NOTE: Some spoilers from the first season of, “Titans” may be present in this review. That said, the review is written to accommodate those who have not yet watched the season, and as such, will avoid discussion of major story developments.
WarnerMedia’s DC Universe streaming platform is just under two years old at the time of writing, and now finds itself in a very difficult position. Despite a modest following of DC fans serving as a somewhat healthy subscriber base, and WarnerMedia’s supposed continued commitment to the platform, there seem to be a growing number of threats to DC Universe’s continued existence. Chief among these threats is the fact that, almost two years later, DC Universe remains a completely U.S.-exclusive streaming platform, with its original shows being divvied up between various channels and streamers in other regions, despite previously-announced plans to launch in other territories, including here in Canada. Compounding that issue is the fact that WarnerMedia has recently launched a second, more high-profile streaming platform, HBO Max, which now appears to be hosting all upcoming streaming-based DC shows. Ironically though, HBO Max is also U.S.-exclusive at this point, so that still doesn’t mean much for DC enthusiasts that don’t live in the U.S.
Thus, the ultimate fate of DC Universe is not particularly relevant to us Canadians at this point, especially now that DC Universe’s original series programming is doing a better job of keeping up with American episode premieres on the service here, rather than being staggered weeks, and sometimes months behind, like it was last year. Doom Patrol now airs day-and-date in Canada, Harley Quinn only has a one-day delay at this point, and while Stargirl remains without a proper Canadian distribution plan at the time of writing, it is co-hosted by (and soon fully defecting to) The CW, an American basic cable channel that even many Canadian TV packages have easy access to, once again amounting to just one day’s wait for new Stargirl episodes in Canada.
Despite this recent tightening of DC Universe programming here in the Great White North however, the streamer’s flagship live-action series, Titans still remains a strange outlier in terms of its Canadian distribution model. Titans is hosted exclusively on Netflix here in Canada, which isn’t a big deal on its own, since Netflix also serves as the proper Canadian host of two of The CW’s ongoing DC dramas at this point, The Flash and Black Lightning. It’s also difficult to argue that Titans fits right in as a Netflix Original Series for us Canadians, where it slots in comfortably alongside the streamer’s similarly-spirited, adult-oriented live-action superhero dramas from Marvel, such as Daredevil and Jessica Jones. Despite this distribution plan making sense on paper however, Titans is still horribly staggered in Canada for now, where it not only refuses to air weekly, but also drops every episode in a complete season all at once, over a month after the season has concluded in the U.S.! Not started airing! Concluded!
This is why, despite staying on top of virtually every DC Universe original series in my review coverage, Titans quickly slipped through the cracks, despite it serving as DC Universe’s flagship series in its native U.S. By the time the show’s seasons get to Canada at this point (assuming you’re not ‘cheating’ with a VPN), most Canadian DC fans have probably already pirated every episode, if not immediately shrugged at Titans’ overdue Canadian premieres, in favour of fresher shows. Frankly, the show’s handlers are to blame for that too, because Titans’ non-sensical Canadian release strategy is completely counter-intuitive. Maybe the show’s already-confirmed third season will break the pattern, who knows, even though that season is no doubt going to be considerably delayed now, including in the U.S., due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic shutting down production on it early on.
So, with that pained explanation of how Titans releases its episodes in Canada out of the way, and with DC FanDome rapidly approaching in less than a month’s time, I thought I’d double back and see what I missed. After all, Titans is one of the more popular ongoing live-action DC shows at this point, despite the initial controversy behind its tone and direction. For those unfamiliar with the property, Titans is a hard R-rated re-imagining of DC’s Teen Titans characters and their world (for reference, the show takes place in its own independent universe, specifically being set within the DC live-action multiverse’s Earth-9, according to The CW’s Crisis on Infinite Earths crossover event), headlined by Batman’s former sidekick, Dick Grayson, a.k.a. Robin. Titans’ Dick Grayson, played by Maleficent’s Brenton Thwaites, begins as a grizzled, thirtysomething detective in Detroit, Michigan, desperate to escape the shadow of his former crimefighting partner from Gotham City, who has gradually sent Dick down an unhinged path of increasingly ruthless violence. Dick’s efforts to leave the Robin mantle behind become extra complicated after a teenage girl, Rachel Roth, played by Teagan Croft, finds her way to him as well, led by visions of Dick’s haunted past, wherein he lost his parents in a circuit accident that turned out to be a mob hit.
