Titans Exposes Everything Wrong with DC’s Gritty, Boring Approach to Live Action

The trailer for Titans, the first series exclusively on the new DC Universe streaming service, dropped last week to… less than positive reviews. Nothing about the trailer—not lead Raven, not Senegalese Starfire, not the Dove cameo, not the conspicuous lack of Cyborg—made more noise than ten seconds of Robin saying “F**k Batman” and killing a bunch of dudes. It’s intentionally shocking, a bold declaration that this is something new and edgy, nothing like the Teen Titans you grew up with. These are superheroes for adults.

The problem is, it’s exactly like the Teen Titans I grew up with. It’s not that “a gritty take,” as the official synopsis describes the series, isn’t faithful to the comics. It’s that it’s faithful to New Teen Titans and The Dark Knight Returns, comics that are over 30 years old, literally older than most of the cast. The new series looks dated. The whole trailer has the desaturated tones, melodramatic dialogue, and low production values of a circa-2000 WB drama, like it should be the lead-in for Birds of Prey.

There’s nothing new in saying that vigilante justice is brutal and morally ambiguous. There’s nothing new in saying the line between hero and villain is thin. There’s nothing new in saying Dick Grayson might be angsty and rebellious. And Robin saying a no-no word is about as mature as my one-year-old running around saying “wiener.”

The grim tone is blandly predictable, considering Titans was created by Geoff Johns, Akiva Goldsman, and Greg Berlanti. Johns’s Teen Titans run is full of melodramatic angst and violent dismemberment. Goldsman is responsible for such “gritty takes” as the Star Trek: Discovery pilot, The Dark Tower, and Transformers: The Last Knight. And Berlanti’s Arrow also started out as a gritty, murdery, not-Batman show—but it at least has developed into a joyful exploration of the weirder corners of the DC Universe that spans seven different series and at least three different universes. Titans seems like a reversion to his worst instincts.

The desaturated, joyless, hyper-serious take is in line with the Zack Snyder movies (which also explains why there’s no Cyborg; he’s too busy being mopey next to Aquaman). Clearly there’s someone at Warner Bros. who believes superhero fans want realistic depictions of *checks notes* alien space princesses, shape-shifting goofballs, goth demon daughters, and circus acrobats turned colorful crime fighters. And clearly, some people do. However, Snyder’s movies have consistently underperformed expectations, and maybe that’s because for all their violence and solemnity, they’re actually as about as edgy as a bowling ball.

The dour tone of Titans is particularly galling this week, because Teen Titans Go! to the Movies opens this Friday and it couldn’t look more different. It’s colorful, it’s cute, it has jokes, and it’s absolutely contemporary, referencing both the current glut of superhero movies and DC’s particular failures in that department. And it literally features the same characters (plus Cyborg) from the same studio, hitting the same emotional beats (Robin wants the respect afforded to his adult peers). Hell, Robin even kills someone, smushing the poor Atom on his golf cart’s windshield…

Teen Titans Go! (the TV series from which the new animated movie derives) is often a nuanced deconstruction of the superhero genre, revealing its heroes ugly flaws and emotional complexity, as well as the violent repercussions of uncontrolled superpowers, while still having time to make fart jokes. It is modern and edgy, confronting the assumptions of its audience, in all the ways Titans wants to be, without ever being dark, grim, dour, or gritty. And it’s hugely popular. Cartoon Network airs it nearly constantly to millions of loyal viewers, largely between the ages 2 and 11. It is arguably the most popular thing DC Comics is currently doing in any medium.

And it is absolutely hated by a certain contingent of superhero fans. Some hate it for parodying the 2003 Teen Titans cartoon, even though it’s made by literally the same people, same voice actors, same animators, and uses the same designs. Some hate it because it’s disrespectful to the source material, portraying the Teen Titans as dumb jerks who are easily distracted from saving lives and die all the time. Some hate it for its chibi designs and flattened animation style. Some hate it because Cartoon Network shows it too often. Basically, some fans hate Teen Titans Go! because it’s popular with kids.

These are the fans that can’t stand to be reminded that the primary audience for DC superheroes is children, and they are desperate for R-rated depictions full of swears and ultra-violence (but no nudity)—depictions that prove the genre they love is mature and worth their time. But their obsession with the veneer of maturity blinds them to the fact that there’s no there there. The Snyder films have nothing coherent to say about power or responsibility. They are the equivalent of a fifty-year-old wearing an “Anti-Social” black t-shirt they got at Hot Topic.

Let’s be clear: I’m not saying that DC should only make superhero products aimed at 8-year-olds. The characters are robust and diverse and there’s room for an array of interpretations, from Supergirl to The Lego Batman Movie, Justice League Action to Wonder Woman, Arkham Knight to Injustice: Gods Among Us. I’m not even saying there can’t be an R-rated version of the Teen Titans, hypothetically.

I am saying that in 2018, it’s ridiculous to make a show about teenagers for teenagers based on the ideas of comics from the early ‘80s and the aesthetics of shows from the late ’90s, and ignore that teenagers today most likely grew up watching Teen Titans Go! The live action Titans looks like the misbegotten work of old men who are ashamed to still like superheroes, insisting that they’re not out of touch: It’s the children who are wrong.

Steven Padnick is a freelance writer and editor. By day. You can find more of his writing and funny pictures at padnick.tumblr.com.

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