this point bedrock tradition for me to watch dumb television and movies while sick. I don’t normally like to sit for hours binging a show or movie after movie (though I’ll do the same for a book or game without complaint), especially if of only mediocre quality or worse, but sick days are my big exception to the norm. Brain idling, entertained by pretty moving pictures, waiting out the discomfort: it’s downright pleasurable to me at such a time.

Though not always the case, this sick weekend had a theme: DC movies and TV. I re-watched Suicide SquadBatman v Superman, and a good portion of the first season of Arrow; I also watched the 2017 Justice League film for the first time.

None of these things are great, but that’s the point. They’re dumb, and they’re enjoyable (enough) to watch. My Arrow re-watch might even continue, as I was surprised by how charmed I was yet again by the campy soap-opera take on superheroes. And, confession here, I actually like the DC franchise films. They’re not good, but most of them fall solidly in the B- to B+ range. They’re all overly long, overly dark (in terms of color saturation and narrative tone), and burdened by poorly considered plot contrivances. But they’re largely just a counter-cultural product to the smooth Marvel formula (counter-cultural to the extent that a big corporation can be counter-cultural, a Pepsi to Coca-Cola). DC movies are oddly ragged, ungainly films that all feel desperate to say something, if only there weren’t a dozen different creative and corporate hands meddling with the final product each time. And, well, I just like DC characters more.

I’m not a “comics guy.” I’ve read comics, and I will continue to do so. I’ve always preferred graphic novels to serialized comics, though, and not for particularly pretentious reasons, but simply because I prefer a more contained, tightly honed story. I prefer graphic novels to comics like I prefer films to television and like I prefer standalone novels to book series (not sure I’d go so far as to say I prefer short stories to novels, even though I do think I prefer the crafty efficiency of a good short story–I just tend to read novels more consistently). And I’ve typically preferred non-superhero comics to the superhero kind. I’m also largely bipartisan (or simply agnostic) when it comes to Marvel versus DC. That all said, my childhood rooted me in part to DC: the Tim Burton Batman films, the Teen Titans show, and the DC Animated Universe strongly influenced my tastes regarding caped crusaders and the like (the only Marvel counterpart I particularly recall in my formative years was X-Men Evolution). And in more recent years, Young Justice and the CW collection of shows carried my interest forward (even if the latter eventually became simply too much for me to keep up with).

What I’m trying to say is that, while I do have a familiarity with superhero franchises, I don’t feel like my identity is bound up in these characters. While the cinematic versions of DC characters have typically been darker than what I might prefer, I don’t feel like I have to treat anything in this territory as “canon” or a “defining” vision. It’s all just fun times, and these new films are at least offering something that does feel different.

In that context, I’d avoided Justice League for a while because it looked like a fairly generic superhero team-up film in a genre flooded with that type of apocalypse-punching, alien-invasion scenario. But I found that I greatly enjoyed the film, generic plot and all. Maybe I was just loopy enough to get peak enjoyment out of it. But Ben Affleck was absolutely delightful as Batman; this version of the Dark Knight not only provided a nice redemption arc from the previous title but was also one of the funniest versions of the character I’ve seen in a while. He was lighthearted; he smiled; he said authentic things. Plus, the film provided plenty of fodder for anyone partial to shipping Batman and Wonder Woman. For that matter, Wonder Woman continued to be a badass warrior, and she also had her own opportunity for inner growth that felt like a natural progression from her solo film–she was returning to the world, processing her grief and trauma from the Great War, and taking up the mantle of a leader. The Flash was hilarious and awkward and lovable, Aquaman was about as interesting and cool as Aquaman could ever hope to be, and Cyborg had enough screen time to feel defined if alien (though to the extent that Cyborg works, I’d credit Ray Fisher’s acting rather than the rather mundane dialogue that he delivers). Superman remained a weak point for me, though after some initial Super Dickery on his inevitable resurrection, he actually got to act like the superheroic ideal for the closing minutes of the final act.

Look, it’s not the greatest film out there. But no superhero film is. And sure, Justice League isn’t even the best superhero film, or the best of the new DC films. But it was a fun ride, and I’d watch it again. Especially on another sick day.

In-Universe Detective Fiction

When I was younger, my favorite type of game was the open-world RPG. I could play those for dozens or hundreds of hours. I still do, at times: my Steam version of Morrowind, for instance, has racked up 260 hours of play time since purchase in 2012. And there are other exceptions, of course, like Arena and Shadow of Mordor.

But as I’ve gotten older, and I’ve had less time to play video games, and I’ve wanted my time with video games to be more meaningful even in that smaller amount of time, I’ve gravitated more toward shorter, narrative-rich experiences. For instance, while I was never a big adventure game fan, adventure games have taken up more and more of my time. I’m okay with a game that does not require a lot of skill or reactivity, but it’s still important to me that the game offer a sense of choice and diverging paths. There should be a sense of personal investment and consequence.

