In April of 1940, about a year after the debut of arguably their most popular character, Bruce Wayne/Batman, DC Comics debuted “the sensational find of [that year]”, Dick Grayson/Robin. Since then, Batman’s pixie-boots-wearing partner has changed outfits and a number of different characters have assumed the mantle as the Dynamic Duo of Batman and Robin have become an iconic staple of DC Comics. Considering my fondness for the character and those who assumed the mantle over the years, what better way to celebrate this dynamic debut than to dedicate an entire month to celebrating the character?
Air Date: 12 October 2018 to 21 December 2018
UK Network: Netflix
Original Network: DC Universe
Stars: Brenton Thwaites, Teagan Croft, Anna Diop, Ryan Potter, Alan Ritchson, Minka Kelly, and Curran Walters
In July of 1964, the sidekicks of DC Comics’ most powerful superheroes came together under the leadership of Dick Grayson/Robin to form the Teen Titans, a crimefighting group of teenagers who were designed to better appeal to younger readers. Since then, the group has undergone many changes, with runs by the likes of Marv Wolfman and George George Pérez being notably influential, and the team has seen success in a number of animated ventures.
Development of a live-action adaption was first announced in 2014; the series, which would have aired on TNT, never came to fruition but the concept was resurrected to produce content for DC Universe, DC’s now-defunct video-on-demand streaming service. Separate from the ongoing “Arrowverse” continuity, Titans got off to a bit of a bad start due to the violent and adult nature of the show and was criticised for its abrupt cliffhanger ending after the true season finale was pulled to become the first episode of the second series. Regardless (and despite the vitriol I often see towards the show on my Twitter feed), Titans impressed enough to earn subsequent seasons, inspired a spin-off show, and was even acknowledged as being adjacent to the Arrowverse during the Crisis on Infinite Earths crossover event (Various, 2019 to 2020).
Dick Grayson/Robin (Thwaites), who is attempting to make a name for himself outside of Bruce Wayne/Batman’s (Alain Moussi/Maxime Savaria) shadow, works as a police detective by day and violent vigilante by night. When the mysterious Rachel Roth/Raven (Croft) comes to him for protection against the dangerous forces pursuing her, Dick finds himself joining forces with not only similarly confused and superpowered misfits but also his former Titans teammates to combat a threat to the entire world.
Unsurprisingly, much of Titans’ plot revolves around Dick Grayson, who now works as a police detective in Detroit; trying to make a name for himself as a solo act, he is very much against being partnered up with anyone, even within his own department, which makes him somewhat cold and rude towards his new partner, Amy Rohrbach (Lindsey Gort). Dick uses the information and resources of the Detroit police department to track down criminals and bring them to justice as Robin; while the scum he targets immediately dismiss him and are more concerned about Batman, they quickly regret it when faced with Robin’s ferocity and his presence concerns his superior (and the mayor).
Dick reveals to Amy that he and his former partner disagreed on the way to go about their work; initially, Dick admired him and saw him as a hero, just like everyone else, but chose to walk away when he saw that he (Dick) was becoming too much like him. Clearly, he’s talking about Batman and this is a recurring theme throughout the show; a much darker and more violent figure, his vicious nature is augmented by his great physical skill and Batman’s training, making him a formidable and well-training combatant who is easily able to take on groups of armed men. Dick isn’t adverse to using knives, guns, and whatever means necessary (even appearing to fatally wound some thugs) to put a beating on lowlifes and seems to both revel in, and be disgusted by, his violent impulses.
However, as meticulous and skilled as he is, he’s still vulnerable and carries the results of his actions on his body in the forms of bruises, cuts, and scars; his primary motivation, as Robin and as a police detective, is to help out troubled kids and youngsters targeted by criminals. This naturally leads to him to Rachel, who is clearly framed as the audience surrogate right from the start (her nightmares of Haley’s Circus show her (and us) Dick’s origins as a trapeze artist and the tragic death of his parents) and is our unknown, confused, window into this world of costumes and masks. Such nightmares are a regular occurrence for her that, despite her mother Melissa’s (Sherilyn Fenn) best efforts, continue to torment and frighten Rachel; Rachel, clearly influenced by some dark power, is an empath and can sense a great fear emanating from her deeply religious mother.
