This is a spoiler-free review of Season 1, episode 1 of DC Universe’s Titans. Above, check out our spoiler-filled interview with star Brenton Thwaites as he breaks down what happened in the series premiere.

Titans immediately grabbed our attention when it debuted its first trailer at San Diego Comic-Con – mainly because it saw Robin (Brenton Thwaites), the most loyal and idealistic of superhero sidekicks, muttering “F*** Batman,” with his face covered in blood.

It was a bold statement about the kind of show Titans was aiming to be – the first in an ambitious slate of original programming for the DC Universe streaming service, which will also include Doom Patrol, Swamp Thing, Stargirl, and an animated adult Harley Quinn comedy – and the series premiere doubles down on that attitude. If you thought Arrow was a dark look at crimefighting when it first debuted, Titans is here to remind you that this sure as hell isn’t a CW show: Robin isn’t just a potty-mouth, he’s taken his cues from the Batfleck school of vigilantism and isn’t afraid to maim criminals to prove a point – and if you don’t cringe at some of his methods, you’ve got a strong stomach.

Titans doesn’t have the same grimdark tone that has divided critics over DC’s recent movie offerings – there’s definite humor here, much of it charming and self-aware, but the violence does feel gratuitous at times, with a “look, ma – no broadcast standards and practices!” approach that comes across as more distracting than the producers perhaps intended. Just because we can see someone’s grey matter being splattered all over the floor on a streaming show, doesn’t necessarily mean we need to. The violence is certainly indicative of Dick Grayson’s headspace after splitting from Batman, and it’s clear that he’s bothered by those tendencies, but there’s a point when character-driven brutality tips into gross-out territory, and it’s a line that Titans struggles to find in the first three episodes sent to critics. In places, it’s even more extreme than Netflix’s Daredevil and Punisher, which is saying a lot – but that admittedly might be a selling point for some viewers.

The show opens from the perspective of troubled Michigan teen Rachel Roth (aka Raven), whose inner darkness is both a source of protection and a curse. She has an inexplicable connection to Dick – having dreams about his parents’ Big Top deaths without any context about who he is – and it’s not long before their paths cross, although the show doesn’t rush to get the team together, taking time to set each character up individually over the first couple of episodes. Starfire (Anna Diop) isn’t even on the same continent as the other Titans when the story kicks off, but despite the internet’s misgivings about her costume, she’s an early bright spot in the series – naive in a different way from her comics and cartoon counterparts, but still imbued with a sense of wonder and playfulness that makes her irresistible to watch.

Beast Boy (Ryan Potter) gets much shorter shrift in the first three episodes, but Potter is a scene-stealer every time he appears. Episode 2 also introduces Hawk (Alan Ritchson) and Dove (Minka Kelly), who both have a complicated history with Dick, and offer an intriguing insight into what the realities of being a vigilante must be like when you’ve been doing it for a while. (Hawk also gets one of the most memorable superhero introductions in years, and Ritchson makes the most of every snarky line he’s given.)

Titans works best when it focuses on character exploration – despite Robin’s vicious streak in costume, Thwaites is an undeniably compelling Dick Grayson, effortlessly embodying all the empathy and wit you’d expect from a character who has always been the heart and moral center of both the Batfamily and the DC universe as a whole. But much like the comics, Dick isn’t perfect – he’s still got a martyr complex and a Bat-sized chip on his shoulder, and while we don’t see Bruce or Alfred directly, there are still enough tethers to Dick’s old life to imply that he hasn’t truly flown the nest the way he’s telling himself he has – which means he’s probably still only in the early stages of his journey towards becoming Nightwing. (Still, there are some shades of Nightwing: Year One in Thwaites’ performance that totally make sense in this context, and his journey towards shedding the cape promises to be a fascinating one.)

The weakest link in the early going is Raven – both as a result of her slowly unfolding storyline (everyone’s very cryptic and creepy around her, which quickly becomes frustrating) and the iffy visual effects when it comes to manifesting her powers, which can’t help but look a little B-movie by relying too much on CGI and jump-scare tactics. There are a lot of warring instincts at work here – Raven’s storyline is decidedly horror, Starfire’s is sci-fi tinged with mystery, Robin’s is the most traditionally superhero, and Beast Boy seems like the comic relief – and it shouldn’t all work as well as it does, which is a testament to the committed performances of the central cast, who ground their characters with humanity and depth even when the show is delving into demons, cults, and creepy stepford assassins.

As the team slowly starts to coalesce, Titans picks up energy, and you can see the show finding its groove and its voice as it progresses, with each episode growing steadily more confident. Much like the DC Universe subscription service itself, all the pieces are there to make Titans a success – it just needs to figure out how they fit together.

The Verdict

The Titans series premiere is an indecisive mix of fun, comics-inspired moments and gratuitous violence, which makes it hard to get a read on what kind of show it wants to be. Some fans may be drawn to the blood and viscera, but the series is strong enough to succeed without pushing those boundaries. When Titans focuses on its characters and not trying to shock or scare us, it’s an engaging ride – like a fledgling sidekick, it lacks discipline, but still packs a punch.


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