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Like a Midwestern sorority girl returned from spring break in Jamaica with cornrows, a fading tan, hints of a slightly offensive patois, but no sense of island geography other than the location of the poolside bar at Sandals, DC Universe’s Titans might as well arrive carrying a sign that says “Ask Me About My Edginess.”
In addition to being a live-action attempt to make slightly older viewers try to figure out what “DC Universe” is — DC Comics’ new streaming platform, duh! — Titans is a try-too-hard stab at occupying a middle ground between grumpy, but still family-friendly, DC offerings like The CW’s Arrow and the definitely-not-for-kids Marvel shows on Netflix. In this case, that means a strain-to-see murky color palette, occasional jarring swearing, a tiny bit of extra blood spatter and the latitude to feature sexual impotence as a plot point. Aren’t grown-ups lucky? What it doesn’t mean, at least through the three episodes sent to critics, is any sort of extra creative depth or narrative exploration.
AIR DATE Oct 12, 2018
Adapted from the DC comic of the same name by Akiva Goldsman, Geoff Johns and the inexplicably tireless Greg Berlanti, Titans uses Teagan Croft’s Rachel as something of a point of entry. Rachel is a sullen teenage who gives off such a strong Natalie Portman-in-The-Professional vibe that it can’t be unintentional. Part of why she’s so unhappy is that she has begun to exhibit a disturbing assortment of what might either be superpowers, signs of demonic possession or both. Rachel is forced to go on the run and she finds herself in Detroit, rarely a cure for sullenness, where she encounters Dick Grayson (Brenton Thwaites), Batman’s former sidekick Robin, now fighting crime as a detective, except for when he gives in to his vigilante instincts, dons a suit and beats up on bad guys without the pressure of due process.
Batman and Bruce Wayne may have taken Dick in after the tragic death of his parents — the Titans could rename themselves the Traumatized Orphans in Suits — but Dick’s relationship with his never-seen A-list boss isn’t exactly cordial. As Grayson says, walking away from a pile of savaged street thugs in the most strained line of dialogue in a series of non-stopped strained lines of dialogue, “Fuck Batman.” Seriously, it’s such a bad line of dialogue that somebody must have thought would sound so cool ,and maybe it’s because the context is nonsensical and maybe it’s just that Thwaites’ delivery is verging on lifeless, but the scene has all the gritty gangsta swagger of a summer camp theatrical production of Fight Club.
While Detective Dick is going on a Rust Belt journey to help Rachel learn about her past, bringing in battle-scarred former pals Hawk (Alan Ritchson, growling) and Dove (Minka Kelly, glowing) to assist, the mysterious Kory (Anna Diop) is about to start her own search for Rachel, for reasons she doesn’t remember because she has amnesia. Kory begins in Vienna and among the other things she can’t remember is why she’s able to incinerate people with her mind.
Early Titans episodes also include a teen who can turn himself into a tiger and a quintessential Missouri family that moonlights as assassins-for-hire. I was interested in the animal-transforming teen who I know will eventually be revealed to be Ryan Potter’s Beast Boy, and I actually quite enjoyed the assassin family, who come across like a John Waters-style parody of suburban normalcy. I’d gladly have spent more time with them and much, much, much less time on Detective Dick moping and having flashbacks to his earliest introduction to Bruce Wayne, minus Bruce Wayne. An unfortunate amount of time is wasted on Detective Dick, probably because he’s the character most likely to be recognizable for a mainstream audience. Between Dick Grayson, Detective Dick and Robin, it’s a three-pronged character, and Thwaites is convincing as none of them. I don’t even know if it is Thwaites’ fault that Detective Dick is a show-crippling black hole, since Dame Judi Dench wasn’t going to be able to sell “Fuck Batman!” and director Brad Anderson has staged early action scenes in a way that makes it impossible to tell if the actor was contributing any physicality to the role.
Titans is better off when it can focus on Croft, who steers into the Natalie Portman styling choices and has a believable mix of teenage vulnerability and burgeoning rage. What the show is doing with Rachel, the linking of puberty and emerging superpowers, is easily the thing it does best, even if it’s still a thing that is currently being done far better by Cloak & Dagger and Runaways and, if you want to get away from Marvel, YouTube Premium’s woefully underrated Impulse. The show has little interest in finding subtext to Rachel’s adolescent experiences, nor to Detective Dick’s apparent addiction to violence, nor to much of anything. The urge to have the series dig deeper is counteracted by the desire to also want it to move faster and have at least a tiny bit of fun with what may eventually — like season six or seven at this grinding pace — be a superhero team-up, a genre that we used to think was enjoyable, before The Defenders and Justice League proved otherwise.
The third Titans episode, the best of this early batch, takes a step in the direction of “fun.” There are a couple of scenes shot in daylight. A couple of characters make jokes, and a little more time is spent with Diop’s Kory, which is good because Diop is interesting and vivid even if, as an amnesiac, her major personality traits are “confusion” and “burning things.” It’s the first point at which Titans doesn’t feel like it’s trying to out-glum the early seasons of Arrow, only with less impressive stuntwork and and an interesting decision to set the story not in the fictional realms of Gotham or Star City, but in actual blue-collar Midwestern locations, something it would generate much more mileage from if it weren’t just shot nondescriptly in Toronto. Like so much in Titans, the locations are meant to be grounding and perhaps to point to a seriousness of purpose, while remaining purely theoretical.
Ultimately, appropriation comes in many forms and nobody’s going to say that it’s dangerous or culturally insensitive that Titans is so aggressively affecting the superficial tropes of maturity — but nobody is going to find much here that’s authentic or earned, either.
Cast: Brenton Thwaites, Teagan Croft, Anna Diop, Ryan Potter, Minka Kelly, Alan Ritchson
Developed by: Greg Berlanti, Geoff Johns, Akiva Goldsman
Premieres: Friday (DC Universe)
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