Titans, my rambling review

The gang’s all here… now what?

Image: Close up of Raven from Titans

Raven. Image copyrighted by Netflix or DC comics or someone. Used without permission. Please don’t sue me.

(Spoilers up to mid season two, episode seven or so. This is not to help you decide if you want to watch it, this the kind of thing you read to see if other people noticed the same problems you did, even though you mostly like the show.)

Many shows take a season or two to figure out the direction they want to go. But I’ve rarely seen that transition happen as suddenly as with Titans.

The first season started its arc more or less on Raven. Raven, you see, is the daughter of an incredibly powerful demon named Trigon who devours whole worlds. He traverses dimensions, and whole space faring civilizations have been wiped out by him. He is a villain on a tremendous scale, a force that could be beyond the Titans ability to stop him.

Fortunately for the Titans, Trigon’s powers are so immense that they go far, far beyond this show’s budget. The writers must have eventually realized that they wouldn’t be able to afford showing Trigon doing any of the kinds of things they talked about him being able to do. It took them until the first episode of season two to correct this problem, and when they did, they bailed hard.

After a whole season of exposition of Trigon’s incredible off screen terrors, in the past, on worlds far away, they came down to the final showdown that took place inside some farm house with some family that were evil cultists or whatever. For a while, in place of a big budget spectacle, they tried to make it more personal and psychological. Raven’s newfound hero friends, that she was just beginning to trust, were infected by Trigon’s evil and she had to try and appeal to the part them deep down inside that was still good… you know how that kind of thing goes.

But, eventually Trigon prevailed to the point where he was free of some kind of limitation that kept him imprisoned inside the house or something. I got a little fuzzy on the details because it just wasn’t that interesting. But what made me laugh was that mid way through season two’s opener, Trigon walks outside his house, free to become all that was foretold, transforming as he walks across a field from a regular looking human into some kind of classic cloven hooved horned demon looking guy, and the skies darken, and the fields turn black, and it looks like maybe he’s about to unleash literal hell on this world, and then… nope. Raven just kind of suddenly ends him in under ten seconds with her vague black smokey powers. It was as if in that single moment you could hear the writers say, “ah, fuck this, it’s never going to work. Abort… Abort!!”

And they did, and for the better. Season two is much more in line with their finances. Instead of trying to fit a Trigon scale space demon into an Arrow level budget, they turned to focus instead on another classic Titans nemesis, Deathstroke. He’s just a human assassin so he won’t conjure anything to challenge the effects department, but he’s always been credible of threat because he has a level of strategizing just a bit better than the heroes. Also, the actor they have doing Deathstroke really nails the part, which helps a lot.

However, while the villain side of things has settled into the right level, the heroes are an awkward jumble of different power levels and different motifs that somehow fails to come together as successfully as previous comics and animations have, and I’m including Teen Titans, Go!

You’ve got two Robins, former sidekicks of Batman, who are kind of trying to become their own thing instead of being defined by their previous mentor. Batman is now retired or something? We see him a few times, played by Sir Friendzone from Game of Thrones, kind of just hanging out at Wayne Manor, but it’s not entirely clear what his deal is. Also, with all the other shows kicking around these days, like Batwoman, and Flash, and Black Lightning, and Supergirl, some of which are connected and other maybe not, and they’ve built into them the concept of alternate universes that sometimes they cross between, it’s hard to have a sense of what is the bigger picture of the reality any one show sits in. It’s kind of a lot to take in, to the point where I just don’t. I’m going to assume this show is its own bubble world, and here, Batman seems to just want to hang out, wearing a cravat, which is how wardrobe departments on shows tell you someone is rich.

Anyway, one of the Robins is Mature Robin, who is retired from being Robin, and apparently used to run a group called Titans back in the day, even though at the beginning of season one he was a cop and the timelines are a little fuzzy to me. In any case, he meets Raven, who clearly needs help controlling her power, so Mature Robin starts up a new Titans group to help her and the other super people he meets, and thus the show. Sometime soon, he’s probably going to debut as Nightwing, the identity he took on in the comics as a deliberate attempt to separate his personal brand from Batman. I never liked the name “Nightwing”. Even in the eighties it felt too much like a name thought up in the eighties.

They also have Other Robin, who comes later, who is a new up and coming Robin who is young and brash and arrogant, and has a face that you just want to punch. By which I mean, the actor they got is perfect. Even if you only ever just saw a still photo and knew nothing of his character, you would know he’s an arrogant, brash, douchebag that you know is going to annoy you. But annoy you in that way that’s deliberate, he’s supposed to be that character that gets on all the other characters nerves and cause friction. So, well done there, face-wise.

