Back in 1980, I was twelve years old and hooked on Marvel’s Uncanny X-Men and The Avengers comics. Then writer Marv Wolfman and artist extraordinaire George Perez launched The New Teen Titans and I was hooked. I was familiar with Wolfman’s work from Tomb of Dracula, Nova, and Fantastic Four and Perez was penciling Avengers at the time, so this was a comic that may as well have been designed to draw me in from the start.
And it wasn’t just me. New Teen Titans was intended to appeal to Marvel readers, offering a new, more mature twist on the perennial teen super team. They had disbanded in Teen Titans #43 (1973) but were relaunched for a short period for issues 44-53 (1976 to 1977) in a series of stories that kept them firmly in the mainstream of the DC Universe, both stylistically and narratively.
Wolfman and Perez’s take was much more dynamic and immediately introduced new characters, Tamaranian princess Koriand’r – also known as Starfire – the mysterious empath Raven, and the angsty Cyborg, teaming them up with original members Robin, Changeling (formerly Beast Boy), Wonder Girl, and Kid Flash. They fought aliens, mercenaries, and soon were stopping an interdimensional invasion from the demonic entity Trigon (who also happened to be Raven’s dad) all in the first six issues. It was darker subject matter than the teen heroes had seen before (particularly the casual way that Starfire killed scores of aliens or Trigon murdered a child), but still presented in the more melodramatic approach that comics had back in the day (Claremont and Byrne’s Uncanny X-Men pretty much created this ongoing format and New Teen Titans exploited it perfectly).
I read it through it’s 40-issue first volume but dropped out shortly after it relaunched in a prestige format second volume.
Between then and now, the Teen Titans have been reinvented in comics over and over, but the most popular version of the team has been in the form of two animated series (and one feature film), geared at younger kids. Admittedly, they’re pretty entertaining, even to this fifty-year old ex-fan.
When the new DC Universe streaming service announced they would be producing a live-action version of the Wolfman and Perez-era Titans, I was intrigued (moreso after they announced a Doom Patrol series would be spinning off from it). Initial set shots and looks at the costuming set the internet buzzing.
And by buzzing, I mean complaining. Loudly. Mostly about the controversial look that Koriand’r (Anna Diop) sports, but also about the use of street clothes for Raven (Teagan Croft) and Beast Boy (Ryan Potter).
The first trailer didn’t really fill me with a lot of hope, emphasizing the edginess of their approach by having Robin (Brenton Thwaites) appear to be murdering criminals in a back alley, shooting them with their own guns, then breaking necks and slashing throats before angrily muttering the now infamous, “Fuck Batman” line.
The grimdark take on the character rubbed a lot of fans the wrong way and seemed to be embracing the more nihilistic – and controversial – aspects of the recent Zack Snyder version of the DC Cinematic Universe, but without the visual flair that Snyder brought to the films (spoiler alert: I hated every Snyder DC film so far). It looked overly-violent and seemed to be mischaracterizing Dick Grayson – even if he was estranged from Batman in this story. There was also concern about the pop culture rebranding of Titans given that for the past fifteen years the Teen Titans have been established for an audience of young children.
Later trailers opened up a little bit more about what the main narrative arc was going to be for this first season; focusing on Rachel Roth – Raven – and the demonic presence that lives inside her. Since Raven’s story in the comics was pretty flipping dark (despite the bright colors and overt melodrama), I was inclined to give the show the benefit of the doubt and was excited to see where it was going to go.
Directed by Brad Anderson (Session 9, Masters of Horror), the first episode of Titans leans heavily into the horror vibe, which is something I had been hoping for. It’s also very violent, but not quite as bad as the first trailer made it seem. This version of Robin has no problem brutally beating or even crippling criminals, but the overt murders from the trailer are nowhere to be seen. And even the “Fuck Batman” line resonates differently once it’s put into context. He’s not saying “Fuck Batman” with hostility toward the Dark Knight, but to establish that the criminals he just brutalized were wrong to dismiss him as no threat without Batman: essentially saying “Fuck Batman, you should be worried about me.”
It’s a subtle difference, but one I appreciated and liked. Thwaites brings a dark intensity to the roles of Dick Grayson and Robin that really works well with the mood Anderson establishes. His obsession with protecting kids is a nice touch that allows the character to play around with the borders between Batman’s approach to crimefighting and his own.
