Review: ‘Titans’ Keeps Things Dark in the DC Universe
Posted October 11, 2018 7:06 p.m. EDT
“So dark,” the title character of the Marvel film “Deadpool 2” tells a villain. “You sure you’re not from the DC universe?”
That on-screen dig seems all the more apt with the arrival of “Titans,” a series that’s not just from the DC universe but is the first original presentation of the new streaming service called DC Universe. “Dark” is a subjective quality, but the first three scenes of “Titans” involve an agonizing vision of parental death, a woman with no memory waking up next to a dead man, and a rainy day in Detroit. The Frank Miller-Christopher Nolan strain of apocalyptic storytelling remains alive and well at DC.
The show is based on the long-standing comic-book team most commonly known as the Teen Titans, whose changing lineup over the years has included superhero sidekicks like Robin, Superboy and Aqualad. Here the membership is mostly adult and tending toward creaky and angst-ridden.
Dick Grayson aka Robin (Brenton Thwaites) has split with Batman, afraid that his mentor’s brutality was rubbing off, but in his new job as a Detroit police detective he still gets a charge out of dragging thugs’ faces through broken glass. The crime-fighting couple of Dove (Minka Kelly) and Hawk (Alan Ritchson) aren’t aging well — he needs a new hip and a Viagra prescription, while she can’t stop thinking about her old boyfriend, who happens to be Robin.
The unnamed amnesiac (Anna Diop) asks everyone if they know who she is, and those whose responses she doesn’t like risk being reduced to piles of ash. (At some point she’ll realize that she’s Starfire.) The one teenage member of the nascent team, Rachel (Teagen Croft), who will come to be known as Raven, may have it worst of all: Her supernatural abilities, manifesting in a metaphorically volcanic split personality, have made her the target of a murderous religious cult.
That’s a lot to unravel, and the three episodes available for review only begin the process, using Rachel’s plight as a mechanism to start bringing the characters together. A potential sixth member of the team, the shape shifter known in the comics as Beast Boy (Ryan Potter), gets just one brief scene that positions him as possible comic relief down the road.
What the opening episodes do make clear is that the high-powered team behind the show — the Oscar-winning screenwriter Akiva Goldsman, the uber-producer Greg Berlanti and the DC veteran Geoff Johns, a one-time “Teen Titans” writer — is aiming for the superhero version of kitchen-sink realism rather than comic-book gloss. Like Netflix’s Marvel series and Berlanti’s DC series for the CW network, “Titans” borrows from police procedurals, action thrillers and teenage dramas, but it goes grayer, quieter and more psychological.
It also goes more graphically violent than a typical broadcast or cable superhero show, though it’s far short of the bloodthirstiness displayed in the Marvel-Netflix “Punisher.” The neck-snappings and eye-gougings feel a little more earned because the show is also more serious than usual about making violence a subject rather than a voyeuristic bonus. (It also exhibits some welcome self-awareness, such as when Robin wonders whether Rachel is old enough to be watching “Game of Thrones.”)
The superhero Sturm und Drang and personal melodrama that “Titans” offers is attractively packaged and reasonably entertaining in the early episodes (the first two were directed by Brad Anderson, a television veteran who made the well-received feature “Next Stop Wonderland” 20 years ago). And Kelly, of “Friday Night Lights,” and the charismatic Diop make their characters more interesting and appealing than the comic-book norm.
There’s no knowing, though, how well the show will work once the team is assembled and time and story lines and flashbacks need to be parceled out among five or six heroes. (The early episodes favor Robin and Raven.) If you’re partial to the more serious end of the comic-book spectrum, you may already be watching “Black Lightning” on CW, “Jessica Jones” and a few others on Netflix, “Legion” on FX, “The Runaways” on Hulu and “Gotham” on Fox. “Titans” may deserve to join the list, but it’s a big ask.