A show that wants to take your lunch money
There comes a point in one’s life where they become disillusioned with the world and their surroundings, and when one’s optimism and idealism become cynicism and nihilism. In Titans, that disillusionment is a constant in a world that appears to be defined by misery and violence.
The promotional material gave off “dark” and “edgy” vibes, like the idea of what a child would consider to be “adult” and “mature.” After viewing screeners of the first three episodes of Titans, I’m willing to give it some more credit than what I initially did. But the more I heard characters like Robin, Hawk, and others drop swear words and commit acts of horrific violence, the more the show felt like exploitative schlock.
Perhaps the best compliment (or insult, depending on what you think of it) is that Titans is DC’s own Riverdale, a darker version of otherwise brighter comic characters—though Titans certainly has the luxury of less content censorship.
Titans (Season 1)
Developed By: Akiva Goldsman, Geoff Johns, Greg Berlanti
Start Date: October 12, 2018 (DC Universe)
There is nothing in Titans that you haven’t seen before—every character is a familiar archetype, and every scene is a variation of a different scene from a different movie or show with a similar formula. You have Dick Grayson (Brenton Thwaites), a hardened police detective who moved from Gotham City to Detroit, Rachel Roth (Teagan Croft), a young Carrie-like girl with mysterious demonic abilities who essentially becomes a living MacGuffin, “Kory” (Anna Diop), a woman with fire powers with amnesia and is looking for answers, and “Gar” (Ryan Potter), a boy who can transform into animals and, I don’t know, stole some Xbox games in one scene.
Surely anyone familiar with Teen Titans knows who those characters actually are.
Gar doesn’t get a lot of time in these first three episodes, and while we get some time with Kory, her amnesia largely feels like an artificial manner to create a mystery for the show and make her into a surrogate character for the viewers. The beginning of the season mostly focusing on Dick and Rachel in that same “grizzled man protects young, special girl on a road trip” plotline you’ve seen in The Road, The Last of Us, Logan, and so on. Rachel is overall a sympathetic character once you get past the cringy lines about “darkness” and “monsters” that were clearly meant for the trailer, leaving Dick Grayson as the weaker of the duo. We get some backstory through flashbacks after his family died in a freak trapeze “accident” to see that he’s always been this angsty all the way through adulthood, making me question if he was ever the famous “Boy Wonder” we know of—nowadays, Dick is quite intense and brutal.
It seems odd for Titans that its infamous “Fuck Batman” action sequence serves as a thesis statement for the show, as it’s fairly representative of the action throughout these first three episodes. It takes place in the dark, there is barely a sense of geography, and several action beats come across as needless and downright exploitative. In that particular sequence, Robin catches the last baddie standing before he escapes in his car, breaking the car window, dragging his face along the broken glass, throwing him down on the ground, and repeatedly stomping on him. It certainly doesn’t help that the blood splatters look awful, like an after effect that was slapped on last minute. Most of these sequences come across as a subpar Kingsman imitation.
The dialogue in Titans feels equally half-assed; every character says things in the least and most basic way possible, like the otherwise decent performers are reading off first drafts of the teleplays. There is barely any energy or flair from any exchange of dialogue, which is why I hope that Beast Boy, who appears to be the least miserable out of the four primary characters, will bring some much-needed levity. The closest thing to a running joke in the show is everyone calling Dick, uh, a dick, which I guess is chuckle-worthy the first of several times the show does this.
In fact, this show is just totally humorless so far—not even “Fuck Batman” could get an ironic laugh, as it just felt completely out of place in the actual context of the scene. While I wasn’t expecting jokes left and right like in the cartoons, I was looking for any character that knew how to smile. There were brief moments of positivity with the duo of Hawk (Alan Ritchson) and Dove (Minka Kelly), but eventually, they just went back to beating people up and resorting to a soapy plotline involving a previous fling that Dove had with Robin. The closest I got to laughing was with a nuclear family who became activated as violent and sadistic sleeper agents to capture Rachel—and even so, I was more unsettled than entertained.
There isn’t too much to say about the show artistically, other than that everything is grey. Even other mature and violent superhero shows are able to use color in an interesting manner, but I haven’t seen any of that type of creativity in Titans thus far. I also can’t say that I’m a big fan of some of the costume designs, particularly the impracticality of Kory’s fur coat. Meanwhile, Hawk and Dove come more across like cosplayers than actual superheroes with any sort of practical outfits. And besides the blood, some of the CGI is a bit wonky—a few scenes with CGI ravens don’t look too hot. From what I’ve seen Beast Boy’s transformations look fine for television, and it comes across as more body horror-ish and less magical, which is an interesting take on the character.
The musical score seems to be defined by mindless electronic noises, like something out of a trailer for a Battlefield game. It comes across as a desperate attempt to come across as “hardcore,” and I find myself laughing every time the musical cue unexpectedly pops up for the brief title sequence, which is the giant word “TITANS” with scenes including Robin beating people up and Rachel screaming in terror overlaid on the words, a big fat reminder that everyone in this show is freaking miserable.
On the other hand, I do like some other musical cues with actual licensed songs. There’s a fun use of “S.O.B.” by Nathaniel Rateliff & The Night Sweats when Rachel arrives in Detroit, “I Feel Love” by Donna Summer gives some nice atmosphere to a club scene, and “Sunny” by Boney M. punctuates a rather entertaining scene of Kory teaching some rowdy diner patrons a lesson. At least the show has a music supervisor with some taste, and the studio is able to license out actual good music (I’m looking at you, Marvel’s Cloak & Dagger).
Even though I’ve said many negative things about Titans, and though I do expect people to hate it without giving it a proper chance due to the trailers, I find it hard to totally trash the show. All of my aforementioned criticisms can all be bunched together into the phrase “I’ve seen it all done before, and better,” which is far from the worst thing one can say about a television show. As of yet, there isn’t anything offensively bad about the show, and I’m considering trooping on to find out more about Dick Grayson’s estrangement with Bruce Wayne, what everyone wants to do with Rachel, where did Kory come from, and when the hell Beast Boy will finally have a role to play.
I’m reminded about the very first season of Doctor Who spin-off Torchwood, which billed itself as “Doctor Who for adults”—what resulted were plotlines involving an alien gas that needed to orgasm to survive, characters making out and banging for no reason, and a skimpy Cyberwoman fighting a pterodactyl. While I expected it, there isn’t anything as blatant or stupid in Titans. Even so, the show is lacking in something unique, a real edge besides being “edgy.”
The foundation of Titans actually does has some potential—an “adult” Teen Titans show could actually work. But if the show is going to riff from other sources, it needs to be a bit more focused; it has shades of other superhero shows, like the religious overtones of Daredevil, the grittiness of Arrow, the depiction of socioeconomic issues and characterization of a place like Luke Cage, and so on. Perhaps Titans might have something to say about violence—in one scene, Hawk and Dove actually express major concern of Robin’s violence after he rescued them instead of feeling relief. But then again, Kick-Ass and Super sort of did that too.
Titans may be good one day, but for now, it’s just a middling superhero show where our lead hero says “Fuck Batman.”