The internet let out something of a collective groan after the first trailer of DC Universe’s new live-action Titans series dropped, in large part because of the show’s dark tone and Robin’s now-infamous “fuck Batman.” But Titans is something more than yet another glimpse of a gritty, hardboiled DC Elseworld. It’s a story about the kinds of foundational traumas that often push people to become heroic vigilantes and the myriad ugly realities that come along with that path in life.
Even though Titans borrows a number of key narrative elements from DC’s comics, it’s a show that assumes (for better or for worse) that you understand it’s not trying to be a live-action incarnation of the Teen Titans franchise that’s been a near-constant presence on television over the past 15 years. It’s a decidedly mature show one imagines the studio crafted with fans of Marv Wolfman and George Pérez’s The New Teen Titans in mind—fans who, looking back on the series as adults can better appreciate all of its heavy undertones and the complicated interpersonal issues its characters were dealing with at the time.
Like The New Teen Titans comic, the events of Titans are set in motion by the arrival of the powerful and misunderstood Raven, here a teenaged girl who goes by Rachel Roth (Teagan Croft). She’s haunted by a subconscious secret about herself that neither she nor her mother are fully prepared to speak to one another about. Rather than leaning into the inherently fantastical conceit of its source material, Titans instead takes the more grounded route and establishes that Rachel’s understanding of her personal demons has been influenced, at least in part, by her exposure to mainstream religion.
The Roths know that something otherworldly is lurking within Rachel—a presence that manifests itself in her reflections and compels her to commit horrific acts from time to time, but they cope with it as best as they can through uneasy silences and a fierce, almost fundamentalist belief that prayer to Christ can keep the demons at bay.
The thing inside Rachel both is and is not her. She’s unable to deduce whether it’s wholly borne of an external force manipulating her or whether, in the moments her reflection compels her to kill, she’s actually tapping into her truest self. It’s a question that keeps her in a constant state of unease, but one that she can’t really take the time to consider because the manifestation of her abilities makes her the target of a number of cults who see her as an instrumental part of their opposing ideologies. Rachel is forced to go on the run and even though she doesn’t realize it, she’s inexplicably drawn to Detroit, Michigan where detective Dick Grayson (Brenton Thwaites) has recently transferred from Gotham City.
Titans’ take on Robin is interesting because the series finds him at an important point in his life when he’s grappling with the ideological differences between himself and Batman that tore the dynamic duo apart. Titans is slow to reveal the specific nature of those differences, but it telegraphs Dick’s unsureness and instability through his present actions rather than his words. Out of context, the “fuck Batman” scene from the show’s trailer is easy to misunderstand, but it’s actually a very honest moment about the psychological place Dick is in. That extremely violent fight scene is purposefully brutal because we’re meant to understand that this Robin has serious, unaddressed anger issues—the sort that alarm witnesses and rightfully make them assume that Robin’s just another Gotham lunatic on the verge of murder.
Like Rachel, there’s a darkness in Dick that people familiar with the characters will recognize as being similar to the source of anguish that ultimately drives him to become Nightwing. Even though Dick and Rachel come from completely different worlds, they recognize themselves in one another on some level and, improbable as it is, they come to accept that fate has drawn them together for a larger, more important purpose.
It’s that same purpose that pulls the amnesiac Kory Anders (Anna Diop) out of a car wreck in a foreign land where she realizes that she’s largely unfamiliar with everything going on around her. Of all the show’s heroes, Starfire is perhaps the most difficult to adapt, if only for the fact that, in the comics, she’s not at all the kind of person you expect to see walking down a street or checking into a hotel. In lieu of comics Starfire’s bubbly naiveté, Titans’ take on the character is....bemused. She knows she’s somewhere in Germany (she also somehow speaks German), she’s got an American passport, and a group of armed thugs are hellbent on capturing her to bring her to their boss.
In contrast to the gloom and doom of Dick and Rachel’s fateful meeting, Starfire’s journey to heroism is infused with a kind of “fuck it” whimsy that acts as a welcome salve to Titans’ heaviness. Kory doesn’t know who she is or how she’s ended up in Europe, but she gradually begins to piece together the beginning of the puzzle, and it points her squarely at Rachel who, again, is a person everyone seems to need access to.
Out of its entire lead cast, Ryan Potter’s Garfield Logan (Beast Boy) gets the least screen time in Titans’ premiere and it’s perhaps for the best, as his character appears to be primed to be the team’s comic relief. He’s a teen like Rachel, he’s green-ish, and, well, he transforms into animals at will in a process that’s decidedly more visceral and painful to watch than anything you’ll ever see on Teen Titans Go!
Titans is...curious, to say the least. Again, it’s a story that is a drastic shift, tonally-speaking, from most other recent incarnations of these characters. And in the end, that’s what might make the show worth coming back to as its episodes are dropped weekly over the next few months. All of the titular Titans are on the run from forces they can’t quite comprehend, and even though none of them know it, that transience is slowly bringing them all together. Even if grimdark murderverses aren’t your thing, Titans is worth checking out because it’s trying in earnest to be something you don’t quite expect and, in a world that’s being increasingly dominated by cookie cutter, live-action comic book adaptations, it stands out.
Titans premieres October 12 on DC Universe.