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Titans 1.1 Review – ‘Titans’

October 12, 2018 | Posted by Jeremy Thomas
Titans Robin Dick Grayson
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Titans 1.1 Review – ‘Titans’  

[Warning: spoilers abound for those who have not seen Friday’s season premiere of Titans.]

“Fuck Batman!” That’s the general gist of what most people have been thinking about when Titans comes to mind. Since the trailer dropped for the DC Universe series in July, Robin’s F-bomb has become a meme-worthy event. For some, it’s emblematic of what many considered to be wrong with the trailer. It was too dark, too DCEU-ish, and made Robin look like a teenage edgelord. Dove was drawing blood. Starfire looked she may have been a prostitute. And that’s just a small smattering of the negative reactions. Obviously not all the reactions were bad, but some of those who didn’t like it spoke up in very, very loud voices.

Now that Titans has finally arrived — its first episode has just released — fans finally get to see if the infamous line is everything they feared. The answer is…well, yes and no. The first episode certainly sets a dark tone, and Robin is a pretty violent dude. I imagine there are some that will take issue with his characterization, and I get it. But there is a lot more in the first episode of this series to really dig into…even as it falls prey to some of the common pitfalls of pilot episodes.

Titans Raven

Pilot episodes are tricky things, and they have to be viewed within that context. In a pilot, showrunners have to conceptualize the series in a way that sells it to executives. That often means a lot of exposition gets thrown in and plot gets rushed. Characterization is a snapshot without going too deep. As a result, pilots — particularly genre pilots — rarely manage to pace things well. The idea is to draw viewers in, and that doesn’t always mean the best episode right out the gate. That’s what we have here.

With “Titans” (the name of the episode as well as that of the overall series), episode writers Akiva Goldsman and Geoff Johns have a tough task to tackle. They have to put together an ensemble cast of characters and set them on course to come together. If you give equal time to all four main characters, you risk being unfocused. Instead, the trio focus on a pair to form the core in Rachel Roth (aka Raven) and Dick Grayson. Their story forms the backbone of the first episode, for better or worse.

I say “for better or worse” because this is almost certainly going to be the most polarizing aspect of the series for some. Rachel, played by Teagan Croft, is fairly faithful to the story as near as we can tell thus far. When we find her, she’s living with her mother and knows there’s something wrong with her. Her mom locks her room at night — at Rachel’s request — and keeps crucifixes nailed to the door. As Rachel’s powers threaten to emerge, her mother tries to pray. There are differences here, of course. Rachel doesn’t know about the circumstances of her birth. All she knows is that there’s something evil inside of her. And then she’s on the run, as her mother is discovered not to be her mother — and is also dead, thanks to a mysterious man on Rachel’s trail.

Titans Robin

And that brings her to Detroit, which just happens to be where Dick has moved to after breaking off with Batman and leaving Gotham. Dick is certainly an angry individual who takes it out on the group of criminals he comes across. But there’s also a certain sense to that, since he’s still dealing with breaking away from Batman. When he finally deigns to talk with his new partner Amy, he says he left Gotham because he was becoming too much like his new partner. That is very much what we see in the action scene, filtered through a younger and more angry man than Bruce Wayne when he became the bat. He doesn’t kill anyone, but there is certainly maiming. That he’s there primarily for a child abuser might make it a bit more forgivable.

And after all, that’s not all there is to Robin. Sure, he’s hurting and doing the angry young man thing. But he also cares about kids, and that gives him the in to connect with Rachel. Rachel’s seen Dick’s traumatic circus experience in dreams, so it’s not surprising they run across each other at the Detroit police station. And while Dick is skeptical at first, once Rachel shows signs of being in real trouble he is quick to try and look into the matter.

Brandon Thwaites and Teagan Croft are fine in their roles here, going through the traditional bumps and bruises of a first episode as iconic superhero characters. It doesn’t matter that Croft’s initial post-dream panic attack doesn’t quite land, or that Thwaites leans too much into the anger once or twice. They have the core of the characters down, and they work well off each other. That’s what matters the most, because if we can’t buy the early dynamic between Dick and Rachel than we can’t buy into the series yet. It helps that Dick legitimately looks like a badass in his fight scene, and that when it’s time for Rachel’s soul-self to manifest, she’s a force to be reckoned with. These are characters I can be interested in, even if they’re a little clunky right out of the gate.