Dick and Rachel thus drive most of the storytelling behind Titans’ first season, despite them only comprising half of the eponymous ensemble. This is a very bold choice as well, since, as characters, Dick and Rachel could not be more different in concept. Rachel has demons of her own, but in her case, they’re actually quite literal! Rachel appears to possess shady, unpredictable powers, which manifest when she becomes scared or angry. After Rachel’s adoptive mother ends up murdered by a crazed cultist as well, she and Dick both find themselves grappling with their separate torments, fleeing from pursuers of all stripes, most notably a criminal syndicate of religious fanatics, simply known as, “The Organization.” The Organization is desperate to secure Rachel, so that they can summon her demon father to Earth, in order to remake the world in darkness, along with their twisted idea of, “Freedom.”
Both Dick’s and Rachel’s storylines are separately very cool, and should prove instantly riveting to DC fans in particular. Despite that though, there are definitely points where the clashes in tone don’t get along in Titans’ first batch of episodes. Dick’s story arcs often embody a more starkly grounded, street vigilante style of drama, mixing a hard-boiled detective thriller with a violent, gritty sense of amoral character study. Rachel, meanwhile, and the over-the-top foes that hunt her, feel more distinctly comic book-y, particularly in the early episodes, where a brainwashed, quite literal ‘family’ of super-assassins pursue Rachel and her allies, who also happen to be the bizarre experiments of a mad scientist serving Rachel’s father. Needless to say, the Organization characters don’t mesh well with Robin’s storytelling at times, which seems to want to focus more on a real place of human struggle. Granted, Batman and Robin have dealt with their share of occult threats throughout decades of DC media, so it’s not completely unheard of for Robin to fight against impossibly strong killers and psychotic demon worshipers. Still, that would be easier to swallow in a series that’s not practically ashamed to have Dick embrace his career as Robin.
Further throwing ambitious ingredients into Titans’ storytelling potpourri is another lead character, Kory Anders, played by 24: Legacy’s Anna Diop, an amnesiac woman who determines that Rachel is the key to unlocking her lost memories. Kory also happens to have powers of her own, namely the ability to generate powerful, searing waves of solar-powered flames, further compounding the mystery behind her character. She thus helps to better balance Titans’ simultaneous desire to be a gritty fugitive drama and an action-packed fantasy thriller, having hands in law enforcement and organized crime, while being one of the more interesting powered personalities on offer. Kory also instantly establishes herself as a super-resourceful ass-kicker to boot, making her a great complement to Dick, when the two inevitably cross paths in the name of locating and protecting Rachel.
The remaining lead ‘Titan’ in this first season is Garfield “Gar” Logan, who, like Rachel, is a teenager in the Titans universe, played by Big Hero 6’s Ryan Potter. After being rescued from certain death by Niles Caulder, a.k.a. The Chief, the leader of another superhero group called the Doom Patrol (a separate version of the team from the one featured in DC Universe’s Doom Patrol series, which instead takes place on Earth-21, despite most of them being played by the same actors on Titans), Gar ends up with the ability to shapeshift into a green tiger, ultimately being encouraged to travel with Rachel by his former hosts. Among Titans’ four titular leads, Gar sadly ends up being the weakest and least fleshed-out in Season One, with most of his conflicts amounting to a simple distaste for violence. Gar, better known by his DC Comics identity, Beast Boy, is a character that’s rich with narrative possibilities from his many turns in other DC media, but Titans nonetheless seems to be treating him as a benchwarmer character in its first season, with Gar simply being present as a lead because the main ensemble wouldn’t feel complete without him.
