Life is growing difficult for defenders of the DC Extended Universe. Since Justice League‘s lukewarm reception, the franchise has been looking for new ways to gain interest, including a Joaquin Phoenix Joker film, and the introduction of a DC streaming service. But the most recent item getting buzz is a new trailer for the series Titans, one that’s gaining backlash from critics of all stripes. Reasons for this are varied, and largely aesthetic, but there are thematic reasons to be concerned, as well.
The trailer, which includes some NSFW content (especially language), paints a very dark atmosphere for the series. Producer and former DC Chief Creative Officer Geoff Johns has said that the series will be a little bit more adult-oriented, and hinted at its inclusion of horror elements due to the nature of Raven’s character. As it turns out, the trailer’s tone leans not only into the darkness of her character, but Robin’s character as well. Far from the endearing youthful leader people have come to expect from Dick Grayson, he seems to revel in bloodshed on the streets, even going so far as to say “F*** Batman.” That, and a dark color palette that’s more fitting for Suicide Squad that a Teen Titans adaptation make it clear that the DC Universe original has no intentions of lightening the tone of their world.
I’ll leave detailed analysis of cinematography and visual effects to the experts in that arena. But regarding theme and tone, this presents something of a problem for the series. It’s pretty clear from the trailer that the series wants to focus on Raven as the central character. The very nature of Raven’s character – having been fathered by an evil demon, yet wanting to do what’s right – makes her ripe for interesting moral discussions. This was by far the most part of the original Cartoon Network series, which was at turns astonishingly mature given its format and audience. Her struggle carries with it this darkness in her, that is somehow a part of her, and yet she has to fight it. This is familiar to anyone who has been a Christian. Even Paul talks about this in the book of Romans, saying, “I do what I do not want to do.” Her ability to overcome those darker impulses and become a real hero isn’t just due to her own moral strength. Instead, it’s largely due to the moral center of the series, in an community that prizes virtue, often embodied through its characters, such as Robin’s positive leadership and Beast Boy’s persistent innocence, and the way that all of them accept her.
— Joshua Ovenshire (@TheJovenshire) July 19, 2018
This takes us back to the new Titans series. Clearly, this vision of the Titans has no moral center. Its protagonist says “f*** you” to his guardian and mentor. There’s enough blood splatter here for a Daredevil adaptation, and the cinematography looks like it was designed for a Snyder take on Justice League Dark. And yet, clearly they want Raven’s conflict to be the center of the show (which is another aspect that producer Geoff Johns has discussed in interviews). But without that center, it’s just going to be a devolving cycle of moral confusion, probably muddled by vague humanism and empty soap opera antics.
Of course, we should note that this *is* just a trailer. If the series ended up different from the trailer’s pitch, it would hardly be the first time an advertisement turned out to be a bait-and-switch. It’s also worth noting that the original comics that the series is based on, while hardly being this dark, is also not as child-friendly as the 2003 series. But somewhere in here, it’s hard not to feel that a missed opportunity is extremely likely. American fascination with antiheroes continues, and without a center to ground their meandering confusion, such stories will likely bring little enlightening to the cultural conversation.