An outcast at school, Rachel’s fears and confusion lead her to sporadic outbursts of aggression, often accompanied by a dark reflection of herself and a shadowy, ethereal aura. When a mysterious man forces Melissa to reveal that she’s not Rachel’s actual mother and then brutally murders her right in front of Rachel’s eyes, she goes on the run and, driven by her nightmares, heads to Detroit to track down Dick Grayson for help. Though she fears her dark half, which encourages both violence and the need to kill, it acts primarily to protect her from lies and deceit, which allows her to escape from some suspicious types and end up right where she needs to be: police custody. Dick’s relationship with Rachel is a pivotal aspect of Titans; at first, though driven to help her, he plans to leave her in the care of others (with a payoff to sweeten the deal) since he feels that he’s damaged after what Bruce trained him to become. While his mindset soon changes and he becomes fiercely protective of her, she forms a bond out of necessity with Kory Anders (Diop) when her trust in Dick is shaken. A mysterious and enigmatic young woman suffering from amnesia, Kory’s relationship with Rachel is based as much on necessity as Rachel’s inability to feel anything from Kory, who is inexplicably able to read and speak foreign languages and wields an equally destructive power.
Desperate to unlock her memories and find out who she really is, and believing that Rachel is the key to her true identity, Kory uncovers evidence linking Rachel to an apocalyptic prophecy concerning ravens and a vast underworld conspiracy involving the convent where Rachel was raised. However, while Sister Catherine (Meagen Fay) immediately recognises them both and reveals some scant information on Rachel’s childhood and Kory’s mission to track her down, she quickly drugs Rachel and locks her in the convent’s basement in order to hide her from “him”. Rachel’s dark half manifests and, after tormenting her with taunts, empowers her to escape from her confinement and out into the nearby forest.
Scared and alone, she crosses paths with Gar Logan/Beast Boy (Potter), a green-haired boy who can transform into a disappointingly rendered CGI tiger. Obsessed with pop culture, movies, videogames, and geek culture, Gar is an awkward, quirky outcast who sees a kindred spirit in Rachel and who desires to explore the outside world and, in an effort to connect with her, brings Rachel to the manor house he shares with his fellow misfits, the Doom Patrol: Cliff Steel/Robotman (Jake Michaels and Brendan Fraser), Larry Trainor/Negative Man (Dwain Murphy and Matt Bomer), and Rita Farr/Elasti-Woman (April Bowlby). Each of them, like Gar, was involved in some kind of hideous accident that left them near death only to be saved (and horrifically changed) through the innovation and genius of the mysterious Niles Caulder/The Chief (Bruno Bichir). Rachel finally feels a sense of belonging amongst these freaks and outcasts, each of whom reflect the complex nature of her own self and dark powers: hidden behind his bandages, Larry is unable to reveal himself because of the destructive nature of his condition, Cliff is robbed of the trivial pleasures we all take for granted, and Rita is barely able to hold herself together to appear normal.
The Chief, however, is angered that Gar threatened their sanctity by leaving the house and bringing an outsider amongst them; despite a glimmer of a threatening, dubious nature, the Doom Patrol are all incredibly thankful and loyal to him for saving their lives and willingly allow the Chief to run his experiments in order to advance the betterment of human lives. The Chief promises that he can also help Rachel and her condition as well but, while she initially allows him to run some tests, she almost immediately changes her mind and grows scared. Although Gar tries to help her, the Chief tranquilises him and, angered by this, Rachel’s dark half manifests as a swirling dark liquid that attacks and paralyses him and frees her. Dick and Kory arrive just in time and Dick is able to talk Rachel down and promises to help her, reuniting them once more. Encouraged by Cliff, Gar goes with them to live a life outside of the mansion, setting the team up for their own strangely unrelated spin-off.
