Third-episode verdict: Titans (US: DC Universe; UK: Netflix)

A superhero genre mash-up that really works… most of the time

Brenton Thwaites as Robin in DC's Titans
Brenton Thwaites as Robin in DC's Titans

In the US: Fridays, DC Universe
In the UK: Acquired by Netflix. Will air in 2018

Genre mash-ups can work. And sometimes they don’t. Titans is an interesting example not just of sub-genre mash-ups but of how they can go both right and wrong at the same time.

A sort of Lower Decks/The Zeppo for superhero shows, it sees a bunch of also-rans and sidekicks grouping up together to fight crime, evil and maybe even the Apocalypse. The first episode introduced us to all our main characters – Robin, Starfire, Beast Boy and Raven, each of whom belongs to his or her own genre. Robin is all gritty shakycam, ultraviolence and Batman Begins, as he struggles to strike his own path as a detective away from Batman’s influence; Starfire is an odd sci-fi Bourne Identity, an alien princess who’s lost her memory and is on a quest to find out who she really is; Raven is The Exorcist, the daughter of a demon, and a potential threat to all humanity if she’s not careful; and the shape-changing Beast Boy… remains to be seen, given he’s had a grand total of five minutes’ screen-time over the first three episodes.

All separate, these worked very nicely. Surprisingly, even when they’ve come together over the three episodes to greater and lesser degrees, those genres have been able to survive contact. The plots have worked, the characters have complemented each other, nothing’s made the other seem too silly or too serious.

Titans

Hawk wind-up

The trouble, however, arrived in episode 2. In part, Titans is designed to launch other superheroes and other TV shows, with Swamp Thing and Doom Patrol set to appear next year. Episode 2 gave us Hawk and Dove and quickly exposed the fact that superheroes in silly costumes don’t look good next to grimdark – and vice versa. It also showed that Titans needs to have a good ensemble onscreen in each story: with just Robin, Raven and Hawk and Dove in the episode, it felt flabby and in need of the variety the other characters bring.

Indeed, when everyone’s united in the third episode and Hawk and Dove are still present but downplayed, Titans continues to be compelling view, as you’re never quite sure which direction it’s going to go in next. Demons? Sci-fi incinerations? Exorcisms? Detective work? Your guess is as good as mine. Even when the stupid villains of episode two, the Nuclear Family, show up again, somehow they’re more palatable.

At its best, then, Titans is a ready-made Avengers – what Justice League should have been if there hadn’t been such problems behind the scenes. There are hints at a large universe, such as Robin’s nonchalance when he realises that Starfire is an alien (I’m guessing knowing Superman might help on that score) and the presence of Donna Troy in his address book. There’s the different take on Batman, a figure who’s never actually seen in full even as Bruce Wayne, but whose mentally dodgy presence is felt throughout. There are some surprisingly good fight scenes, smart looks at what it is to be a mortal superhero who grows old and needs to wash their costume at night. It can be funny, thrilling and can evoke pathos.

However, when the show steers away from its core mix, it risks disrupting this delicate chemistry and looking downright ridiculous. If it can stay focused, Titans will be a definite keeper. But if it gets its genre mix wrong, it’ll be off the viewing queue before you can say Gotham.

Barrometer rating: 2

The Barrometer for Titans

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