Speaking of completion, Titans’ supporting ensemble also gets pretty packed right from Season One, with several episodes introducing key members of the Titans to help serve various narratives among the show’s lead characters. The most frequent of these supporting ‘Titans’ are Hank Hall and Dawn Granger, a.k.a. Hawk and Dove, played by Alan Ritchson and Minka Kelly, respectively, old friends of Dick’s that end up being dramatically caught up in the hunt for Rachel. Hank and Dawn are even more obvious benchwarmer characters than Gar, taking up entire episodes practically to themselves in a couple of instances, despite their story arc ultimately being completely sidelined after an initial battle against the Organization goes badly. Likewise, Wonder Woman sidekick, Donna Troy shows up later in the season, as easily the best supporting character in Titans’ first batch of eleven episodes. Donna interestingly works as a world-famous photographer, journalist and artist in the Titans universe, currently serving as the ideal model of transitioning from superhero life to civilian life for Dick, even as Dick’s presence yet again draws Donna into a battle that necessitates her Amazon resources.
Titans’ first season can be a bit of a mess at worst, especially with so many characters fighting for attention, but fortunately, the show definitely isn’t wanting for polish. Despite its noticeably low budget, Titans is incredibly well-shot right from the jump, sporting a brooding, perpetually uncomfortable tone that does a better job uniting the various characters’ separate agendas than the writing sometimes does. Likewise, the show’s action scenes are incredibly intense, often hitting with surprising brutality! Characters bleed quite a lot when they take hits, and while there is some camera trickery to get around effects limitations here and there, most of Titans’ action beats are pretty top-notch, even giving The CW’s Arrow a run for its money when it comes to tight, expertly-choreographed fight sequences! The commendable emphasis on hand-to-hand stunt work is all the better, with Titans ultimately using its superpowers sparingly (possibly out of necessity), thus allowing its action sequences to feel all the more gripping, rather than a mess of half-baked CGI that would have just done a disservice to the show’s noticeably dark style.
In the end though, all the polish in the world can’t necessarily make up for bad writing, a problem that Titans largely manages to avoid, to its credit, even when it gets a little confused about what exactly it wants to be. The story focus can be a little scattered, especially early in this first season, but once Titans begins to nail down its ensemble dynamic in the season’s latter half, it becomes a little more consistent in its direction. Even then though, Season One’s strange episode order is a bit of a head-scratcher. Originally commissioned for twelve episodes, Titans’ first season inexplicably had its planned season finale lopped off of it during production, which was instead retooled into becoming the Season Two premiere. This leaves Season One ending on a rather bizarre and frustrating cliffhanger, a problem that’s thankfully not as severe now, with Titans’ second season also readily available even on Canadian Netflix at this point, let alone the American DC Universe platform. Still, strange storytelling decisions like this do crop up every now and again, especially when Titans’ first season sometimes has a bad habit of not fleshing out its ensemble all that evenly or organically.
Despite its handful of passing frustrations though, Titans’ first season nonetheless ends up being pretty good overall, even with its occasional narrative missteps and frequent tonal confusion. The series’ first episodes are well-polished, and defy their low budget with a commendable commitment to sharp, surprisingly intense combat, along with a boldly gritty, adult-oriented presentation. The lead characters are great for the most part as well, even with Dick, Rachel and Kory occupying the most story emphasis in Titans’ first season, leaving the other key characters struggling to keep up. Still, as a flagship series for DC Universe in the U.S., as well as another adult-oriented superhero series for Netflix here in Canada, Titans ends up being a solid offering from the get-go, setting a bold new precedent for more harsh, R-rated re-imaginings of otherwise wholesome DC characters, while still managing to make that ambition work more often than not. Titans definitely doesn’t represent these characters as we’ve mostly frequently come to know them in other DC media, but it’s certainly not a failed experiment either, even if it is still perfecting its recipe in Season One.
- Appealing lead ensemble that nicely re-interprets their DC inspirations
- Intense, well-choreographed action scenes
- Sharp, polished presentation that defies budget constraints
- Excessively scattered storytelling
- Frequent tonal confusion
- Season ends on a bizarre cliffhanger