Not that Dick is without his allies as well; initially, he plans to leave Rachel with Hank Hall/Hawk (Ritchson) and Dawn Granger/Dove (Kelly) in Washington, two of his former Titans allies who continue to operate as costumed vigilantes. As damaged as Dick is, Hank is equally traumatised by his past when, as a young boy (Tait Blum), he was sexually abused by his football coach to spare his younger half-brother Don (Jayden Marine). As teenagers, Hank and Don (Elliot Knight) became the first Hawk and Dove to specifically target sex offenders and to give Hank an outlet for his anger but Hank’s world was shattered when Don was killed in a random car accident. This same accident also took the life of Dawn’s mother, Marie (Marina Sirtis), and, in time, the two form a bond over their shared grief and need for an outlet for their unresolved issues. After she discovers Hank’s makeshift Hawk gear, Hank finally opens up about the abuse he suffered as a child and, together, they bring justice to his abuser and become the new Hawk and Dove.
By the time of Titans, however, Hank is heavily reliant upon painkillers and pills, carries multiple scars, and is in near constant pain from a lifetime of crimefighting in addition to the multiple concussions he suffered during his college football days. The two plan on retiring from their violent double life once they finish breaking up a gang of gunrunners and, though he’s stubborn and pig-headed, Dawn is clearly devoted to Hank and supportive of him despite his injuries and impotence. Flashbacks cast some light on their time together as Titans, where Dawn had a thing for Dick and Hank, being the arrogant meathead that he is, was rightly jealous and condescending towards Robin. Hank is unimpressed that Dick has come back into their lives and, resentful of Dick’s former relationship with Dawn, also has no faith or trust in Dick at all because of their past in the Titans. However, even Hank is horrified to see how brutal Robin has become as he throws his shurikens into a man’s eye, crushes another man’s balls, and viciously takes out the gun dealers before their shocked eyes, while Dawn sees a correlation between Dick’s relationship with Rachel and how Bruce helped him as a kid.
Dick is disturbed, angry, and resentful to discover that Bruce has replaced him with Jason Todd (Walters), who acts as the new Robin, a vicious and arrogant youth who revels in being Batman’s partner, basks in the upgrades in his suit compared to Dick’s, and takes a perverse pleasure in being Robin and part of Batman’s legacy (even while acknowledging that his role is mainly to draw fire away from Batman). A largely annoying and grating character without even really needing to be, Dick is annoyed when Jason reveals that Bruce implanted tracking devices into the both of them and revoked his access to his newer technology. Dick tries to send Jason back to Gotham City and discourages him from continuing his life as Robin; despite trying to convince him that Bruce’s methods and motivations are less than benign, Jason reveals that he was sent there with evidence that his old circus family has been brutally murdered to send a message to him and that someone knows his true identity.
Together, they track down the last surviving member of the circus, Clayton Williams (Lester Speight), who was like Dick’s surrogate father back in the day, who is almost immediately abducted by the perpetrator of the murders, the Phantom-like Nick Zucco (Kyle Mac), the “Melting Man” and son of gangster Tony Zucco (Richard Zeppieri), the man who killed Dick’s parents. Nick is out for revenge because Dick, as Robin, intercepted Zucco during his transfer, mercilessly beat him and left him to die (watched him, no less) at the hands of the Maroni’s and their acid-firing weapons and then murdered the rest of Nick’s family. Goaded into a trap by Nick, Robin goes to save Clayton and, thanks to Jason, is able to subdue him. When the local cops show up, though, Jason brutalises them and, seeing the darkness he fears in himself mirrored in Jason, Dick is disgusted at Jason’s attitude. Initially, Jason regards Dick with awe and respect and they form a tenuous brotherly bond but, as their relationship sours due to their conflicting methods and attitudes, this is replaced a mixture of contempt and loathing for having walked away from such a sweet gig. Dick struggles with the idea of being replaced so quickly; he doesn’t want to be Robin and is trying to step away from Bruce’s shadow and influence but doesn’t want to see another kid be turned into a weapon like he was and resents the fact that Bruce has been keeping tabs on him while simultaneously keeping him out of the loop.