After meeting Raven, Mature Robin comes across Beast boy. In this show, Beast Boy only has green hair, he’s not full body green like the comics. Though to be fair, that’s probably a style decision more than a budget one, because green make up probably isn’t too much to handle, and he’s a good looking dude that they probably want to maintain as visually appealing to the audience. What is definitely a budget concern is that he can only turn into a tiger. Not a CG one, a real one that is coloured green in post. And, so far, only like, maybe three times I think? In the comics, if you weren’t aware, he can turn into any animal at all, even dinosaurs. Yeah, that’s definitely going to break the bank. As it is on the show, it leaves you wondering which is more expensive, a CGI tiger, or a real tiger on set, because it must be close given how sparing they are. I don’t think they explicitly say he can only turn into a tiger, but it feels like unless they get more popular and more funding, he’ll only turn into a tiger because even just one extra green parakeet is going to put them in the red.

I used to work in computer graphics, so I get how some effects are cheaper than others. Anything involving a recognizable creature, something that has to fit into the scene and be grounded on the floor and move logically relative to the cameras is expensive. Anything that’s just kind of random, like smoke and energy and whatnot, is cheap. So, we get to see a lot of Raven’s black evil energy deal. Which I’m happy about, Raven is one of my favourite characters from the comics and cartoons, so I have high hopes for her. She’s all Gothy. I dig it. In season one she was hitting the teenage angst notes pretty hard, but she’s leveled out for season two. The actress they have is good, kind of pretty in a conventional way that I wouldn’t have thought of when casting for Raven, but, she’s making it work. Blue hair goes a long way.

Starfire confuses me. I get why they decided to just go with someone’s natural skin colour instead of the orange-ish deal she has in the comics. The woman they have playing Starfire is more of an imposing badass than the slightly clueless-in-a-cute-way character in most other interpretations, and that’s fine. The actress pulls it off. In the first season, they gave her this outrageous tightly curled bright magenta hair, and outrageous purple hooker clothes that I felt were probably an attempt to bridge the gap between her stylized look in the comics with some kind of real world justification, but it failed wildly. Her clothes were more distracting than anything supernatural on screen. Fortunately, just as they did with Trigon, they rightly said fuck it and toned all that down in season two. She still has unnatural coloured hair, but it’s not nearly as synthetic looking and doesn’t clash so much with her skin tone, and her clothes are more stylish. So overall they’ve settled in on an image that works well enough.

But, for some reason they opted to switch up her powers so she’s more like Stephen King’s firestarter in that she, you know, starts fires. Flames shoot from her hands like flamethrowers. She’s out here shooting flames everywhere, when the comic character shoots green lasers from her hands and eyes. Why the change up?

What’s confusing about this to me is that, from everything I know, as a special effect, green lasers should be just as cheap and easy as fires, maybe even easier. Maybe they tried lasers in early tests, and it just didn’t look right? I don’t know. All I know is that having her power be based around fire really changes up the vibe of the character. Maybe I’m just hung up on the comics, but somehow none of the many other changes to this character are as jarring to me as for her power to be so different. I kind of feel like having her be a super strong flying alien with nothing shooting out of her would be better than fire. Now that I think of it, I’m not sure if she can fly in the show. I can’t recall seeing her do that. Overall, she’s more of a whole new hero than anything from the comics, and what they have is not bad, but I kind of wished there was a Starfire.

When I was growing up, reading my brother’s copies of The New Teen Titans, the main cast was Robin, Raven, Starfire, Beast Boy, and Cyborg. Cyborg is nowhere to be found in this show. Instead, he’s over on another show about a different super hero team, Doom Patrol. Doom Patrol is another comic I used to read, and it was okay, but I can not warn you enough to not watch the TV show. It is a hot pile of steaming garbage. I don’t know why Cyborg is on that show instead of this one, but whatever. So long as he’s on that show, he’s dead to me. Seriously, don’t watch Doom Patrol. I know me saying that might make you curious, and go ahead if you have the time to waste, but you’ll only come back wishing you’d heeded my warning. Sure, for the first couple of episodes it feels like maybe it could be a thing, but that turns out to be a lie.

