Advance Review: DC Universe's TITANS Gives Teen Heroes 'Brooding 1990s Vertigo-Style Tilt'

Credit: DC Universe
Credit: DC Universe

Titans - season one, episode one
Starring Brenton Thwaites, Anna Diop, Teagan Croft, Ryan Potter and more
Directed by Brad Anderson
Review by Pierce Lydon
'Rama Rating: 6 out of 10

The Titans trailer featured the expletive heard ‘round the world and led to many writing it off from that reveal. The beloved teen superteam just didn’t seem to mesh with a DC media approach that’s looked increasingly dark and dour outside of the CW’s Supergirl and The Flash. But the series premiere paints an at least slightly more nuanced portrayal that could find its footing if fans can work through its warts.

Dropping the “teen” part of the name seems like a really obvious marker for the direction that the show wanted to go in but it doesn’t tell the whole story. Writers Akiva Goldsman, Geoff Johns, and Greg Berlanti aren’t content to simply retell stories from Marv Wolfman’s classic run or even Johns’ own 2000s take. In many ways, the writers trade the technicolor superhero bombast of those story for a much more brooding 1990s Vertigo-style tilt that finds some success in stops and starts.

Credit: DC Universe

Obviously, Teagan Croft’s Raven is the character who would stand out in that sort of setting and they use her as the link between the characters that drives the story. And thankfully, she’s still got her demon daddy issues intact. Dick Grayson goes to Detroit to make a name for himself away from the shadow of Batman and in the process crosses paths with the teen runaway.

Credit: DC Universe

But the writers are just dealing in tropes here. Raven’s demonic outbursts feel slight in an era where horror seems to be the genre du jour of forward-thinking filmmakers. Brenton Thwaites’ tough cop facade as Dick Grayson feels like a really telegraphed setup as its relatively out of line with who the character is. Anna Diop asserts herself well as an amnesiac Starfire who is trying to piece her existence together. There’s a certain otherworldliness to her performance that really lends itself to the alien nature of Koriand’r. The logic of the plotting leaves a lot to be desired, though.

Credit: DC Universe

This should be the “getting the team together” episode but the writers obviously have a much larger plot in mind so they only take baby steps to that end. By the end of the episode, only two characters have met and Ryan Potter’s Beast Boy is wholly just tacked on with a scene at the end. So the shape of show is somewhat obtuse. We aren’t given many reasons that characters do anything at all and that’s somewhat frustrating because as an audience then, what are we supposed to be coming back for besides the promise of the title?

And arguably, that’s the problem that Marvel’s Netflix shows have as well - a lack of urgency in moving the plot under the guise of developing the world of the story but no meaningful strides taken in that direction really when all is said and done. The references to the larger DC Universe are the same kind of vague ones that we get in those shows in part because this is a show that seemingly has no bearing on the DC movies or the Arrowverse. The fact that is has its own guest stars already lined up is promising in terms of opening up the world but the writers have yet to succeed at making an audience care about their titular team, it seems a bit brash to introduce Hawk and Dove in episode 2. Though, that’s the failure of modern marketing more than anything else - there are no surprises anymore. We already know we’re getting the Doom Patrol and Jason Todd in future episodes.

Credit: DC Universe

The thing that probably most sets Titans apart from other iterations of the DCU on film is the violence that’s on display. More than anything, it feels completely out of line with the characters in general. Dick Grayson’s angst-fueled alleyway fight scene is entertaining until it gets to the point where he’s almost gleefully running a thug’s face across the jagged edges of a shattered car window. Who is this character? Certainly not the Dick Grayson that audiences might be familiar with. And that really undercuts the serious tone of the show, the violence isn’t scary or intense - it goes so far that’s almost just goofy.

On the whole, Titans could have been a lot worse but it’s still not great. The uneven tone and odd plotting decisions betray decent performances by the main cast. The lack of a landing point at the end of the first episode speaks to that as well. By the time the credits roll, we don’t have any clearer idea who these characters are, what their motivations might be or even who might be considered their opposition in this world. But if you’re the type who has powered through similar concerns with other streaming superhero offerings, you might be rewarded for your endurance.

Titans debuts October 12 on the DC Universe streaming service.

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