When Dick finally decides to walk away from his Robin persona and burns his uniform, he seeks out another of his former Titans allies, Donna Troy/Wonder Girl (Conor Leslie). Having first met as teenage sidekicks, Dick and Donna formed the Titans back in the day and she’s one of the few people left who Dick feels will properly understand what he’s going through. Donna, now an investigative journalist, has long since walked away from her life as a costumed adventurer, Amazon, and Diana Prince/Wonder Woman’s sidekick, and is able to offer Dick some insight into what it means to redefine oneself outside of the shadow of one’s mentor and to help improve his social skills. Dick, however, finds it difficult to socialise and to keep his mind from wandering back to the “job”; despite being so composed, confident, and controlled when in the field or concentrating on superhero work, he’s a bit of a fish out of water in normal, everyday situations. His paranoia leads to him following Donna as she meets with a game hunter in pursuit of a story and disrupting her attempts to bring down a much bigger operation through his reckless attempt to take one more scumbag off the streets. Although Donna chastises him for his efforts, she encourages him to find a new path, one that isn’t Robin or Batman and is more productive than violent. Donna is also able to offer some insight into the strange text from Kory’s lockup that suggests that Kory’s true mission is actually to kill Rachel.
The intrigue regarding the true nature of Rachel’s power and destiny is a central aspect of Titans; an empath, she’s able to feel and sense the pain of those around her, is frequently tormented by her dark half (which manifests in reflective surfaces and possess her during times of great stress), but also demonstrates the ability to heal the wounds of others. Rachel is targeted by the mysterious Organisation, which is headed by the dubious Dr. Adamson (Reed Birney); Adamson activates the “Nuclear Family” (a group of brainwashed psychopaths comprised of Nuclear Dad (Jeff Clarke), Nuclear Mom (Melody Johnson), Nuclear Sis (Jeni Ross), and Nuclear Biff (Logan Thompson) and, later, Nuclear Stepdad (Zach Smadu)) to track Rachel down so that she can fulfil her destiny to “purify the world”. Disturbingly polite and unnervingly relentless, the Nuclear Family gain formidable abilities from a mysterious vitamin shot, dog the protagonists at every turn, and even put Dawn into a coma during a particularly ferocious attack. Thanks to Dick’s intervention, the team are able to subdue the family but they are killed when Adamson remote detonates the explosives in their heads though, in the process, the team are led to the asylum where Rachel’s real mother, Angela Azarath (Rachel Nichols), is being held captive.
This leads to probably the weakest episode of the season, “Asylum” (Kalymnios, 2018), which sees the team captured when they attempt to breach the facility and rescue Angela. The main reason this makes for the weakest episode is the unnecessary drama that sees Rachel and Gar head off on their own foolhardy rescue mission simply because Rachel couldn’t wait ten minutes for Dick to scope out the asylum’s defences and layout. As a result, all of them are captured and subjected to Adamson’s torturous experiments): Dick struggles to counteract Adamson’s serum, which forces him to confront his worst fears about himself and his past; Kory is locked in a dark cell that renders her powers useless and forced to endure an invasive procedure; and Gar is routinely poked with a cattle prod to provoke his transformation. Rachel is left in the disturbing company of Adamson himself, who tries to coerce her into assisting him by forcing her to watch her newfound friends suffer their individual tortures and winds up choking to death on his own blood as a result of Rachel’s unleashed wrath. Rachel then rescues her mother and teammates with a ridiculous amount of ease but Gar is left traumatised after he mauls one of his tormentors to death and this continues to haunt him throughout the remainder of the season.
