Titans, the first of DC Universe’s live-action original shows, is complete, with the last episode having dropped just in time for Christmas. We’ve had a little time to sit on it and think about it. Titans is an interesting show, for sure, but it is at odds with itself, representing the best and worst of what DC TV can do. It’s a love letter to the weirdness of comic books spattered in CGI blood and doped up on hallucinogenics. I had a good time watching it, but DC has a lot of work to do for the second season to both be good and feel connected to this show.
Spoilers for Season 1 of Titans follow.
This first season did a lot of work in trying to establish where Titans could go, introducing us to four birds, a space alien, a little green man, an Amazonian, and a whole separate show. That’s a lot to fit into one season.
While the show is about the Titans as a group, this season really belongs to Raven and Robin. The former is just coming into her own at 14-years-old and it would be a stretch to even call what she has powers. It’s just darkness lashing out from her. Robin – Dick Grayson – meanwhile, has expert combat training, mental conditioning, and even the tolerance to resist drugging. And yet, he’s not that far off from Raven. When the mask goes on, he can barely control his rage, and anyone he perceives as a criminal is simply a target for him to unleash his violence on.
Most of the season tries to contend with the idea of young heroes and vigilantes and what this life can do to them. The show is called Titans, and most of these characters aren’t Teens, but what they did as teens and young adults has changed them. The Titans can be split into roughly two groups – old titans and new. Robin, Hawk, Dove, and Wonder Girl have all been fighting crime for years, while Raven/Rachel, Kory/Starfire, and Garfield/Beast Boy are considerably more green (pun definitely intended in Beast Boy’s case).
For Robin, Batman’s single-minded pursuit of justice at all costs has given him a take-no-prisoners approach to crime fighting that might work against the Joker or a random mugging, but works terribly against, say, a distributed trafficking ring of any kind. Once he lets any violence out, all the violence comes out, and death seems to follow. It’s bad enough that other characters notice and comment on it.
This comes into the sharpest relief when Dick drops in on Donna Troy – Wonder Girl. As the former protege of Wonder Woman, she’s seen plenty of action, and she’s not afraid to get her hands dirty, but she’s seen that it’s possible not to be “on the job” at all times, and that there’s more than one way to do the job in the first place. The already ultra-violent Dick looks just short of psychotic in comparison to Donna’s far more patient, gentle tactics.
We see it again when Dick meets Jason Todd – the new Robin. Dick knows he’s screwed up, but is too screwed up to get help with it, having taken Bruce’s me-vs-the-world mentality and internalized it. He sees Jason sporting souped up armor and gleefully kicking ass and warns him over and over how it’ll go.
This is actually an interesting way to start the show out. It gives Dick room to grow into a leader and his own flavor of hero and to act as a big brother to Rachel as she develops into Raven.
The problem, though, is that the show doesn’t actually do much character development. There’s a lot of plot stuff that has characters driving from one city to another – mostly in Ohio, also known as the superhero state – and learning Facts about Characters, but they don’t usually do much with these facts. By the time the first season ends in episode 11, Dick still has zero control over his anger and Rachel is only beginning to grow but is more scared than anything else.
Starfire has enough time to remember who she is and to have the beginnings of a relationship with Dick, but again, we learn very little about who she is. Right now, she’s almost supporting cast. Beast Boy is the same – a cool special effect and an attractive actor. He’s there as much to introduce the team of the upcoming Doom Patrol show as he is to join the Titans team. An entire episode is spent introducing us to the Doom Patrol, who don’t show up again in the show at all after the fourth episode that introduces them and Beast Boy. It looks like a cool show, and I loved seeing Brendan Frasier as Robotman, but it feels like a mostly-wasted episode that did nothing for the Titans show and very little for Doom Patrol or any of the individual characters.
The show is less concerned with developing these interesting characters in interesting ways and more with moving the plot forward. The show is pulling from the Terror of Trigon story from the New Teen Titans comics and seems to want to focus entirely on that at the expense of its characters.
One thing that nagged me throughout the series came to a head in the finale. The finale is a dream sequence that is, again, largely wasted time for the Titans story and characters, but it exposes a crucial flaw in the series. As eager as it is to let us into the superhero world of DC Comics, it’s afraid to actually show us anything.
In this dream sequence, Dick Grayson – husband and father living in sunny Beach Boys California – gets called back to Gotham City because Batman has gone off the deep end, and Dick is the last person who can pull him back from the precipice. Here, we see Batman for the first time, we see the Joker, Two-Face, Riddler, and Scarface. But we don’t actually see any of them. Two-Face is lying facing away from the camera, his un-scarred side up. Scarface is just a dummy lying on the ground. The Joker is shown face-down on a car or in the shadows of a hospital room.
When Batman and Dick come face to face, we never see Batman’s face. I get the idea behind it. This is Robin’s show, not Batman’s, and the showrunners didn’t want to distract from that. And if casting any character could be distracting, it’s Batman. And then there’s the way fans would react if they cast the wrong guy or, even worse, cast the right guy and then didn’t give him his own show. I can already see the tweets, and they ain’t pretty. But it gets distracting as the show works overtime to not show Batman. This whole sequence could’ve been resolved in 15 minutes, easily, and didn’t need a whole episode.
And that unwillingness to show Bruce/Batman bothered me earlier in the show, too. The thesis of Titans is that Batman’s dangerous approach to life screwed up Dick Grayson pretty badly. I think this is a fair line of thought. But even as we see scenes with a young Dick, Bruce is always off-screen or shown blurry through a window because, again, DCU doesn’t dare cast him. But that means that we don’t really get to see the way Bruce and Dick interact. These two characters spent time together constantly when they were together – hours and hours every day as they patrolled and fought crime as a Dynamic Duo. But the show makes it look like Dick lived in a ghost house with a neglectful father who was never home or present. Again, it’s distracting.
But then at the same time, this show has some of the best costumes on DC TV. Both Robins and Hawk and Dove all look absolutely excellent to the point that I’d be a little nervous pairing them up with a lot of CW’s heroes. Starfire is under-used as a character and her “street clothes” are a little over-the-top. I can’t tell if they were intentionally going for a sex-worker look, but that’s how some of her outfits felt and it didn’t quite fit the rest of the show for me. Rachel/Raven is a depressed 14-year-old girl and dresses like it. Hoodies and flannel and dyed hair. It completely made sense for her.
The Titans show gets off to an interesting start, but it’s definitely a troubled one. The show was originally meant to be 12 episodes long, but we got an 11-episode show. One episode was a stealth pilot for another show, while another was a dream sequence that means very little to the overall plot. So we got nine episodes and very little actual character development in that time. Instead, we got some cool effects, lots of CGI blood, and some dope fights. I dig all the casting across the board, and I’m looking forward to the second season. The post-credits sequence at the end suggests Superboy is joining the Titans next time around, and it seems likely that Dick will become Nightwing.
I hope the writers can focus more on helping us get invested in their characters and that the show is a little less afraid to show us its superheroes.