The premiere episode of Titans – the first live-action series created for the new DC Universe streaming service – seems to have been built up as a horror movie rather than a standard superhero series. While the show has met with largely positive reviews since its first episode aired, many critics haven taken it to task for its disturbing visuals and dark tone. Yet there is little in Titans that would seem out of place among the various mature Marvel Comics series produced for Netflix or the latest horror movie blockbusters released just in time for Halloween.
The first episode largely focuses upon Rachel Roth – a goth teen with blue-purple hair, who is either developing superpowers, demonically possessed or possibly both. Of course, those who are broadly familiar with the original New Teen Titans comics will recognize Rachel as the magic-wielding empath Raven. Right now, however, Rachel is just a scared, sheltered girl who has no idea why her reflection is warning her of danger, or why she’s having dreams of circus acrobats falling to their death. The tone is far closer to Stephen King’s Carrie than anything to be found in a traditional superhero series, and the sequences involving Raven are easily the best part of Titans‘ first episode, playing into the gritty aesthetic forged by Brad Anderson.
This aesthetic inspired complaints from many that Titans was (literally) too dark, and that it was difficult to see the action in some scenes without turning the lights out. Yet if one takes the segments starring Raven and views them through the lens of a horror movie – which are mean to be watched in a dark room and preferably at night – Titans becomes a different, and much better show. The same is true of the sections focused on Robin, who – as Police Detective Dick Grayson – seems to be in an entirely different show for the first part of the episode. Indeed, much of the tone here seems to have been taken from Chuck Dixon’s legendary run on Nightwing, which saw Dick Grayson become a police officer in order to infiltrate the notoriously corrupt Bludhaven Police Department.
This brings up another common criticism of Titans‘ first episode: that it seems to be several different shows haphazardly thrown together. This is a fair complaint, yet it is one which reflects how well Titans captures the spirits of its respective characters and their stories. The original Titans of New Teen Titans were an eclectic brood, whose personal histories covered a wide variety of genres, including Space Opera (Starfire), Lovecraftian horror (Raven) and science fiction mixed with body horror (Cyborg) in addition to the traditional superheroes like Kid Flash and Wonder Girl. Complaining that Titans feels like a weird haphazard effort to blend a cop drama, a supernatural horror series and a science-fiction drama completely misses the point of the original comic book series.
Given that, the series’ seemingly unconnected subplots begin to make more sense, as does the revelation that the various segments of Titans‘ first episode are united through the common theme of horror that dominates Raven’s story, though there are several different sub-genres of horror at play. Robin’s segments are dominated by psychological horror and Dick Grayson’s fear that Batman may have made him into a monster. Starfire’s story is based around identity horror and the loss of the self. Even Beast Boy, brief though his appearance is, has an element of body horror in his powers – the classic nightmare of losing control to one’s primal urges.
As writer Geoff Johns noted in one interview, every part of the series “shows a piece of the tone of the show.” Given that, it seems likely that future episodes will come to more closely resemble the other genres that make up the glorious gestalt that makes up the Titans’ continuity in the classic comic books. Future episodes focused on Starfire as she starts to regain her memory, for instance, will presumably embrace more science-fiction elements. Either way, Titans remains one show worth watching and a solid reason to subscribe to DC Universe.