A primary plot point of Titans revolves around Dick’s struggle against his violent nature; believing that Batman’s training turned him into little more than a living weapon, he reveals to Rachel that he began to fear the violence he was forced to inflict to help others and to Kory that he had to walk away from his past because he was growing dangerously close to the edge. While he hasn’t operated as Robin for at least a year by the start of the season, he vehemently opposes any machinations to turn innocent kids into weapons and, even when not in his Robin costume, Dick often struggles with his violent nature; desperate to find Rachel after she goes missing, he briefly loses control and viciously beats a hunter who spotted her in the forest in front of his child, much to Kory’s shock, and absolutely brutalises the asylum’s guards during their escape from the facility and even instructs Kory burn the entire building to the ground (presumably killing everyone left inside). His rage stems from his traumatic childhood after first witnessing the murder of his parents and then having his rage and grief turned towards costumed crimefighting by Batman. However, as violent as Dick can be, Bruce’s training also made him a competent and capable leader; when Dick, Kory, Gar, and Rachel make their new alliance official, Dick begins a training regime to teach them how to master their individual abilities and work together as a cohesive team.
All of these plot threads culminate in the season’s final episode, “Dick Grayson” (Winter, 2018); by this time, Kory’s true identity as Koriand’r of the alien world Tamaran is revealed and, with it, the knowledge that Rachel is doomed to bring her demonic father, Trigon (Seamus Dever), into being so that he can devour both of their worlds. Betrayed by Angela, who was in league with Trigon all along, Rachel is manipulated into summoning her father to save Gar’s life and, after restoring Gar, Trigon sets in motion a plot to break Rachel’s heart in order to facilitate his master plan. He does this by thrusting Dick into a dreamworld where he is happily retired and settled down with Dawn; however, his idyllic life is shattered when Jason, now confined to a wheelchair after a botched mission against Edward Nygma/The Riddler, arrives to tell him that Batman has become obsessed with killing Joker in retaliation for his torture and killing of Commissioner James Gordon. Thanks to Trigon’s influence, Dick is compelled to return to Gotham (a dreary and rainswept hellhole where crime, debauchery, and violence are rife, turning the very streets into a desolate warzone) to try and talk Bruce away from the edge.
However, despite Dick’s best efforts, Batman murders the Joker in cold blood and then goes on a killing spree throughout Arkham Asylum, killing the Riddler, Harvey Dent/Two-Face, Arnold Wesker/The Ventriloquist and many of the other guards and patients. After revealing Bruce’s identity to the authorities, Dick directs a SWAT team on an all-out assault on Wayne Manor that leaves them all slaughtered at Batman’s hands (including Kory, thanks to Batman busting out Doctor Victor Fries/Mister Freeze’s cold gun). Enraged, Dick orders the entire mansion to be destroyed by C4 explosives and, amongst the rubble and the wreckage, he finds Batman pinned helplessly beneath the debris; driven to the edge, Dick succumbs to the darkness and, with one swift boot, murders his mentor and father figure and, in the process, falls under Trigon’s spell to end the season on a massive cliff-hanger made all the more intriguing by the brief tease of Kon-El/Superboy (Brooker Muir) in a post credits scene.
As much as I enjoy Titans (and, honestly, I really do, being a big fan of Robin and happy to see him actually get some acknowledgement and spotlight in live-action for a change), there are a couple of things that I find more than a little disappointing about it. Like many, I was a bit perturbed by Robin’s “Fuck Batman!” line and, while the violence and swearing was entertaining and brutal throughout the show, I do question if it’s really necessary in superhero adaptations that aren’t traditionally violent characters, like Frank Castle/The Punisher or Wade Wilson/Deadpool. Next is the fact that it exists in its own continuity separate from both the DC movies and television shows and this is a shame as it could easily have bridged to the Arrowverse by including Wally West/Kid Flash (Keiynan Lonsdale) or even been adjacent to the DC Extended Universe by including a cameo by Jeremy Irons as Alfred. Titans’ position as a separate, unrelated continuity was solidified in the second season, which upgraded Bruce Wayne from a mere cameo and into a fully realised (and surprisingly old) character played by Iain Glen.