Titans Kory

It also helps that Starfire is instantly an interesting, engaging character. When we first meet Anna Diop’s Kory, she is waking up in a car with amnesia in Germany, with Russian men hunting for her. Is playing the amnesia card a trope? Absolutely. But it’s one that works very well here. Kory may be a blank slate memory-wise, but she isn’t without her resources. The opening stretch of the first season isn’t a time to delve into her complicated backstory when we’re trying to build off of Rachel’s.

Instead, all Kory knows to start with is that she has gangsters hunting her down, her passport reads “Kory Anders” and she has a room key. Once she gets away from the car, her natural talents and personality kick in. And it’s a joy to see Diop work through the mystery of Kory’s most recent experiences. Kory plays the hotel staff well, then deals with the man she had tied up in her room and punches him across the room. She tracks down Konstantin Kovar. And when he tries to shoot her because she blithely told him that she doesn’t think she loved him the way he did her, her solar flare instinctively activates and flash-fries the room.

Again, this isn’t exactly the Koriand’r that comic book and animated series fans know and love. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing, either. There are plenty of elements of that Kori hidden here — apparently she had quite the appetite for partners at the hotel before she lost her memories. And her reaction to Kovar’s being livid at her is pretty great. Her storyline is the most instantly engaging here, and with a picture of Rachel and a name, she’s off to the races with plenty of reason to find the girl.

Titans Raven Dick

How well a pilot works depends on a number of factors, including its network. On a broadcast network, you need to play it safe so fans can be sure to come back for more. On places like HBO, Netflix, and other streaming services, that’s not as much of a problem. If you’re a subscriber already, you’re far more likely to watch at least a couple more episodes than you might on ad-supported TV. The creative team on this show knows this fact well, particularly Greg Berlanti. After all, you know him best as the man behind roughly 60% (no exaggeration) of The CW’s lineup.

Knowing that is part of why “Titans” is a good pilot. It seeds plenty of stuff to keep viewers curious. Do we know barely anything about anyone not named Dick, Rachel or Kory? No, not at all. Is the pacing all off? Sure. But those aren’t that important here. They’ve built a good foundation to start with, and these first three main characters are worth following for now. Much of Titans can be watched with the knowledge that the pilot is doing a lot of table-setting. Goldsman and Johns, along with director Brad Anderson, have made some bold moves in Titans’ first episode. And while they don’t hit the mark with all of them, there’s at least enough hits to make this well worth coming back for another helping.

Titans Kory Outside

Some Final Thoughts:

• Welcome to 411’s Titans reviews. I have screeners for the first three episodes so we will be at least covering them. Hopefully more are on the way, because the tonal issues with this episode aside, it’s a series I’m digging.

• Dick on his car: “Family Heirloom.” “From the circus?” “Not the one you’re thinking of.”

• We only see a brief bit of Gar (aka Beast Boy) in this epoisode, at the end. But based on this tiny bit, he’s going to be delightful.

• If the name Konstantin Kovar sounds familiar, you may be an Arrow fan. He was a major part of Arrow season five, as played by Dolph Lundgren. He was also the father of the original Starfire (a Russian cosmically-powered hero) in the comics.

• In addition to Gotham and Batman, the Joker gets a name-check here. But only in a qiuck side note.

• On a production level, this is very much in line with the Netflix Marvel shows. I’m saying that as a definite compliment.

• Next Week: Hawk and Dove! That’s not a spoiler, it’s literally the title of the episode.

The final score: review Good
The 411
While it is uneven tonally and trips itself up in the pacing, "Titans" gets its namesake series off to a surprisingly solid start. The characters are different from their source material's versions, and Robin in particular will start off polarizing to some, but the core foundation of what fans love about these characters is there. While it won't be everyone's cup of tea -- and I can tell that some fans will be livid over it -- DC Universe's first live-action series has a good foundation to build off of after its first hour.

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Titans, Titans Review, Jeremy Thomas