This Titans review contains NO spoilers!
Titans, the first original series created for the newly launched DC Universe streaming service, launched its first trailer to considerable fanfare (and controversy) back in July. Notably dark and violent, and with Robin famously voicing a particularly strong opinion of Batman, that few minutes of Titans footage divided fans, with some citing its daring willingness to take characters who have had their greatest success headlining two animated series and bringing them back to their more mature comic book roots, while others felt its violence and strong language were perhaps a step too far in the direction of an infamous DC movie that shall not be named.
But one should never judge a TV show by its trailer, and Titans is a perfect example of why. While certainly a darker, violent take on the formation of the classic DC team, Titans is far more balanced than that teaser made it appear, with an excellent, charismatic set of leads who embody the characters well, some of the best live action superhero costumes in the business, and yes, even the occasional flash of humor (in context, the infamous “fuck Batman” that made such waves in the trailer is deliberately funny when delivered here).
The early episodes of Titans focus heavily on the setup and initial meeting between Dick Grayson (Brenton Thwaites) and Rachel “Raven” Roth (Teagan Croft). The show is a surprisingly slow burn, and it’s in no hurry to assemble the full team. Instead, the first episode takes its time bringing Dick and Rachel together in Detroit, while the mysterious woman we know as Starfire is trying to recover her memories in Vienna. Beast Boy (Ryan Potter) is little more than a cameo in the first episode, but we know he’ll become a team regular down the road.
Titans opens with Dick Grayson in his 15th year as Robin, but having left his partnership with Batman behind a year previously. Dick has traded Gotham City for Detroit, and most of his nocturnal crime fighting for a day job as a police detective. This is how he comes into contact with Rachel Roth, a troubled teen struggling to control her dark supernatural powers, and who is being pursued by a mysterious cult. Dick, of course, sees something of himself in the adrift girl, and while he doesn’t take her in Bruce Wayne style, he does find himself protecting her. I’m not going to get into spoilers in this review, so I won’t take the specifics much further.
Robin has never looked better on screen, and this Robin costume, incorporating all the best elements of Tim Drake’s initial redesign plus some modern touches, is gold for Batman fans. More importantly, Thwaites is a terrific Dick Grayson. One of only five actors to play the role in live action, Thwaites certainly has the potential to be the definitive Robin (with apologies to the brilliant, immortal performance of Burt Ward). The problem is that the early episodes lean heavily into a brand of alienation that might feel unfamiliar to many fans of the character.
A significant chunk of the most shocking violence in the early episodes is perpetrated by Robin, in fact, and while there is context given for it (and there are hints that he wasn’t like this even a few years ago), it still feels gratuitous. I suspect I know where they’re going here, and Dick is certainly the Dick fans know and love, but I do have to question whether this was the wisest choice early on. Even with the arc they’re setting up, the impression in these scenes ends up being that it’s trying a little too hard to shock, and to prove that “this ain’t your Teen Titans Go! cartoon, kids.” There’s one particularly gruesome moment that feels like a step too far. It’s off-putting, and it took me a second viewing to realize the full context of what was going on within the context of Dick’s journey.
Croft is a sympathetic Rachel Roth, and she walks the line between troubled but good kid and, well, an actual demon. The show goes for some jump scares, some of which are more effective than others, but the horror movie tone that takes over during her scenes definitely works for the character. She does get a chance to open up to a character and be something more than just a powerful angst machine.
Of the core three, though, the most pleasant surprise is Anna Diop’s Starfire. The character’s much-maligned distinctive look has been the topic of considerable discussion. I won’t spoil it, but there’s a story reason for it, and it isn’t the one you probably think it is. This is a new take on the character, and Diop is going to become a favorite. It’s in her scenes where the show takes perhaps the most chances and slows down the most. There’s also a terrific needle drop that is a great example of how Titans breaks the tension in creative ways where appropriate.
My personal favorites, however, are Hawk (Alan Ritchson, of the late, lamented, and utterly bonkers Blood Drive…ok, fine, and Friday Night Lights) and Dove (Minka Kelly, reuniting with her Friday Night Lights co-star). From the moment they appear on screen in episode 2, they’re show-stealers, boasting some absolutely killer costumes, and injecting another dose of needed levity into the show. Ritchson and Kelly are TV veterans, and their charisma and chemistry is tremendously welcome. I’ll be shocked if these don’t become immediate, breakout fan favorites.
While Arrowverse mastermind (and busiest man in all of TV) Greg Berlanti is listed as an executive producer, Titans feels fairly removed tonally from the CW shows which have been such a key portion of DC’s live action renaissance. There are certainly elements of Arrow’s grimmer first season here on Titans, but stripped of the soap opera elements that were a hallmark of that show’s early years, and so far, there’s little of the chirpy, quip-laden dialogue that characters on The Flash or Supergirl are so well known for. It could, frankly, use a little (but not too much) of the latter, but I suspect the plan is to get to a slightly lighter place organically down the road.
Titans also lacks the soapy sheen of those CW shows, instead favoring blue-filtered lighting and cramped, dark shots that aren’t particularly appealing visually. While the show certainly aspires to be something akin to the Marvel Netflix shows with its dialogue and pacing (and frankly, its problems in those areas are certainly no more wooden or slow than their competitors), it lacks the cinematic eye that helped set something like Daredevil apart from the superhero pack from its first episode. The literal darkness of Titans becomes even more of a detriment during the action sequences, which have little of the balletic fluidity DC superhero TV fans have come to expect from the expert stunt team on Arrow. It’s a shame, because Thwaites is clearly athletic enough for his role, and the suits worn by brawlers like Robin, Hawk, and Dove allow the actors to move freely in them, rather than looking like cumbersome suits of leather armor.
What I find particularly fascinating about Titans is how it immediately throws fans into a lived in, fully formed DC Universe. Robin has been around for 15 years, Hawk and Dove are already grizzled veterans at the superhero game when we meet them, and there are plenty of hints throughout that the entire DC Universe is out there, and we’re just waiting to meet them. For someone fluent in DC lore, it’s an easy, natural fit. The show just assumes you’re at least somewhat familiar with this world, and that you’re well-versed enough in superhero tropes that you don’t need to waste time on origin stories.
I’m not sure how Titans will play for general audiences, but then again, this is on the DC Universe streaming service for a reason. There are definitely areas that need some more polish and snap, but the core audience will be more forgiving of certain quirks. This might just be the one time where the old, hollow defense about how a movie or TV show was made “for the fans, not the critics” could actually hold water. As a critic, I’m well aware of its flaws, but as a DC fan, it knows exactly where to find me.