However, Titans excels in both casting and costume design; Brenton Thwaites is great as Dick Grayson and made for a pretty fantastic Robin and his costume, especially, is absolutely top notch in Titans. Both Robin suits look amazing and have probably the best and most practical look of any superhero show; clearly inspired by the awesome and sadly doomed suit that appeared all-too-briefly in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (Snyder, 2016) and Tim Drake’s Robin costume, their dark, gritty, armoured look enables both Robins to not only appear imposing but also move unimpeded and look like they would hold up perfectly well in a big budget film. Similarly, although he only appears very briefly in the final episode, Batman also looks particularly impressive, especially compared to his depictions in Gotham (2014 to 2019) and Batwoman (2019 to present). Referenced continuously throughout the season, Batman is built up as this elusive, near mythological figure and his brief appearance leans heavily into that; frantic editing makes him appear as a monstrous, inhuman figure and the nightmarish appearance of his suit only serves to emphasis this further.
Hawk and Dove also benefit from Titans’ high-quality costume design; though very different from my limited experience with their comic book counterparts, their heavily armoured suits look both practical and ridiculous at the same time, appearing well-worn and dangerous thanks to their sharp appendages. However, it goes a bit downhill once we get to Kory; for the most part, she’s serviceable enough despite being a far more promiscuous and forthright character than in most interpretations, but her outfits are limited to tight fitting dresses that only somewhat recall her traditional costume. Similarly, Rachel’s not quite the sour, serious and withdrawn goth she’s usually characterised as and is, generally, portrayed as more of a confused and troubled teenager garbed in a vaguely raven-like hoody. Sadly, it’s Gar that suffers the most in Titans; of all the characters, he’s the one that sticks out the most to me as he doesn’t seem to really fit with the rest of the team and ends up being more of an afterthought most of the time. While the special effects used to bring Kory’s powers work, largely due to how infrequent and grounded they are depicted, Gar’s are pretty dreadful, making his animal forms resemble little more than cartoony creatures, which is a bit disappointing considering the quality of the special effects in the likes of Swamp Thing (2019), how impressive the CGI is in shows like The Flash (2014 to present), and the effort Titans went to the faithfully recreate the other members of the Doom Patrol.
References to the larger DC universe are prominent throughout Titans thanks to Gar, who fawns over the likes of Batman and Wonder Woman, and the fact that many characters wear Superman t-shirts. For the most part, though, Titans is concerned only with its own gritty, grounded narrative that becomes increasingly more supernatural and elaborate as the plot progresses. The show builds towards these moments over time, with both Rachel and Kory discovering the full extent of their otherworldly abilities as the season progresses, but never shying away from the more flamboyant aspects of the source material with characters like the Doom Patrol and interdimensional beings such as Trigon. Largely based on Marv Wolfman’s initial run on The New Teen Titans, Titans primarily deals with Trigon’s impending arrival through Rachel and the formation of a new version of the Titans but, for the most part, is just as much a journey of self-discovery for Dick as he struggles to define himself outside of his role as Robin. Personally, I found this the most appealing part of Titans and would have happily ditched all the other side plots and storylines to focus entirely on this one plot point but, thanks to each episode focusing on different characters and their sub-plots and building intrigue around this world and the former iteration of the Titans, I found Titans to be incredibly enjoyable and was chomping at the bit for the second season to release to see how things turned out.
What did you think to season one of Titans? Were you a fan of the season, and the show, or did its gritty, violent take on the traditionally plucky and colourful characters turn you off? Which character was your favourite and what did you think to the plots involving Dick’s struggle against his violent impulses and the mystery about Kory and Rachel? Did you enjoy the cameo appearance from the Doom Patrol and other references to DC heroes and properties? Did the climax of the season leave you wanting more or were you turned off by the concept? What did you think to the show’s portrayal of Robin, the inclusion of Jason Todd, and their costumes? Whatever your thoughts on Titans season one, feel free to leave a comment down below.