Honestly, the whole show resonates with a feel that’s much more along the lines of Christopher Nolan’s Batman films than with Snyder’s work. And while I’m not a great fan of Nolan’s work either, I’d much rather see something along those lines than the intellectually vacuous work of Snyder.
This Nolan-esque approach shouldn’t really be a surprise to anybody, since series co-creator and executive producer Greg Berlanti already went to that well when he launched Arrow over on the CW. If you remember, when that series launched, the character was an ultra-violent vigilante who eventually had to learn that murdering bad guys wasn’t always the best way to approach his craft. While Berlanti has lightened up some of his other superhero adaptations (notably, Supergirl and Legends of Tomorrow), he also has an evidenced love for darkly melodramatic adaptations of former child-oriented properties (see Riverdale and The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina).
I guess what I’m saying is that if you dig Arrow or Riverdale and are looking forward to Sabrina, Titans isn’t a great stretch beyond them in terms of adult content and violence. The language is looser, but hey, it’s a prestige format – and even Star Trek: Discovery broke the F-Bomb barrier earlier this year. It’s 2018. Saying “fuck” ain’t no thing.
But enough about Robin. The core of this story is focusing on the tortured high school experience of Rachel Roth. And when I say tortured, it’s not just because of the bullying she gets for being a weirdo goth girl. She also has horrifying nightmares (she “witnesses” the death of the Flying Graysons in our opening scene), some sort of demonic dark entity living inside her, and a mother who keeps her locked in a bedroom secured with dozens of crucifixes.
Is anybody mentioning that Sherilyn Fenn (Twin Peaks) plays Raven’s mom? Anybody?
Doesn’t matter. She’s not around for long as a mysterious character known as The Acolyte arrives and reveals that Fenn isn’t actually Rachel’s mom and then he puts a bullet in her head. Rachel escapes thanks to her dark telekinetic powers, winding up in Detroit, where she eventually crosses paths with Detective Dick Grayson.
Teagan Croft does a fine job as Rachel, balancing the innocence of an awkward teenager with the near-hysterics of blood-curdling fear. It’s interesting to note that this version of the character seems to be modeled not on the comics version or the kid-friendly animated take, but instead, the Justice League vs Teen Titans animated feature film (which coincidentally, also told the story of Trigon’s invasion of this dimension).
Running parallel to Rachel’s story is the introduction of Kory Anders, who awakens in a crashed car in Vienna, Austria, with no memory of who she is or how she got there. And before she can figure anything out, a carload of thugs shows up, guns blazing. Some sleuthing (combined with some ass-kicking) leads her to the club of gangster Konstantin Kovar (Mark Antony Krupa) – a character who showed up, caused trouble, and died in Arrow, played by Dolph Lundgren, and in the comics is the father of Russian teen superhero Red Star (who was, if you’re a fan of Easter eggs, called Starfire in his earliest appearances and co-created by Marv Wolfman).
I should note that concerns over her costume looking more like a prostitute than a hero, are misplaced. She doesn’t seem to have been on her way to 70s-themed costume party as has been mentioned among the fans, but instead is undercover in the Austrian crime scene and she fits in perfectly with the other eurotrash in Kovar’s club.
Anyway, as you can probably guess, Kory and Kovar don’t fall in love and go on a cruise. Instead, there’s more violence and the revelation that Kory’s been searching for Rachel!!! She doesn’t remember why, though, but again, Rachel is the key to this first storyline and that means more and more darkness is on the way.
Anna Diop’s performance is exactly what I was hoping for. Her expressiveness is perfect as Kory tries to figure out who she is and what she’s doing in Austria, and the way she finds herself amused and slightly entertained by her fighting skills and the appearance of her powers is a little on the frightening side. This version of Kory has no qualms about killing, which should cause quite a bit of conflict once she’s paired up Robin.
I almost forgot to mention that before everything is said and done, we do get a glimpse of Beast Boy in action, as he uses his powers to steal videogames in the form of a huge green tiger. It’s cute, but we don’t really get much more than a peek before the episode ends. Ryan Potter does seem to be having fun with the part, though. We’ll have to wait and see just how the writers manage to balance the wacky Beast Boy from the cartoons with the comics version. Or if they even try and simply give us a new take on Gar. I’m hoping they keep his ties to The Doom Patrol intact when they show up in episode five.
As for the question everybody’s been asking: Is it worth subscribing to DC Universe just to watch Titans? No. But there are tons of comics, TV shows, and movies in the streaming service to balance it out. Maybe wait until the season is over and you can binge it before Doom Patrol debuts in 2019.