Part of the joy of comic book characters is that they can quite literally factor into any kind of genre that the storyteller sees fit. The Teen Titans, for example, have effectively been used on the small screen for both traditional superhero narratives (via the titular animated series) and for absurdist musical comedy mayhem (via Teen Titans Go!). DC Universe’s opaquely dark flagship series Titans, however, delivers an enjoyably bizarre genre mash-up of moody noir, psychological horror, and bloody-knuckle action. This definitely isn’t another Arrow-verse spinoff, kids.
Perhaps the first sign showcasing Titans‘ more mature approach is the fact that there is only one teenager in the group, while everyone else is rocking more adult sneers and grimaces. 14-year-old Teagan Croft shows a lot of promise as Rachel Roth, whose demonic lineage gives her powers to tap into others’ emotions, making her a target for a strange cult. The ensuing hunt drives the story early, on, and in fact, Raven’s origin tale is perhaps the most intriguing element of the Titans episodes screened for critics.
Raven’s abilities are both mysterious and downright spooky as hell, as Raven’s inner demons imbue a genuine horror vibe that DC adaptations don’t often tap into. Nothing on par with Heath Ledger’s Joker yet, but disturbing stuff nonetheless. Much credit goes to the director for the first two episodes, Brad Anderson, who helmed one of my favorite horror flicks of all time, 2001’s unsettling and undervalued Session 9, as well as other solid thrillers like The Machinist and Transsiberian.
Rachel’s tragic life events that set up Titans‘ noir-lite detective genre leanings. After being outed as “special,” she soon finds herself in the mildly empathetic crosshairs of Detective Dick Grayson, whose portrayer Brendan Thwaites would have a drawer full of gold medals if Sullen Brooding was an Olympic event. (Sullen Brooding also sounds like someone’s alter ego on this show.) The meaty comic hook with Dick is that he’s no longer in cahoots with Bruce Wayne or Batman, and directs quite a bit of residual indignation and ill will at his former mentor.
Dick seems to wish he hadn’t allowed Bruce to influence all his violent urges, although the opposite would appear to be the case when he’s in costume and relishing in stabbing a thug’s groin. (Groins are seriously not safe in Gotham City.) Remember the “Fuck Batman” line from the trailer? One half of the character meant it, and Thwaites holds viewer interest while balancing his near-lethal rage with being the dreariest person in the room.
Elsewhere, Starfire’s action-infused sci-fi story commences interestingly enough, with Anna Diop’s eye-catching heroine having little memory of who she is. Or, rather, her human form doesn’t can’t recall any facts about her identity, though her muscle memory hasn’t forgotten how to destroy things with massive energy blasts, among other things.
Koriand’r — call her Kori — gets drawn into the Titans-forming fold when tracking down Rachel, and Diop successfully sells Starfire’s emotionally drive personality and actions, mixed with her optimistic naivety, and all without really saying much. That limiting choice may make her seem simplistic or confusing early on to those unfamiliar with the character, which could be more damaging overall, but I appreciated the lack of expository hand-holding.
After Titans‘ Christopher Nolan-esque premiere, Episode 2 taps into the drama’s inner Joel Schumacher to introduce Alan Ritchson’s Hank Hall and Minka Kelly’s Dawn Granger, better known to superhero cliques as Hawk and Dove. Their costumes are flashier and more attention-grabbing than Robin’s sleeker attire, but feature the same metaphorical sleeve to wear their emotions on.
However, Hawk and Dove’s story exudes far more unbridled angst than Schumacher’s Bat-sequels ever did (as if it was superhero fan-fic from Chris O’Donnell’s own Dick Grayson). Hank is dealing with some sex issues, both his own and those of others, and his erratic testosterone levels keep him constantly surly and on edge. (If nothing else, it’s interesting to see a superhero like that intentionally crafted to not be very friendly or likable.) On the flip side, Dawn’s feelings aren’t clouded by rage, so she views things more logically, which may or may not be a good survival tactic.
What about Beast Boy, you ask? Titans‘ biggest blight early on is that Ryan Potter’s fan-beloved Beast Boy is used so sparingly that it’s like he popped in from a completely different TV series. I know I’m not alone in having high eagle-like hopes for the things Titans plans to do with Beast Boy (and his alter ego Gar Logan), and while I understand that CGI budget concerns are an issue for a shapeshifting character, it’d still be great to have the human version around more.
As the signature drama being used to kick off the DC Universe streaming service, Titans is an interesting choice. On the one hand, it’s superheroes that younger kids will be familiar with and will want to watch, but on the other, it’s full of pulpy and violent chaos in which Robin literally says “Fuck Batman.” So parents should choose how to handle things accordingly, let we have an epidemic of schoolchildren using the Dark Knight’s name in vein.
But to say that Titans will be universally loved by all TV viewers is to show off “naivety” as one’s personal superpower. It’s probably not a show for anyone who feels like The Flash gets a little too adult with its subject matter. It’s probably not a show for people who crap on Gotham for not introducing Batman sooner. It’s not a show for anyone who likes brightly lit scenes containing colorful clothing. And it’s probably not a show for people who need large and clearly plotted narratives to hold their attention.
But, I dare say that Titans is for those who want superhero TV stories to feel less like they came from writers rooms and more like they actually came from comic books, where scenes and situations don’t always get wrapped and ribboned before jumping to the next thing. To be fair, Titans probably feels like 4 differently themed comic books slamming into each other at varied speeds, but sometimes one has to throw everything at the wall to see what sticks. Creators Mark Berlandi, Geoff Johns and Akiva Goldsman clearly had a lot of walls to use in that scenario, and I, for one, am happy to be settled in between them. Superheroes, mysteries and brawls, Titans has it all.