As a result, I’ve played a few of the Telltale games, though certainly not all. My favorite was The Walking Dead, with an emotionally gripping story and rich character drama. I only played season one, though; the first season alone was so emotionally draining that I am in no hurry to engage with the title further, and I’m not a huge fan of the nihilistic death and violence and gore of zombie stories in the first place. I played the Jurassic Park game, because I’m a huge fan of the original book and film, but that story offered very little sense of real consequences for most of the game, and it was too dependent upon annoying quick-time events. And I played most of the Batman game, which definitely offered the feeling of real choice and consequence, and it had excellent detective scenes that were fitting for the character and excellent character interactions. But I never finished that game, after encountering a persistent game-crashing bug in around the third or fourth episode. It was frustrating to have to give up on the game; I know that a lot of people complained about bugs and glitches and unplayability for the initial releases of each episode, and I suspect that the problem may since have been resolved, but I’m not too eager to get back into that story now.

My favorite contemporary adventure game was Life Is Strange, by Dontnod Entertainment. I was heavily invested in the choice and consequence of that game. The story was mystical and bizarre. And the time-looping powers of the protagonist resulted in interesting gameplay moments and were fully integrated into the game’s narrative. Narrative and game mechanics fed into each other. The weirdo teens and their interactions with the weirdo adults, and the snapshot of the Northwest, were great (I only really understood the comparisons to Twin Peaks after playing, as I only started watching the cult classic show months after finishing the game). Not that this is much of a feat, given that the achievements involved completing episodes and taking optional photos, but Life Is Strange is one of two games in which I reached 100% achievement completion on Steam (I stand by my final decision in that game, saving the town and reversing everything that happened, even though it is emotionally devastating; the other choice seemed too selfish to me, and I’m glad that 100% completion did not require playing both endings).

I tried Dontnod’s Remember Me, which felt like a fairly conventional action-adventure title although with the fairly interesting gimmick of memory alteration (memory and the past are obviously important themes in Dontnod’s body of work). I look forward to Vampyr, which seems to be quite a different game for Dontnod, and I’m curious to see how memory and the past might influence that experience.

But I’m discovering that there is a very specific form of typically short, narrative-rich game that I especially love. It sits somewhere between adventure game and visual novel. It often, though not always, has some level of consequence due to choice; at the very least, players’ investigative skills and growing familiarity with in-game systems are critical to advancement. And it involves the use of some sort of in-game software, often an operating system. I don’t know that this particular type of game warrants having its own genre, and I don’t know if there is already a genre descriptor, but I’m going to call these sorts of games In-Universe Detective games.

What I love most about these games is that they use the limitations of the genre to actually build a greater sense of immersion. Instead of remotely playing as another character, the game operates under the assumption that you are you. You may have a particular role or function within the game, and “you” can be defined by the player out-of-game. But who “you” are is built out of direct interaction with the game. The game itself, by acting like a software program, allows for easy suspension of disbelief. The world of the game is your world.

I know of three entries in this genre: Analogue: A Hate Story (and its sequel, Hate Plus), Her Story, and Orwell.

In Analogue: A Hate Story (designed by Christine Love), you are a spacer on a salvage operation to investigate an old, abandoned colony ship; the entire game involves reading through archives and interacting with one of two AI programs. You attempt to discover what exactly went wrong with the ship, and in the process uncover a feudal Korean-inspired culture that developed after a regressive societal change aboard the ship. The game has interesting things to say about misogyny and the myth of the forward march of cultural progress. And it has just as many interesting things to say about identity, rebellion, and forgiveness. It’s a short game, but I played the hell out of it; it’s my other 100% Steam achievement completion title. If you’re into anime or visual novels, it’ll be an easy game to get into. If not for some favorable coverage, though, I would have passed; the cutesy anime girl avatars of the AI were a little obnoxious for me to deal with at first, but they prove to be quite interesting quite quickly.

In Her Story (designed by Sam Barlow), you use an old police computer to review archived clips of interviews with a suspect in a murder investigation. You slowly piece together what happened as you find new videos. You have to find ways to draw connections to other videos, as you cannot simply review them all at once. There’s a fun amount of searching and browsing and deduction involved. Even though the case is closed, you feel like you’re doing a lot of detective work in the searching. Plus, there’s very little interaction outside of this searching role–just an occasional text conversation with a third party–so that a lot of the investigation work you do is off-screen, out-of-game, implicit, personal. I took notes on paper as I worked my way through. It was engaging, and the ending resulted in an interesting shift in perspective for me. This is a game that I would have 100% completion in, if I’d ever bothered to play more of the computer application game on the in-game desktop background.

Lastly, there’s Orwell (designed by Osmotic Studios), which I just reviewed on Sunday. Of the three, I found this the least rewarding to play, although it maybe had the most to say. I’d point you to my review if you want more insight there.

You could say that all of the above are basically games from other genres, and that I’m just reorienting them around a gimmick. But if it’s a “gimmick,” it’s holding up rather well for me and inviting a very particular type of immersive experience. I’ll gladly keep playing games like that.

If you know of any games that fit the bill, please let me know. I’m certainly not tired of them yet.