Last week Fenya and I finished watching the first season of Titans on Netflix. I tuned in more out of curiosity than desire. The New Teen Titans was one of the first comic series I collected from #1 when I was 13, and I still regard the five-year run by Marv Wolfman and George Perez in pretty high regard.
Seeing the clips and ads from the new show made it clear they were not taking it in a G-rated direction; a brutal fight scene centred around Batman's former sidekick ends with Robin saying "F**K Batman," to no one in particular. Now, I freely support people making adaptations to tweak characters to suit the needs of their story or medium, but this seemed like not only a massive departure from established canon, but also a somewhat contrived maneuver to demonstrate that Titans had "edge," and in spades. With this in mind, I tried to keep an open mind when watching the first few episodes.
And am I ever glad I did.
Yes, the fights are brutal, there is a tinge more ruthlessness than I would normally appreciate in my teenaged/young adult superheroes, and there is blood, f-bombs and sexual situations that would have kept me from watching this with my offspring not that long ago. (Well, at least it feels like not that long ago.)
But Titans has struck a great balance between the mediums of comic books and premium television, feeling neither too fantastic nor restrictively realistic or "grounded," created intriguing characters with complicated motivations, and a narrative pace that feels almost relentless, at least for the first seven of the eleven episodes. In short, it takes a similar approach to these DC characters the way that Netflix did with the Marvel characters...and does it better.
All of the characters are haunted in some fashion: Raven presents like someone suffering from spiritual possession and has a (literally) darker self that terrifies her, Starfire is an impulsive amnesiac, Beast Boy's adoptive family situation is complicated because they are the Doom Patrol (one of the strangest teams in comics, and getting their own spin-off show), while Robin is fearful that his masked identity is enabling more and more violent behaviour on his part.
Not everyone has a costume, per se, but the showrunners have been very clever in having the wardrobes reflect the source material. Starfire, for instance, can almost always be found wearing purple, a metallic-looking dress being her principle look in the early episodes. Beast Boy's red and white leather jacket hearkens back to the comics uniform of the Doom Patrol, while not sticking out in crowd scenes.
On the other hand, Robin's costume is reimagined in a more tactical sense, serving principally as body armour, but still very close to the comics. I was delighted to see they kept the yellow lining of his cape, even if it is a bit muted. And no, he hasn't worn shorts for decades now. Lesser known characters Hawk and Dove also have brilliant, comics-accurate costumes that are a bit harder to justify from a practicality standpoint, but let's make it clear that I don't really care - they look like they ought to, and they don't look silly in motion. Titans leans into their source material instead of being embarrassed about it.
They also didn't wait too long to introduce some appropriately powered nemeses in the form of the Nuclear Family, amped up assassins masquerading as a stereotypical household of yesteryear.
Hints abound as to a larger DC universe within the world of Titans, with references to other characters like Superman and Wonder Woman. Midway through the series, Robin is disappointed to discover Batman has already replaced him, and that the new Robin has actually driven the Batmobile.
All of it goes to making this a comic book show that feels like it came from the comics without being the comics; hence the edge.
I questioned the need for so much edginess in the promo stuff, but I get it now - it's the Miley Cyrus Effect, a theory I have about a notorious pop culture transformation. Miley Cyrus was a former child actress and singer who wanted to continue performing as an adult, but feared being haunted by her wholesome image as Hannah Montana. Adapting a highly sexualized and provocative stage persona for a few years shocked many of her former fans, bu has enabled her to reinvent herself. Now she can look back at her potentially contrived escapades as the foibles of youth, and can now demand to be taken seriously as an adult artist, and the Hannah Montana references in her coverage are almost nonexistent.
Unlike Bill Maher (ugh), I think comics as a medium are for all ages. And not just the more literary efforts like Persepolis or Maus, but superhero comics as well. The Marvel films have proven that you can still pull great stories for adults as well as children from this source material. But far more people watch television than read comics, and that majority recall Teen Titans from a pair of goofy, child-oriented animated programs. Applying the Miley Cyrus Effect by adding blood to the fights and cursing to the dialogue allows them to state in no uncertain terms that despite almost half the main characters being minors, Titans is no kids show.
My only complaint with the program is that it feels like they let their foot off the gas, narratively speaking, in the last handful of episodes. Most of this first season hurtles along like a bullet train, and you are always compelled to wonder what's around the next bend. (If Luke Cage hadn't already been cancelled, I would have asked showrunner Cheo Hidari Coker to take notes - you can't have your main man stumbling around gutshot for a quarter of the season, man!)
But there are two sidesteps in the final handful of episodes that slow the pace significantly, one of them almost exclusively a flashback involving side characters, and the other being a - well, let's call it a hypothetical exploration with potentially concrete impacts. Here's the thing though: they are both brilliant episodes. In fact, I would say the first one is one of the best and most unconventional superhero origin stories I have ever come across. It turns out all this edge also lets Titans handle some pretty heavy topics, and it does so in a very real and human way.The theme for this season seems to be about identity, and they handle the multiple angles of "who am I?"they introduce with aplomb.
In the end, it is not important that the plots or abilities or even settings in comic book adaptations be "realistic." They were all created for a visual medium, and tv works on similar principles. What's important is that it feels realistic, and the cast make us believe that it is real to them. In that regard, Titans is firing on all cylinders, and the second season cannot get here soon enough.