Those two words – front and centre in the pre-launch trailer – proved not only to be memeworthy, but also set out Titans‘ stall very early on – this wasn’t the DC that you were used to seeing on screen. Profane, bloody, dark and very intense, Titans is less regular DC, and closer to the Vertigo imprint which deals with far more adult themes. And it’s certainly none the worse for it.
The first original series to be released on the DC Universe streaming service in the US – and available via Netflix around the rest of the world – Titans is a world apart from the TV incarnations we’ve seen of DC’s comics characters to date. Maybe the closest we’ve got so far is Arrow, with the lead being a dark, brooding and damaged character, who’s not afraid to mete out his own brand of violent justice, while all the time wrestling with his own demons. The action is fast paced, the locations tend to be dimly lit, but there’s never any graphic harm depicted, as characters are shot with arrows, so it’s all very sanitised, and it’s especially evident in comparison with Titans – limbs are snapped, faces are ground into broken glass, throwing stars are embedded firmly into eyes, and blood spatters in great torrents.
With DC’s TV output covering everything from kids cartoons to action series, Titans manages to fill a gap by going into darker territory, the sort of areas which Marvel and Netflix have already explored with the likes of Jessica Jones and Daredevil. With most of the A and B-list superheroes already getting coverage both in movies and on The CW network’s Arrowverse, it’s good to see that online streaming services are giving scope for exploring characters with far less public recognition, and the Titans of the title – barring Robin – are not as well known to the casual audience. The odd exception to this is that kids are far more likely to know who they are, thanks to Cartoon Network’s Teen Titans Go! animated series (and last year’s hilarious big screen adaptation, Teen Titans GO! to the Movies, which was a real highlight of 2018).
However, the overall lack of awareness to the average non-comic reading viewer is a good thing, as it gives the creative team enough of a blank slate to do something distinctive, while still being able to throw in enough recognisable material for the fans of the characters. The unlikely team consists of Kory Anders A.K.A. Starfire (Anna Diop), an amnesiac with the power to generate fire, and who is on a mission but can’t remember what it is; Rachel Roth A.K.A. Raven (Teagan Croft), a young woman with a hidden past, and a growing darkness rising inside her; Garfield ‘Gar’ Logan A.K.A. Beast Boy (Ryan Potter), a member of the group known as the Doom Patrol, with the ability to transform into a tiger; and Dick Grayson A.K.A. Robin (Brenton Thwaites), who has become estranged from Batman, and tried to find his own way, having become a Police Detective, and left Gotham City for a job with Detroit PD.
As the hero who’s best known out of the group, it’s understandable that Robin is the audience’s ‘jumping on’ point, and he certainly gets the focus firmly on him as a result. He’s also the character who has the most to benefit from this, as – freed from beneath the cape of Batman – we get a chance to understand who Dick Grayson is, and what makes him tick. There’s not been a serious exploration of Robin up till now, with Burt Ward’s plucky, innocent Boy Wonder having very much set in stone the perception of the role since he portrayed Robin in the 1960s Batman series. To be blunt, the character hasn’t really had a fair crack of the whip when it comes to live action portrayals, as he was cut out of being used in Tim Burton’s Batman films altogether, then was used as a bit of a joke after Joel Schumacher brought him in, from nipples on his suit, to a rather cheesy callback to the “Holy…” exclamations of the Burt Ward era. Even Zack Snyder made a point of killing Robin off totally before Batman v Superman: Dawn Of Justice.
It’s therefore time for a very long overdue reappraisal of Robin, and Titans gives us an insight into the nature of duality, and the darkness and conflict which can lie within, while all the time struggling to be a better man. We find out early on Dick quit being Robin and walked away when he found that his use of violence started getting out of hand, and he found himself becoming more and more like Batman. It’s good to see Dick becoming a Detective, not only because it puts him on the ‘right’ side of the law, away from his vigilante origins, but also because it gives him the chance to use his reasoning and powers of deduction – one of Batman’s nicknames is the Dark Knight Detective, yet we rarely got to see this in evidence outside of the classic Adam West series, so it’s great to see this being recognised again through Dick/Robin.
It’s fair to say that Batman casts a very long shadow over the DC Universe, so it’s surprising that he hasn’t been seen more on television since the 1960s – for some strange reason, the powers-that-be at DC don’t want Batman on the small screen, and have done their utmost to avoid this. For example, they didn’t give permission for the makers of Smallville to use Bruce Wayne, who instead had decide to invent a different billionaire for an episode. The Arrowverse regularly references both Bruce Wayne and Gotham, but in their recent ‘Elseworlds’ crossover, gave us Batwoman instead, and told us Bruce Wayne (and Batman) hadn’t been seen in Gotham for three years. It remains to be seen whether Gotham – currently in its final series – will finally show the young Bruce Wayne taking up the mantle proper as the Dark Knight. However, DC seems to have no issue with having Superman on TV in various shows over recent years – Lois & Clark, Smallville, and even in a recurring role in Supergirl.
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With all that in mind, it’s no real surprise to see Batman’s presence writ through Titans like a stick of rock, while keeping him in the background – Bruce’s hand on Dick’s shoulder as he comforts him after the death of his parents; the shadowy outline of Bruce in one of the windows of Wayne Manor as young Dick tries to flee his new home; his name listed in Dick’s phone, alongside Alfred Pennyworth; and many other references to the character. It therefore comes as a genuine shock to see Batman actually brought to the fore in the final episode (‘Dick Grayson’), and in a totally unexpected and unconventional manner, which won’t be mentioned here for fear of spoiling the twist for anyone who hasn’t seen it yet. Suffice it to say that the Dark Knight has rarely been darker.
