Directed by various

Starring Brenton Thwaites, Anna Diop, Teagan Croft, Ryan Potter

Having left Batman’s employ due to his increasing distaste for the Dark Knight’s violent methods, Dick Grayson (Brenton Thwaites) has set up shop in Detroit, where he works as a cop by day and gets his vigilante on by night as the now former Boy Wonder, Robin.

When he crosses paths with telekinetic runaway Rachel Roth (Teagan Croft), he joins her quest to find out what happened to her missing mother, and starts to unravel the mystery of her dark, spooky powers and her dark, spooky origin. After amnesiac alien powerhouse Kory Anders/Starfire (Anna Diop) and green-tinged shapeshifter Gar Logan (Ryan Potter) come along for the ride, the makings of a pretty decent, not to say iconic, teen super team are on the table.

I won’t say that Titans is better than could have been expected, but it’s certainly better than I expected. Early promo material for the DC Universe streaming channel show (it’s on Netflix in Australia) leaned pretty heavily into the edgy and extreme, whiffing badly of the comics industry’s regrettable ’90s Dark Age – especially Dick’s much discussed “Fuck Batman!” line that the first teaser pivoted on.

The actual series is more complex and mature than the marketing might have you believe. Yes, teen angst is a big part of its genetic make up – as it should be – and yes, on multiple occasions it falls prey to the erroneous Swears + Sex = Grown Up formula, but it definitely hits more than it misses.

The cast is great, especially Thwaites. After a couple of blockbuster misfires in Gods of Egypt (still more fun than you might believe) and Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales (actually less fun on revisit), the Australian Thwaites (Son of a Gun, The Giver) has really found his feet here, giving us a pretty note-perfect adult Dick Grayson, who is struggling to establish his own identity out from under the Batwing. This Robin has the presence and gravitas needed for command, but is also plagued by the self doubt that arises from a life spent as a professional sidekick. We’ll see Robin morph into Nightwing before too long in this thing, mark my words.

The rest of the core crew are solid, and while they each get moments to shine – especially Croft as Rachel, who comics fans know as the half-demonic empath, Raven – they’re more or less pinned to one or two defining characteristics so far. Rachel is scared but brave, Kori is super-confident and cynical, Gar is glib and carefree but harbours fears about his powers (at this point he’s only changing into a green tiger, and worries that his animal instincts will overwhelm him). Each is drenched in undiscovered back story and trailing chains full of dangling plot hooks, so hopefully they’ll come more fully into focus as the show proceeds.

Titans is not part of the CW’s already established Arrowverse (Arrow, The Flash, Legends of Tomorrow, Supergirl, the upcoming Batwoman), but it s part of a superhero universe, one where Batman, Wonder Woman, and Superman all exist (off screen, more or less). When Titans takes the odd episode here and there to connect up with that wider world, the hit rate is about 50/50.

Episode four introduces us to The Doom Patrol, the band of misfit heroes made famous by Grant Morrison’s run on the title back in the day and that’s fantastic – I could watch Brendan Fraser’s Robotman and Matt Bomer’s Negative Man all day (and I will – they’re getting their own series). Doom Patrol as presented here offer a contrast to the Titans’ family of choice vibe – they’re a family of choice that doesn’t work and, as comics fans know, ultimately they didn’t have much choice in becoming a family, something hinted at by the actions of the patriarchal Dr Caulder (Bruno Bichir) in their featured episode. Similarly, when Donna Troy/Wonder Girl (Conor Leslie), retired former protege to Wonder Woman, shows up, she brings much needed character context to Dick; as an old friend and someone who knows the sidekick life, she offers advice and understanding no one else can provide.

On the other hand, Hawk (Alan Ritchson) and Dove (Minka Kelly), a dysfunctional crime-fighting couple, I could not care less about, and they get a whole episode to themselves and dominate another. Unless they’re going to connect with not only the main plot but the main emotional themes of the series down the track, their screen time is waste of time (and there’s very little wastage here – Titans is better paced than any Netflix Marvel offering).

That emotional theme is, of course, family. In its first 11 episodes, Titans explores a number of different family models and, more often than not, how they can mess you up. Rachel’s mysterious parentage, Dick’s status as both an orphan and an adoptee, and yeah, I guess, even Hawk and Dove’s co-dependent thing all feed into this central concern. At the end of the day, the Titans have chosen to become a de facto family, and the fact that the series has decided to explicitly examine what that means speaks to the quality of the writing.

The family theme extends to the series’ recurring villains. A proper examination probably lies in spoiler territory, but it’s no accident that the henchpeople doing the villaining at the coalface are The Nuclear Family, a brainwashed team of assassins who behave like a perfect mom/pop/two kids unit straight of ’50s sitcom suburbia.

Titans rejects that model outright – the surface perfection conceals unspeakable horrors of enforced conformity, sadism, and, ultimately, death. Much better is is the ramshackle support unit that Dick and the kids MacGyver together, even if it is always on the brink of collapse due to one hormonal outburst or another. (Tellingly, at another point in the narrative the team are offered a picture-perfect country house to live in – given the series’ mistrust of the obvious trappings of domesticity, you can guess how that turns out.)

All this meaty theme work is wrapped up in a slick superhero package that looks like they simply threw money at it. Titans isn’t operating at an Avengers/Aquaman budgetary level, but it feels glossy and big – there’s a geographic sprawl to the story, some thought and craft in the camera work and editing, and even the score (co-written by Clint Mansell!) is a cut above the usual capes-on-the-box fare, drawing a lot of influence from the current post-John Carpenter electronic thing. Also, the fight choreography is great, full of flips, kicks, jumps, tumbles, and all the stuff you want from your local teen vigilante team. – anyone involved in Iron Fist should be strapped down in front of Titans Ludivenko-style.

The main problem, though, is the same one that plagues all these supposedly shared-universe super series – the Shadow of the Bat. In Titans the studio mandated absence (or, y’know, near-absence – Titans has some surprises) is even more galling than in Arrow or The Flash, given that two of his sidekicks (Jason Todd shows up for a couple of eps, played as winningly cocky and borderline psychotic Curran Walters) are running around, and that the series finale takes place (kinda) in a brilliantly realised pre-apocalyptic (kinda) Gotham City.

The desire to reserve Batman for the big screen is understandable to a degree – those are potentially billion-dollar-plus movies we’re talking about, after all – but every time one of these shows dances around the idea or coyly depicts Batman or Bruce Wayne, it’s hard not to dream of a sprawling, long form Batman series with Game of Thrones money behind it. Just adapt The Long Halloween and call it a day. Still, Titans, and all these other DC series, exist in the shadow of something that hasn’t actually been made yet, and they choose to do so – which is a weird bit of creative self-sabotage. I’m not saying have Batman (or Superman or Wonder Woman) as a regular guest star – characters of that stature tend to use up all the available oxygen – but holy heck, do something.

But I’m getting away from the matter at hand, which is: is Titans worth your time? Hell yes, I’d say it is, if what you want to fill your time with is teen superhero angst with decent production values and a surprisingly bit of thematic heft. They’ll mess it up down the track – they always do – but right now this is top-tier TV superhero stuff.

TRAVIS JOHNSON

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