In DC Universe’s Titans, Dick Grayson (Brenton Thwaites) stabs a guy in the balls with a pair of garden shears. Unfortunately, the powers that be say I have to write more than that sentence about Titans, but I do truly think every aspect of this show—its tone, its aesthetic, its story, its themes—boil down to the image of Dick Grayson, the original Robin, Boy Wonder, charming vigilante do-gooder, plunging a gardening tool into another man’s crotch. Titans is the absolute zenith of the post-Nolan, post-Dark Knight era of “mature” comic book storytelling, a show with both the grittiness and enjoyability factor of sandpaper. It’s Riverdale with zero self-awareness. Gotham without a whiff of fun. It’s Arrow if The CW allowed for gratuitous, minutes-long shots of dudes getting beaten with a stick. All put together, Titans lands just about as gracefully as The Flying Graysons.
Like that guy I mentioned above, Titans has one messed up Dick. Detective Grayson, as he calls himself these days, is estranged from his adopted Bat-father Bruce Wayne and working as a detective in Detroit. But still, he occasionally gets that spandex itch and dons his Robin duds to ruthlessly beat the stuffing out of thugs in one of the hundreds of smokey alleyways around the city. Dick’s day job leads him to Rachel (Teagan Croft), a raven-haired young girl whose mother is murdered by a doomsday cult. (We watch two sets of parents die within the first ten minutes of the pilot. Titans, baby.) The cult isn’t so much interested in Rachel as they are her inner demon alter-ego, who chides Rachel in mirror reflections and car windows, occasionally bursting out of her body in moments of fear or rage.
Meanwhile, in a completely different show, Koriand’r wakes up bloodied in a car outside Austria with no memory of who she is other than A) She has the ability to become living flame, burning people to a crisp, and B) She is searching for Rachel. If you ever wanted to watch beloved DC Comics character Starfire cut a bloody, amnesia-fueled killing spree across Central Europe, this is the portion of Titans‘ first few episodes that will interest you.
Saying that Titans has a most baffling aspect is like saying any one of the Transformers movies is the loudest, but truly, the most baffling aspect of Titans is the question of who exactly it’s for. If you’re a fan of the characters from the comics or—maybe even more likely—the animated series Teen Titans or Teen Titans Go!, I can’t see you enjoying Titans, unless you ever felt compelled to accompany these characters to therapy during their downtime. The actors are well-cast for the most part—especially Croft, who really goes for it within the Rachel/Raven dynamic—but are given nothing but sludgy, rain-cloud sadness to work with. There’s nothing wrong with a tortured superhero—see Man comma Bat—but these characters are all tortured in the exact same way. The only thing binding them together as a “team” is the fact they are sad about everything. Except, apparently, the fact they have all killed or maimed someone by episode three. No one dwells on that for long.
On the flip side, if you’re just a fan of some good old-fashioned ultra-violence and moody storytelling, this simply isn’t a well-done example of that, either. Visually, Titans‘ aesthetic ranges from unappealing to shockingly cheap. Episode two introduces DC characters Hawk (Alan Ritchson) and Dove (Minka Kelly), both wearing costumes seemingly shipped in from a much wackier universe. It’s like watching the opening credits of Zack Snyder‘s Watchmen except it’s not satire. A fight scene between Robin and a few thugs—which features the now-infamous “fuck Batman” line, which Thwaites kind of nails in context—is so unintelligibly cut, they could have dropped a few shots of Danny Rand throwing baby punches and no one would have noticed. Director Brad Anderson seemingly shot the first two episodes through the lint filter you pull out of dryers, giving everything a grey, dreary feel.
Really, Titans‘ biggest failing—and biggest missed opportunity—is that it’s not any fun. I’m a huge, huge proponent for so-bad-it’s-enjoyable television. I gave a three-star review to God Friended Me, a categorically absurd television show that I had the time of my darn life watching. Titans is poorly made, acted, and written enough to be considered a “bad” show, but not nearly crazy, ambitious, or just plain weird enough to be worth it for the discussion alone. It is a slog. It is, in fact, the sloggiest slog I’ve ever slogged.
Except, of course, for Beast Boy, as played by Ryan Potter. With his green hair, retro jacket, and actual, gleeful joy at using his superpowers, Beast Boy feels warped into Titans from a completely different TV series. But here’s the thing: Beast Boy is barely in the first three episodes. It feels like creators Greg Berlanti, Geoff Johns, and Akiva Goldsman realized they had a bright spot in an unending wave of darkness and said, “Absolutely not, this is Titans.”
Which, again, is a good summation of the show as a whole. There is no time for joy on Titans. There are skulls to be bashed in. Parents to be murdered. Dicks to be garden-sheared. Scenes that make it clear that Hawk is suffering from stress-induced erectile dysfunction. (I’m sorry did I not already mention that Hawk is suffering from stress-induced erectile dysfunction?). DC must be pretty confident in Titans to make it the first show out of the gate for its streaming service. But the way I see it, the very first attempt might end up being DC Universe’s final crisis.
Titans premieres on DC Universe on Friday, October 12.