Titans also thoroughly spoils us by giving us two Robins for the price of one – we get to also see Dick’s replacement, Jason Todd (Curran Walters), who comics aficionados will know as being the Robin who ended up being killed by the Joker in ‘A Death In The Family’. Jason was a hoodlum who was found by Batman trying to steal the hubcaps off the Batmobile, and he took him under his wing. Unlike Dick, he’s cocky, reckless and irresponsible, and we get to see the contrast in stark relief when Robin brutally beats up a group of Police Officers who are trying to apprehend the two of them. Walters does a great job of portraying the sheer arrogance of Jason, and his belief that being with Batman gives him carte blanche to act however he pleases, without worrying about any of the consequences. It all works to reinforce Dick’s belief he made the right decision by choosing to move on.
Besides Dick Grayson, the other focus of Titans is Rachel Roth, who ends up being the centre of attention for a number of parties who are after her for their own means; this ends up making the series a chase or pursuit for much of its duration, as she ends up crossing the country while being tracked down and hunted, after her adoptive mother is killed. Because of the deep conflict she feels within her, Rachel is the perfect parallel to Dick, as they are both striving to fight the darkness within, and try and become a better person than they seem destined to be. It also means there’s a certain kinship between them, as Dick takes her under his wing in the same way Bruce did with him 15 years earlier. The pairing works very well, and seems to grow in strength after an early bump in the road where Rachel finds out that Dick was intending to leave her with friends – albeit only temporarily – while he went to figure out what was going on.
However, a spanner gets thrown firmly in the works in the menacing, sinister form of the Nuclear Family – a team of specially enhanced ruthless killers sent on Rachel’s trail, but who outwardly resemble your typical domestic setup, like a bizarre mix of the Brady Bunch and the Deadly Viper Assassination Squad from Kill Bill. Even the choice of vehicle used by the Family – a station wagon – brings to mind National Lampoon’s Vacation, and makes them seem like a rather twisted version of the Griswolds. Although their appearance in the series is relatively brief, they make a huge impression, particularly as they pose such a credibly lethal threat to the Titans, and it’s a real shame that we don’t get to see more of them in action. Very much a case of the American Dream becoming an actual living nightmare. Special mention should go to Melody Johnson as Nuclear Mom, who manages to perfectly balance her psychotic underside with a saccharine 1950s housewife exterior, and is all the more gleefully malevolent for it.
The difficulty with an ongoing chase as a series format is the need to keep driving things forward continually, managing to maintain that sense of jeopardy and high stakes peril. For the most part, Titans does manage to accomplish that, but there are still a couple of strange gear changes along the way. The first of these comes with the fourth episode, ‘Doom Patrol’, where we get to learn about Gar’s origins. However, it’s such a slow burning episode overall that it really loses momentum. The other disappointing aspect here is that it’s basically a backdoor pilot or intro for the Doom Patrol before their own series starts on DC Universe later this year, and really adds nothing to the overall story. It would have been possible to have avoided Doom Patrol being included in Titans at all, and the series really would have lost nothing by doing so, which questions the wisdom of slowing the pace – particularly so early in the run – to have a spin-off character roll call.
Two other characters who get their share of screen time are Hank Hall A.K.A. Hawk (Alan Ritchson) and Dawn Granger A.K.A. Dove (Minka Kelly), masked vigilantes who were former colleagues of Robin’s, but who had experienced a parting of the ways from him, somewhat acrimoniously in the case of Hawk, who resents Dick’s reappearance in their lives when he turns up needing their help with Rachel. When we first meet them, Hawk is bloodied, battered, chained up, and about to be tortured to death by a group of criminals. The sheer grittiness of the situation, along with the rather earthier banter on his part while facing what appears to be his imminent death, brings to mind both Zack Snyder’s Watchmen adaptation, as well as Matthew Vaughn’s Kick-Ass. The pace of Titans slows down again in the ninth episode, ‘Hank And Dawn’, where we get to see a rundown of their history. It gives them additional depth, and makes them seem much more rounded as characters. However, it suggests they’ll end up having a significant role at the end of the season, so when they don’t, it seems rather odd to have spent an entire episode focusing on them just for the sake of adding texture.
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In terms of the production values, Titans easily matches up with anything found on network TV, and even surpasses The CW’s Arrowverse shows. The choreography of the fight sequences is tight and frenetic, with sequences of close-quarters combat being particularly well done, especially a tense hotel room ruckus with the Nuclear Family. The music score by Clint Mansell (Requiem For A Dream) and Kevin Kiner is varied and impressive, with the use of synths being very reminiscent at times of Vangelis’ Blade Runner, and Walter / Wendy Carlos’ work for Kubrick on A Clockwork Orange. Even the use of songs and classical pieces is well thought out, and matches the moods they’re trying to convey – everything from the Beach Boys to Marilyn Monroe and AC/DC gets used judiciously, and I’ve certainly never seen a fight set to a Boney M track before.
There’s just so much to like (and, perhaps, even love) in Titans, with lots of Easter eggs and nods for the die-hard comics fans, such as Donna Troy A.K.A. Wonder Girl finally getting a decent airing as a character in her own right, rather than just being a sidekick. The guest cast also manages to include brief turns by Marina Sirtis (Star Trek: The Next Generation) and Sherilyn Fenn (Twin Peaks), which is a nice touch for cult TV fans. In addition, the show manages to wrong-foot you, by failing to give the neat, pat resolution you’ve probably come to expect from a season finale, and gives you a huge hook to come back next time round. If all that wasn’t enough to convince you, just stay watching for the post-credits scene, which is a simply huge teaser for Season 2, and should prove to be enough of a reason to remember the Titans when they return.