The long-coming live-action show about the Teen Titans—and the backbone of streaming service DC Universe—Titans has the unwieldy, unenviable job of establishing a tone separate from the DCEU movies, the Arrowverse TV shows, and the DC cartoons. This ain’t Teen Titans Go! This isn’t even Teen Titans. These are some capital-S Serious teens out to prove that they matter. And after three of the first season’s 12 episodes from the doofus trifecta behind the show (Greg Berlanti, Geoff Johns, and Akiva Goldsman), I’m not convinced they do. At least, not like this.
Dick Grayson (Brenton Thwaites), a detective, has transferred from Gotham to Detroit. The psychically empowered blue-haired punk, Rachel (Teagan Croft, sadly the worst part of the show), is battling her inner demons out in the ‘burbs. While Thwaites is natural as a grumbling pretty boy who’s well-suited to suiting up as a jilted ex-sidekick, Croft struggles with making her clumsy dialogue sound like anything other than box-checking superhero factoids. Her conversational surroundings are so plot-driven that it’s like she’s riding an informative amusement park ride shouting comic book history at her. Her job is mostly to scream, serve as a plot object, and eke out each line in the same disorienting combination of tones, at once on the verge of tears and reading the words for the first time.
After Rachel suffers a loss, she hops a bus to Detroit (just a small-town girl living in a lonely world, etc) and links up with the vigilante as her inner demons threaten to become outer ones. Rachel’s powers manifest as a ghoulish, black-eyed version of herself zooming around like the janky-necked Nun or another twitchy horror monster. And yet it’s not meant to be silly. In fact, the overwhelming, comically dour mood of Titans—from its Nine Inch Nails-lite theme to the corpse-like color pallette—overpowers even its twisty narrative and myriad characters. The show is the mood, and the mood is ridiculous.
And that’s too bad, because the central relationship of the show, with Rachel emoting as hard as she can and Dick taking on the gruff patriarchal mantle left for him by Batman, is emotionally solid. But everything’s too drenched in grey to matter. When Starfire (Anna Diop) wakes up as some kind of alien Jason Bourne—slapping fools around with instinctual skills while trying to solve a plot that would be much more engaging if we didn’t already know who she is—she adds a dash of color to the proceedings. Literally, with magenta hair and a bright blue dress, there’s more color in her outfit than the rest of the series combined. A few more heroes and they might actually move from run-down Kansas all the way to Oz.
With a mood this dark, you’d think it’d be easy to break it for a moment. Yet, as in the DC films, Titans can’t crack a joke to save its life. The humorless scripts are full of winking dialogue, brooding emotions, deep-set sexism, and phenomenal stupidity. Starfire roasts a roomful of dudes so badly that they crumble to ash, but a glossy yearbook photo survives the inferno. Robin cleans blood off his batarangs (which Wikipedia assures me are named “Wing-Dings,” but that can’t be right) shirtless. A dirty cop parks his squad car right outside the hideout. Every woman is tortured, killed, or otherwise put through the ringer without characterization. So there’s the mystery of who’s after Raven, the mystery of who’s after Starfire, the mystery of why Beast Boy is stealing video games as a tiger (seriously, that’s the extent to which we see him in the first three episodes), and the mystery of why we’re bothering to put up with any of them.
Titans takes a Justice League-like approach to hero-gathering, and it’s barely better thanks to the luxury of episodes. It doesn’t jam them all into a single sitting, which would make its multi-super world-building relatively effective, if it could remember to retain the characters that it introduces. But even if the series seems to lose track of them from time to time, I liked seeing new superheroes—like couple Hawk (Alan Ritchson) and Dove (Minka Kelly), who are both quite good—crop up, get a bit of backstory, and find their place in the building hierarchy. Even if, apart from that hierarchy, the facile world seems to only be populated with victims and villains.
It’s in the fight scenes where the show gets closest to its obvious inspiration, Watchmen. With stylish, whirling choreography taking place with plenty of flashy camera moves meant for nothing more than excess, the combat is where Titans actually finds a little fun. That is, when such scenes are lit well enough to see what’s happening. The quick-cut violence is just nasty enough that it’s hard to look away, while it’s also excessive enough to question the line between antihero and supervillain. As far as I’m concerned, I’d much rather my superheroes be cringey showboats than utter downers. The ludicrous cruelty might appall me, but at least it doesn’t bore me and appall me. And during the minor-key cover song in a movie trailer that is Titans, that’s the best you can hope for.
Titans premieres Friday, Oct. 12 on DC Universe.
Jacob Oller is a writer and film critic whose writing has appeared in The Guardian, Playboy, Roger Ebert, Film School Rejects, Chicagoist, Vague Visages, and other publications. He lives in Chicago, plays Dungeons and Dragons, and struggles not to kill his two cats daily. You can follow him on Twitter here: @jacoboller.