In September 2018, DC Entertainment launched its own streaming service, DC Universe. Built as a private platform, Time Warner Media and DC Entertainment would not only be offering fans a service where they could watch DC Comics live-action movies as well as animated and live-action television series from years past but would also allow them to read digital comics and receive exclusive news updates through DC Daily. But the most attractive selling point for this first-of-its-kind platform: Original content in the form of new television series available exclusively through the DC Universe streaming service. Unveiling a very ambitious assortment of shows including a third season of the fan-beloved Young Justice which was unfortunately canceled a few years ago after a two-season run, Doom Patrol, Swamp Thing, and a Harley Quinn animated series, DC Comics fans everywhere were thrilled by this new prospect. But the show that would be leading the charge was Titans. Covering the full 11-episode first season, this review will be breaking down the series by the story, characters, production value, and it’s potential moving forward into future seasons.
The series debuted in the Fall of 2018 and is executive produced by DC Entertainment Chief Creative Officer & writing legend Geoff Johns, DC television veteran Greg Berlanti who developed the various CW TV shows, and Akiva Goldsman. If that name sounds familiar, it should as this is the same man who wrote Batman Forever, Batman & Robin, and 2005’s Constantine with Keanu Reeves. But don’t let that scare you as Titans is about as far away from Batman Forever as The Dark Knight. Taking a darker and meaner approach to this iconic team, Titans is an adrenaline shot to the heart that never lets up.
The series starts in the pilot episode aptly named “Titans” where we are first introduced to Rachel Roth. She lives with her mother in Traverse City, Michigan and is a very gothic looking teenager who has dark, supernatural abilities that she doesn’t understand and fears what she’s truly capable of. So much so that she asks her mother to lock her in her room at night while she sleeps to protect her from herself. Rachel’s life quickly comes unraveled when a mysterious figure kills her mother in front of her after forcing her to reveal that she’s not really her birth mother. Rachel escapes to Detroit where she finds Dick Grayson, a detective working with the police department and has spent the last year or two solo having decided to leave his past with Batman behind him. It’s quickly revealed how disturbingly violent Dick has become when he mercilessly takes down a group of drug dealers single-handedly as Robin, beating one within an inch of his life.
Dick is quickly entangled into Rachel’s life as he tries to help her escape the mysterious group that is looking to abduct her. When he witnesses Rachel kill a man by injecting her soul-self into him and crushing all of his internal organs, he takes her on the run to regroup. As the conspiracy continues to unfold, Dick and Rachel encounter other characters from his past including the new Robin/Jason Todd, Hawk/Hank Hall, and Dove/Dawn Granger, Beast Boy/Gar Logan, and Wonder Girl/Donna Troy. They soon meet a mysterious girl named Kori Anders/Starfire who doesn’t remember her past and possesses metahuman abilities including enhanced strength and solar-based energy blasts. In order to survive and find out why this mysterious cult is after Rachel, Dick must focus the team to work together while facing his own inner demons.
For anyone who has read the legendary 1980’s run of The New Teen Titans and Tales of the Teen Titans by Marv Wolfman and George Perez, then you can more than likely ascertain that this first season is an adaptation of the first 8 issues of their run as Rachel is revealed to be Raven, the daughter of Trigon, a demon from another dimension who is a longstanding villain of the Teen Titans and has the ability to end the entire world. Minus the addition of Kid Flash/Wally West and Cyborg/Victor Stone, the team in the television series is very similar to the original line up used in the comic series. In this regard, it’s sure to be a very exciting experience for fans to finally see these characters brought to live-action in such a realistic way.
Clocking in with an 11-episode run, the story greatly benefits from the restricted runtime. Often with the network shows such as Flash and Arrow, a 23-episode season necessitates “filler” episodes that help in dragging out the season-long arc to fill the required episodes. This is often met with restlessness and loss of interest in the fan base, but by keeping the season trim with just 11-episodes, there is no fat on this bone. The writers skillfully keep the driving narrative marching along at a brisk pace, while simultaneously introducing all of these new characters with their backstories to explain who they are to both long-time fans and newcomers. However, it must be pointed out that even though the series succeeds in keeping your attention, it does become very formulaic by consistently having new people who find Raven, take her to where they reside, then show Dick Grayson and Kori having to track her down. This happens a couple of times throughout the season with a rogue police officer, Starfire, the Doom Patrol, the Nuclear Family, and the Cult of Trigon.
Overall, the storytelling is very tight and compelling, guaranteed to keep your attention and get you invested in these characters while moving the plot forward. It would have been better to see more sequences where the team comes together to fight as a single unit but does not fall short in providing good character building moments of dialogue and interactions. This first season certainly feels more focused on establishing these characters and their world and less on the action spectacle that most superhero team-up shows attempt to go for.
