Titans Masks a Failure to Produce a Coherent Hour of Programming with Gratuitous Violence and Profanity
The first episode of Titans feels like a desperate cry from DC Universe to “please like and buy our service”. The premiere episode of the flagship of the DC Universe streaming service is disjointed, poorly edited and filled with gratuitous violence and profanity in a forced attempt to seem “edgy”. Maybe there’s a good show somewhere and maybe subsequent episodes will improve on these shortcomings . But what we’ve seen so far is a mess that goes for shock value over quality.
Now I’ve been waiting for Titans, ever since it was announced as a show coming to TNT. When that project got dropped I was still held out hope that someday it would get picked up again. When news came that DC was going to make Titans their first show on their new DC Universe service, my excitement picked up again. Early official pictures of Brenton Thwaites’ Dick Grayson in the Robin suit as well as pictures of Hawk & Dove in comic accurate suits only added to that.
Then the first trailer dropped at SDCC and it showed a ridiculously brutal Robin who ended his fight by saying “Fuck Batman". Just like that, my expectations and excitement for Titans plummeted like stock in Enron. Why would DC do this? Why does DC think that in order to make things more “mature” they have to be dark, gritty and bloody? The Marv Wolfman and George Perez Teen Titans run proved that pages don’t be need to be dripping in blood splatter and profanity for the story to take dark and mature turns. The Judas Contract isn’t a campy story. Titans routinely died in the comics. Cyborg slowly becomes more machine than man and it’s horrific. Teen Titans didn't need a "dark, gritty, mature" refresh, it already was mature and gritty. Why are we doing this?
At NYCC, an early screener of the first three episodes aired and the buzz from that was much better. I wasn’t able to attend that but was in the press room with the cast and producers and heard them talk about the characters and portrayals and once again I almost believed in the show again.
Then I watched the first episode.
Okay let’s get the source material stuff out the way first. That’s not Dick Grayson. I get what the show is trying to go for. It’s trying to play on the rift between Bruce Wayne and Grayson that develops as Robin gets older. Bruce and Dick definitely had their disagreements and I can even see that part of Dick’s motivations for moving away is that he found himself becoming “too much like Batman.” But Dick Grayson would never brutalized criminals in the Robin suit. Hell, as brutal as Batman is, he would never do what is displayed in the fight scene in this show. Robin uses a gun, he stabs one criminal in the neck, grinds one criminal’s face against a brick wall, repeatedly punches one as blood splatters in his face and then to top it all off, he grinds one guy’s face through broken glass. Add in the whispered “Fuck Batman” said not in response to a criminal’s query about Batman but just to himself and I’m left wondering why they have Jason Todd’s Red Hood in a Robin suit. Worse yet, the fight isn’t even well choreographed. The scene is shot with a bunch of close ups and quick cuts and the few times we get a full shot of Robin, Brenton Thwaites looks stiff. For all the bragging that has been done about this being “darker and gritter” than anything DC has done, the fight choreography in the Arrowverse can be just as brutal and it looks a lot better.
But I don’t want to make it seem as if the problems with Titans is just the portrayal of Robin. Honestly, if this was the only issue, I could maybe forgive it (with some serious character development and changes in subsequent episodes). However the reality is, the rest of the show just isn’t good. Instead of developing a story in a reasonable way, we’re left with bad transitions between characters and forced shock value in order to distract from the hollowness of the story.
Episode one focuses on Dick and Raven’s stories and while they clearly get the most screen time somehow they're not fleshed out. Both characters seem to only superficially exist in the world. At the Detroit police department that Grayson works, we learn his new partner’s name but not the names of any of the other detectives in the building. We’re told he transferred to the Detroit PD from Gotham a year ago. The other cops talk about Grayson having issues with his last partner from Gotham (which clearly is Batman) but they talk as if it was another cop partner. Does that mean he worked in Gotham PD? Did Grayson falsify that information? Who knows. And honestly, there’s no reason to actually care. Raven is introduced as being possessed and troubled. She experiences the death of Dick's parents in her dream and so they tie her to Grayson through whatever dark force is in her. From the context clues we can tell Raven’s mother is an overworked single mother who is aware that something evil is inside her daughter and she’s struggling to keep it all together. We know this issue with Raven has been going on for some time and that to two seem to have some sort of understanding about it. You get the feeling that while their relationship is strained, they love each other. But before we can truly connect, her mom is shot in the head by another character whose name we never get. The death should stick with you from a story point of view but it doesn’t because we never got a chance to really care about the character before we watch her brains get blown out. Instead of making the death connect emotionally, the show goes for the quick and easy shock value by making the death gratuitous. We're not even given a chance to process that before being killed Raven's mother admits to not being her mother, we just cut to another scene with another character in a completely different location.
Beast Boy is literally thrown in at the end of the episode for a scene that serves no real purpose other than to say “Oh yeah…and Beast Boy”. Anna Diop’s Koriand’r stands out because while her character is a mystery, her circumstances make that part of the story. She's the one character that is intriguing because she's finding out who she is right as the audience is.
Everything and everyone is just dumped into one episode. The show fails to produce a coherent hour of programming. The timing between story beats is completely off. Raven’s mother is shot point blank in the back of the head and Raven run away from her nameless attacker. Instead of finishing that beat and showing us where she goes and how she escapes, the show then cuts back over to Grayson in Detroit and his beatdown of criminals. Then it comes back to Raven getting on a bus to Detroit. The show doesn’t finish one coherent thought before jumping to the next. It’s almost as if simple story structure got thrown out the window in hopes that the violence would shock people into not noticing.
The real question I have after watching episode one is: Who is the target audience for Titans? The Teen Titans were originally created to attract kids. The gratuitous violence and language in Titans make it clear that’s not the target. Making Dick Grayson a brutalizer who fights not to incapacitate but to maim says this show isn’t for the comic book fans of the characters. That leaves folks who have little connection or care about the comic book accuracy or connection to the Teen Titans. And while that’s not a bad group to go after, one has to wonder if that’s a group that’s going to stick to paying $7.99 for an app that’s supposedly built for fans.
Maybe the rest of the series will be better. Maybe the premiere was just a rushed, poorly thought out apparition that isn’t indicative of the entire series. But I’m left wondering with all the time given to make this, why are we still required to grade DC’s products on a curve? Titans should be better. The characters deserve better and we the audience and fans do too.
A new episode of Titans airs every Friday on DC Universe.