Anyway, in place of Cyborg, they have some other characters who have been Titans at various times over the years in other incarnations. They’ve got Wonder Girl, Aqualad, and Superboy, all whom have always been, in my eyes, strange remnants from an era when DC comics thought all heroes should have alternate versions of their heroes that matched their readers ages. They’re not bad characters, per se, but they’re also just sort of weird duplicates of existing characters that always remind you of the person that they are not.

That’s not really the problem with them though. As individual characters, they’re fine. Aqualad was only around during an extended flashback, and he might be dead, so whatever. Wonder Girl is beautiful and strong in all the ways an Amazon should be The guy they have playing Superboy, in my opinion, has more of the right super person look than anyone else has had since Christopher Reeve. He’s solidly built and square jawed without looking like a gym bro.

The issue with them is something that has plagued super hero teams since long before this show came along, which is that their power levels are all so different it’s hard to see why these people would or could work together. Guys like Robin are just extra talented human martial artists, and people like Wonder Girl and Superboy are practically gods. If Wonder Girl is like Wonder Woman, then she’s immortal. Superboy, if he’s anything like the Kryptonian he was cloned from, is so over powered that he’s a deus ex machina that they’ll have to constantly write in reasons why he can’t just fix everything they need to fix in two seconds. Superboy versus Trigon makes sense, Robin versus Deathstroke makes sense, but switch those up and it feels like the levels are off. Working together, it’s hard to see exactly how they help each other.

A really strange addition to the team in this show is the crime fighting duo of Hawk and Dove. Hawk and Dove were created by Steve Ditko, who, aside from being part of the creation of Spider-man, and having come up with Dr Strange, also bought into some really stupid political ideas. You can figure out where he was at politically when I tell you that he came up with Hawk and Dove as some kind of statement on the politics of the sixties, where, getting down to it, Hawk was the guy who actually did stuff, and Dove, originally a man, was this effete loser who didn’t seem to have much reason to be part of a hero team except to provide Ditko with an opportunities to slander those damned peacenik hippies.

As years passed and the world moved on, Hawk and Dove should have been tossed aside as the anachronistic failed metaphor that they were, but somehow they lingered around, appearing here and there in different forms in different comics. So far as I know, though, they were never members of any incarnation of the Titans before. But here they are… Hawk. And Dove. The ham fisted political statement they were never good at conveying is long gone, so, what’s left? Are they Hawklike or Dovelike? Well, they both dress in these unweildy looking bird outfits, so there’s that. They don’t have special powers. Like the Robins, they’re just enthusiastic enough about fighting crime to become vigilantes, and it’s unclear why we should take them seriously as opposed to any other cosplayer at a comic con. Batman spent decades becoming the honed crime fighter that he is. These people have back stories that go back to roughly college or something. In Hawk’s case, it seems he was really good at football, so that’s the source of his talents? In any case, they might as well be called Hawk and Hawk because even though Hawk is more short tempered, Dove seems to be equally capable and as much or more into the idea of beating up criminals for fun. I’m kind of okay with them being there because Dove is played by Minka Kelly, who lines up with my male gaze quite nicely. But beyond that, their branding and image is clunky and awkward, and I don’t know if they really fit.

I don’t know if anyone fits.

This review has really just been a jumbled overview of different characters without really coalescing into anything more than a list. And that’s how the show is. It’s a collection of characters that as individuals are varying levels of compelling, but as a team, it’s hard to see the reason for them all to be sharing screen time. And unfortunately, on top of the uncertainty of how well they mesh in terms of powers, so far there hasn’t been much of any intra-character chemistry.

I think that’s usually just a function of how actors play off each other, and writers see which characters spark and then write towards that, but so far, there don’t seem to be any pairings. In the comics, Beast Boy and Raven often have an attraction, and that is a total flat line here. Starfire in most incarnations is a sex bomb and Robin is head over heels for her, but in this it’s like they’ve mutually friend zoned each other. They sort of try and make Raven a little sister to Starfire, but they share so little screen time it’s hard to believe in a bond that’s built up over texts and phone calls. Dove apparently hooked up one time with Mature Robin or something, and maybe Hawk is jealous…? There’s so little spark between Hawk, Dove, or Mature Robin that I don’t even know what might have happened, but whatever it was, it ain’t happening now.

No combination of any two characters gels to create anything more than just cuing each other for dialog. The most emotional energy so far has been between Deathstroke and whoever he faces, and that’s about it.

I like enough of the characters to keep following the show. But it’s more like looking at an interesting toy collection than following any kind of story. I just like the individuals involved, and nothing more. Maybe a cohesive story is something they’ll suddenly add in the first episode of season three.