While the season-long arc of Titans focuses on Raven and her role in Trigon’s plans, the clear star of the series is Dick Grayson/Robin played by Brenton Thwaites. Coming into the series, many were skeptical of how this interpretation of the character would be received. When they released the first trailer, fans were immediately pushed out of their comfort zone when they saw how brutal this adaptation of Dick Grayson was, but also by his simple statement of “F*&^ Batman.” If this is shocking to you, then brace yourself because this series makes a regular habit of using colorful vulgarities throughout the season, clearly aiming to capture the attention of the more mature audiences.
Brenton does a good job of physically embodying the character and certainly looks the part when he’s suited up as Robin. The costume is very well realized and is an amalgam of the classic Tim Drake suit from 90’s comics and the more recent DCEU movie costumes worn by Batman. He brings the leadership and impressive combat skills from the comics, but I would argue that he lacks a lot of the humor and charm that has been synonymous with the character for decades. I understand that his more serious approach is reflective of where this Dick Grayson is in his life and trying to overcome the intense violence and anger he feels when he’s in the costume, but as he even mentions in the season finale “Bruce doesn’t have a conscience, he has a code. I was the conscience.” It shows me that they fundamentally understand the character, but decided to go with this darker interpretation. I think given a second season and more time to grow, Brenton can eventually evolve his character to more accurately reflect what we see in the books.
Rachel Roth/Raven is played by Teagan Croft, who is still a fresh face in the industry. She does a great job of humanizing the character of Raven and getting the audience on her side as we travel with her in uncovering her origins and discovering the darker purpose she is destined to serve in Trigon’s plans. She never wears an actual costume but does sport a unique hood that is very reminiscent of her cloak in the comics. Her powers are also very brilliantly realized in live-action in how they show Raven’s soul-self and just how powerful she is. I was most particularly impressed with the effect they did whenever she peers into reflective surfaces and she is confronted by her darker self. Not only does it look cool and a horror movie element, but it gives Teangan a great opportunity to flex her acting chops and gives her the broadest range to play out of the entire cast.
Kori Anders/Koriand’r/Starfire is played by Anna Diop. From the moment she first appears on screen, she just oozes badassery. At no point does she go for any cliché shortcuts to prove herself to be a strong female character, nor is she ever objectified to be a sex symbol or something to chase after for male characters. Instead, we are along for the ride with her as she works to piece together her fractured memories and learn where her powers come from and why she and Raven are linked. The closest parallel I could draw would be to say it’s like The Bourne Identity if Jason Bourne had superpowers. Starfire’s powers are brilliantly brought to life through stunning visual effects. Everything from her green glowing eyes, flame-like hair, and the fire-based energy blasts she emits, this is very much the Starfire we know from the comics and not the more recent anime-styled animated series. I was most pleased that they added in the additional effect of showing how the solar energy pulses beneath her skin as it adds another level to creating the realism of this character.
Last, but certainly not least is Gar Logan/Beast Boy played by Ryan Potter. Ryan masterfully interprets the character from the pages of the comics, capturing the fun-loving and humorous personality of Beast Boy. If Robin is the brains of the team, Starfire is the muscle, and Raven is the soul, then Beast Boy is most definitely the heart. His personality and genuine caring for the other members of the team acts as the glue that keeps the team together. His powers are also well done through visual effects as we get to see how he shifts from human form into a tiger. The biggest complaint will likely be that we only ever see him transform into one animal (a tiger), but he still seems relatively new and inexperienced to his powers, so this may play into his growth as a character in later seasons. It’s true that he does not have the green skin while he’s in human form, but that becomes less bothersome as you start to realize how he perfectly captures all of the other aspects of the character in the season.
One of the biggest treats for DC fans in this show is the revolving door of supporting characters that jump in periodically. Hawk and Dove are very well performed by Smallville alum Alan Ritchson as Hank Hall and Minka Kelly as Dawn Granger. We also get to see Jason Todd/Robin played by Curran Walters when he steps in for 2 episodes to meet Dick Grayson and help him solve a case involving Haley’s Circus. We’re also treated to the first appearance of the Doom Patrol and the involvement of Wonder Girl/Donna Troy towards the end of the season played by Conor Leslie. Looking through this impressive roster of characters that appear throughout the first season, this is an all you can eat buffet for seasoned DC Comics fans who will no doubt enjoy seeing these characters brought to live-action for the first time in a way that is very loyal to their comic book counterparts.
Filmed in Canada, Titans brings a very real-world aesthetic to the small screen series. You very much feel that you are seeing these characters inhabit real spaces and not sets or soundstages as we often do on network shows such as Arrow, Flash, Supergirl, or Legends of Tomorrow. To draw a comparison, Titans feels like it has taken a page out of the Marvel Netflix shows playbooks and brought a real honesty and realism to the characters and their world as we’ve seen with Netflix’s Daredevil, The Punisher, and The Defenders.
