This is a thing Dick Grayson, a.k.a. Robin, declares midway through the first episode of Titans, the new live-action drama about the popular DC Comics team.
“Fuck Batman,” he says, mere moments after dragging a defeated foe’s face along a row of broken glass to add injury to injury.
“Fuck Batman” he says, one episode before he smugly plunges garden shears into the genitals of one opponent and throws razor-sharp projectiles into the eyeballs of several others.
“Fuck Batman” is meant to establish that the former Boy Wonder has turned against his old mentor, that he’s in search of his own identity and way of fighting crime. It’s also clearly meant by the creative team behind Titans (including Akiva Goldsman and Geoff Johns, who wrote the first episode from a story by them and Greg Berlanti) to inspire shock and awe among the DC fanboys: Holy shit, Robin just said “Eff Batman!” It’s the sort of thing a petulant teenager — which Robin in this version of the story is not supposed to be (he’s working as a detective for the Detroit PD when we meet him) — might say to sound cool or fearless. But really, it makes him sound like he’s trying way too hard.
At the risk of dwelling on one incredibly stupid and childish line of dialogue, it’s the ethos of Titans in a nutshell. When a fellow cop asks Grayson why he split from his last partner, he replies, “I was becoming too much like him.” But both Robin and Titans as a whole feel exactly like a Batman story — specifically, the sort of overwrought, ultraviolent, grim and gritty tale that took over Batman comics in particular and the comic book industry as a whole in the late Eighties and early Nineties. This was the era right after Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns, when comics creators and fans collectively decided that they were deeply ashamed of the enduring popularity of the campy Sixties Batman show with Adam West. Pop-culture headlines all featured some variation on “Zap! Bam! Pow! Comics Aren’t Just For Kids Anymore!” and the people in charge of telling the stories of Batman, Superman and the rest seemed determined to live up — or down — to that idea. More violence, more death — in 1988, DC invited readers to vote in a phone poll on whether Dick’s successor as Robin, Jason Todd, would live or die (spoiler: he died) — more sex, more of every signifier that this was all kewl, badass stuff for kewl, badass adults (or would-be adults).
Great stories can be told in this mold, and have been. (Again, see Dark Knight Returns.) But a bit of the old ultraviolence doesn’t in and of itself make something good, or even cool. Many of these grimdark stories would prove just as embarrassing in their own way as a portion of the audience found Adam West, and in time the pop cultural pendulum would swing the other way. Superhero stories can be fun while also seeming legitimate, as most of the Marvel Studios films have proven.
DC’s screen output has been much more of a mixed bag. The CW’s stable of DC shows like Flash and Arrow — all of them made under the supervision of Berlanti and Johns — trend towards angst, but also understand the value of lighter moments. Other than Wonder Woman, though, DC’s movies have been joyless slogs that fetishize wanton destruction above all else. The audience keeps rejecting that approach, and actors keep leaving these franchises, yet DC keeps pushing forward with the Zack Snyder vision of it all.
Titans, which debuts Friday as part of the new DC Universe subscription service(*), is the budget version of this “We demand you take us seriously, and here’s a lot of blood, guts and bad words to prove it!” approach. Batman has the Justice League, while Robin (Brenton Thwaites) has the Titans — a group that’s had many incarnations over the years, including a recent cartoon series, Teen Titans Go!, that features roughly this lineup but with a much sillier and more kid-friendly tone. In this iteration the squad includes mysterious empathic teen Raven (Teagan Croft), exotic alien figure Starfire (Anna Diop) and (glimpsed only briefly in the early episodes) shapechanger Beast Boy (Ryan Potter). Alan Ritchson (who once upon a time played Aquaman on Smallville) and Minka Kelly also have recurring roles as crimefighting partners Hawk and Dove, and they’ve also been made more Xtreme: Hawk is introduced while a bad guy is threatening him with genital torture, while even Dove, long presented as a more peaceful figure, leaves a trail of blood in the process of saving him.
(*) I’ve seen the first three episodes, but have not sampled the rest of DC Universe to see if other parts might be worth spending money on. Suffice it to say, Titans by itself is not.
All this darkness is designed to make jaws drop, and maybe for some viewers, it will. (When I texted a comics-fan friend a description of what Robin does with the garden shears, he replied, “That exact line is going to be tweeted by people but with an exclamation mark to show how cool the show is.”) And it might work if the other parts of the show were good. But the production design looks cheap, the fight scenes (including the one that leads to “Fuck Batman”) perfunctory and forgettable, and Starfire is the only lead character in the initial episodes to make much of an impression at all. (It helps that the creative team lets a tiny amount of humor creep in whenever she’s on screen, but Diop also has a striking physical presence that goes beyond the tight outfits she’s constantly squeezed into.) Robin is treated in every way as this show’s Batman equivalent, but Thwaites doesn’t have anything near the gravitas required to pull off this self-righteously vicious approach.
If you’re going to say “Fuck Batman,” that’s your right. But you’d better back it up with more than what Titans has to offer, or you just seem like a frustrated poseur who wants to seem much tougher and cooler than you can ever hope to be.