Nearly two years after season two, DC’s Titans is launching its third season. But things have changed since last season. For starters, the DC Universe streaming service is no more. Now, all the former DC Universe content has switched over to HBO Max. But with HBO Max comes a higher profile. And higher expectations. And in its first two years, the live-action adaptation of DC’s perennial Teen Titans comics has just not lived up to the hype. But can season three turn things around? And how long before fans just give up?
Titans did some things right from the start. The cast is uniformly good, filling these iconic roles with ease. But the first season’s tone was a mess. So much so, that two years ago we wrote a piece on all the things they had to do to course-correct for season two. And to be fair to Warner Bros, of our seven suggestions for improving Titans in season two, they did pretty much adhere to about five of them. We did get a more formal team, and a reason why the show was called “Titans.” We got a Titan’s Tower HQ, and Dick Grayson became less obnoxiously broody. But Titans still has a way to go.
Based on the upcoming season’s promo images, it looks like Titans is fully embracing its comic book superhero team roots at last. Starfire is wearing her costume, as is Donna Troy. They firmly entrenched Dick Grayson in his Nightwing persona, after a two-season build-up. That’s a distinct difference from how these characters were presented before. We barely saw Dick as Robin in season one (infamous “f#%k Batman moment aside), and the rest of the team stuck to a no-costumes approach. In season two, Dick didn’t adopt the Nightwing identity till the very end. Twenty-six episodes was a ridiculous amount of time to wait for that.
The most popular iteration of the comic book Titans was from 1980-1990, when they were The New Teen Titans. Former Marvel creators Marv Wolfman and George Perez created that version of the team. And they brought a serious Marvel Comics vibe to the title. Big superheroic plots, family drama, infighting, and high emotion. If anything, The New Teen Titans had more in common with Marvel’s X-Men than DC’s Justice League. And that tradition carried in into the book’s other impressive runs, like the early 2000s run by Geoff Johns. And, to a certain extent, into the beloved Teen Titans animated series from 2003-2006.
But for inexplicable reasons, the live-action TV Titans decided to dismiss the tone that made the comic so popular for forty years. Instead, they went for an ultra-violent, gritty vibe that has more in common with Amazon’s The Boys than the actual origin comic. (And with none of The Boys’ witty satire.) It’s a bizarre choice, and one that has worked against the show from the get-go. It seems the producers were so determined to differentiate themselves from what Marvel Studios was doing, they forgot that Teen Titans was easily the most Marvel-esque property DC has ever had.
Titans season three is juggling an enormous amount of story elements from the comics lore. You’re dealing with Dick Grayson finally becoming Nightwing, Starfire’s royal conflict with her sister Blackfire, the blossoming romance of Beast Boy and Raven, the introduction of future Robin, Tim Drake, the death and transition of Jason Todd from Robin into Red Hood, and the resurrection of Donna Troy. Oh, and they still need to find things for Hawk, Dove, and Superboy to do. It’s a lot. We don’t envy them.
But the MCU has successfully juggled this many storylines and characters for years. If there is any time to remember how much of a Marvel energy Titans as a concept has always had, it is now. Because being different for the sake of being different? That’s not working out. In some cases, DC copying the MCU approach to telling superhero stories isn’t warranted. James Gunn’s R-rated The Suicide Squad is a perfect example of this. But Titans absolutely requires this approach. At least if they want to produce something that reminds people of the source material.
Lots of shows come into their own in their third seasons, so it’s not impossible. Famously, both Star Trek: TNG and DS9 didn’t really get good until their third seasons. Discovery didn’t come into its own till the recent third season either. So it’s not impossible. Titans is one of DC’s most iconic properties, and this is their last chance to get it right. Hopefully, the higher profile of a move to HBO Max has lit a fire under the creative team behind Titans. Because one of DC’s most iconic brands deserves to be the best.
Titans season three premieres on HBO Max on August 12.