As mentioned previously, established characters/heroes such as Robin, Hawk, Dove, and Jason Todd’s Robin all have legitimate costumes. Designed by Joyce Schure (The Boys, 12 Monkeys) and Laura Jean Shannon (Iron Man, Scott Pilgrim vs The World, Blade Trinity), the costumes are very well realized and representative of the comics. You can very much look at them and know who you’re seeing on screen as they are all very comic book-accurate, especially Hawk and Dove. The suits bring a level of real-world functionality and purpose with the flair and presentation of the comics.
The biggest plus for Titans is the fact that it’s shot on location. By shooting on real streets and in existing locations, the series holds a level of reality and believability. Some sets were constructed on sound stages, such as some interiors of Wayne Manor and the Batcave, but that was about it. Not to keep drawing comparisons, but this is very similar to the Marvel Netflix shows as all of those series were shot predominantly on real locations to bring the city of New York to life and make it another character in the cast. Titans achieves this, as well, giving us all the sense that the heroes are really on the run and visiting all these places, giving the audience the sense that they’re on this journey with them. It also eliminates the cliché that many other shows have where you set up a specific set location for exposition. For example, The Flash uses the command center in STAR Labs and Arrow uses the bunker as a space for the characters to unload exposition. This is not the case in Titans, so the scenes feel much more organic and real to the point where you don’t feel like you’re watching a television show.
Where the series could benefit from some improvement is in the fight sequences. This will prove to be a tad challenging in future seasons as the vast majority of the characters are superpowered and require expensive effects. As we’ve seen with The Flash, effects done on a television budget don’t always possess the best quality and can come off looking rubbery and cheap. Achieving the level of scale that the original Wolfman & Perez stories had will be extremely difficult, if not impossible, for the production team, so this will prove to be an interesting challenge moving forward. I would also say that the crew should be careful when it comes to getting the other characters in costumes: They shouldn’t go the Smallville route and keep everyone in civilian clothes that match the colors of their comic counterparts for very long, nor should they go over the top as they’ve done with the CW shows as many of those more recent costumes have received poor reactions from fans for being a bit cheesy and campy looking.
Overall, the production value of Titans is comparable to that of a Netflix or Amazon television series, but would greatly benefit from an infusion of more team-based action sequences and a little more presence of visual effects. With a second season being inevitable, I’m sure they will get an increase in the budget and will be able to achieve more as the series develops.
POTENTIAL MOVING FORWARD:
Season one of Titans was a very strong introduction to the series and the characters. They were very ambitious in rolling out this new series in a way that would attract long-time DC Comics fans as well as newcomers who had perhaps never heard of them. Where the series succeeds most is in crafting likable characters that the audience can identify with and become invested in. By realizing these characters accurately from the comics and focusing on developing them as people, you are able to create that connection with them early on.
Titans also ends with opening a whole new dimension (quite literally) to the universe that these characters exist in. The stakes are raised to such a point where you question how the team will be able to react and overcome the adversity set before them. The season finale ends where the pilot episode began in that Robin and Raven very much take the priority of the narrative, with the supporting characters such as Starfire, Beast Boy, and Donna Troy being sidelined. Many fans may take issue with this, however, I feel it was ultimately a wise decision on the part of the writers as it creates a sense of continuity and consistency for the audience to finish the season-long arc in the same way it was started. It is also well-positioned to open the story up to a wider team effort in the season 2 premiere to deal with the outfall from Trigon and the hint of a presence from a certain Kryptonian courtesy of CADMUS Labs come this Fall.
4 OUT OF 5 STARS
Titans is certainly worth your time if you’re a fan of comic book movies and television shows. It’s very entertaining and well crafted, and best of all it’s a short run that a viewer can enjoy without necessitating a huge time commitment. You can comfortably work your way through the series in a matter of 2-3 days.
What this will ultimately come down to is HOW you choose to watch it. Many casual fans may find it difficult to justify paying $75 for the year to the DC Universe subscription, but if you feel that you would be intrigued enough to see their other original content such as Young Justice: Outsiders and Doom Patrol, then the subscription is definitely worth the fee as it comes out to less than $7 per month. With that, you’ll also get access to all their other movies, TV shows, animated series, animated movies, and a vast library of 20,000+ comics. However, if you feel that Titans is the only series you find yourself having any interest in, then the price of $25 on iTunes is a good investment as you not only get the 11 episodes, but you also get a good 40-minutes worth of extra features.
If you’ve been on the fence about subscribing to DC Universe, I hope this review helps you to make a choice. I think this plus the other original content is well worth the subscription fee and you get access to so much more. Ultimately, I look forward to seeing the progression of Titans and of the platform moving forward.