When the first set photos from Titans leaked a couple of months back, much of the inevitable backlash was aimed at Starfire. The criticism of her costume was understandable; the criticism of casting a black woman was not (and was indisputably racist). Either way, the general consensus was that Starfire would represent the worst that this already questionable series had to offer.
The skepticism around Titans – the launch series for DC Comics’ streaming service DC Universe – is mostly deserved, if the first episode is anything to go by. As the infamous “Fuck Batman” trailer suggested, this latest incarnation of the Teen Titans is grim and devoid of anything tangentially joyful. Nearly frame of the pilot is mired in the same blue-black tones that has become DC’s frustrating standard. The aesthetic self-seriousness is somewhat understandable for jaded adults like Batman, but not so for a group of superpowered teens whose greatest challenge should be whether someone they like leaves them on read. The show wants these kids to have real problems. Sigh.
Take Dick Grayson (Brenton Thwaites): by moody day, he is a sullen detective living in Detroit (and yet, Gotham or Bludhaven are available options); by moodier night, he is beloved superhero Robin, except more bloodthirsty and a bit of a potty mouth. He’s less concerned about protecting people as he is finding impressively creative ways to brutalize criminals. The show so far doesn’t explain why Dick is this gratuitously violent, and his own explanation for splitting with Batman is weak, hypocritical and juvenile (even in context, that “F**k Batman” line is still stupid). All we know about him is that he is absolutely no fun to be around, cape or no cape. It may be why Rachel Roth (Teagan Croft) is drawn to him, with her visions into his tragic past as an orphaned trapeze artist. Rachel – better known as Raven – is even more tortured than Dick, albeit with a better reason: she has evil living inside of her. She quickly becomes the target of religious zealots wanting to destroy her, and because misery seeks company, Rachel ultimately finds refuge with the ex-Boy Wonder (with a trail of dead bodies sprinkled in between for good measure). Between the demonic visions, brutal murders, kidnappings and dire attempts at self-effacing humor, Robin and Raven’s stories make first season-Arrow seem like Pee Wee’s Playhouse.
Titans doesn’t pick up the pace, or a pulse, until we land across the Atlantic in Vienna, with Starfire (Anna Diop) awakening from a car crash. The accident left her an amnesiac, but she takes the lack of memory in stride. Starfire, or Kory Anders as her passport tells us, maneuvers her way to better understanding her identity and her mission with a killer strut, a flirty swagger and a proficiency in kicking ass and incinerating people. Whether she’s making female hotel attendants blush or roasting ex-boyfriends (figuratively and literally), Starfire is full of personality, and Titans’ most compelling character by far. Anna Diop plays her with a coquettish, confident charm that gives her scenes an energy the rest of the show lacks. Starfire as an alien James Bond traversing continental Europe is a much better concept than whatever Titans is currently aiming for. But alas, Starfire’s mission will ultimately lead her to the States where Raven and Robin are, and hopefully Diop can give her co-stars Teagan Croft and Brenton Thwaites more beats to play besides legitimately tortured and self-indulgently so, respectively.
(For those wondering: Beast Boy makes a brief cameo towards the end of the episode, swiping some video games with poorly-CGIed claws).
Titans appears to be as annoyingly dark as everyone expected, but Anna Diop’s Starfire, and possibly Beast Boy, have the potential to lift the show from the depths of despair that Robin and Raven are mired in. Whether potential is enough to warrant a full subscription to DC Universe remains to be seen, but the fact that Titans isn’t a complete misfire out the gate is deserving of at least the seven-day free trial.