I fully realize that, at this point, the only character trait more boring than being really into superhero movies is really hating superhero movies, so I apologize for what is about to follow.
Maybe, it’s because superhero movies themselves are stale, and having strong opinions about them is generally ridiculous. Or maybe, it’s because nearly all of our media choices recently must somehow involve capes and tights. Regardless, I have some strong, boring opinions about superhero media that I would like to share.
First of all, I’m more sympathetic to comic-book movies than most people I know. I grew up reading comics, and I especially liked the stuff from DC. I’m cursed with knowledge that I wish I could forget, stuck with obscure characters like Danny the Street — a sentient stretch of concrete and sidewalk — rattling around in the derelict recesses of my brain.
Because of this, I strongly suspect that I fit directly into the target demographic for Titans — the new Netflix take on the Teen Titans comic-book franchise and cartoon series. Well, that and because all the dopamine centres in my brain lit up when I saw that one of the episodes was named “Doom Patrol” after the cult-favourite comic series of the same name.
I remember watching Teen Titans as a kid. I remember liking it. I don’t really remember the specifics, but I do recall it as a bright, light-hearted show that was unapologetically comicbooky. The show featured Robin, Batman’s sidekick, as its main draw and managed to build a team of compelling heroes out of a roster of DC unknowns.
The gritty new Netflix version is neither bright nor lighthearted. Characters get burned with cigarettes, others get tortured with rusty woodworking tools, and one guy even gets his face rubbed in broken glass. Just to reiterate, this all happens in a show that is based on a cartoon wherein Batman’s sidekick fights people with a yo-yo.
A lot of criticism has been levelled at Marvel and Disney for making kid-friendly popcorn movies devoid of stakes, but when you see DC putting out counter-programming this humourless and comically edgy, it’s hard not to prefer the candy-coloured CGI nonsense of the Avengers films.
Titans isn’t unwatchable. It has moments of solid character work, and the level of DC nerd pandering is unprecedented in a live-action work. The special effects are comically bad, giving the whole thing the vibe of an overachieving and entertaining fan film.
My problem with the show is the same problem that I have with most of DC’s recent live-action output and those weird Marvel Netflix shows that all take place in the same hallway. They’re all deeply rooted in the Death Wish-inspired, street-level revenge school of comic-book writing pioneered by Frank Miller. It’s a type of storytelling that works for a handful of characters, but it’s not a one-size-fits-all approach.
The characterization is deeply off. Instead of trying to find out what makes these characters tick and developing an interesting story and unique visuals around them, why not just make Robin into the Punisher? It’s lazy, and I’m not really convinced people are clamoring for a Robin who uses broken glass to torture mobsters.
If we’re going to keep churning out superhero media, I’d rather see someone make one of these shows using a different author as a template. Give me something inspired by the paranoid meta-textual mindfuckery of Alan Moore or the cosmological sci-fi of Jack Kirby. I’ll even take whatever Grant Morrison’s LSD-addled, chaos-magician brain cooks up.
Despite the genre’s persistence, superhero shows haven’t fully explored the source material they get praise for so faithfully adapting. There’s a reason these characters actually resonate with people like me: it’s because property holders used to let people with a unique vision write these stories. Let’s see more of that, please.
Cole Chretien / Culture Editor
Graphic: David Hartman