Titans Season 3 has its flaws, as ever, but it’s a darker, more ambitious take on these characters that has the guts to go in some interesting directions.
This review of Titans Season 3 is spoiler-free.
For a lot of people, their only exposure to Titans was the woeful marketing of the first season, which front-lined Dick Grayson – orphan acrobat turned first Robin and subsequently first Nightwing – growling “F*ck Batman” in a manner almost scientifically designed to be try-hard and ridiculous. But the show itself wasn’t really like that, at least not all the time. It was violent, sure, and its characters cursed, but there was a real effort made to give a frankly ridiculous team of teeny-bopper superheroes a genuinely layered psychology. The first two seasons, on the gone-too-soon DC Universe streaming platform and then on Netflix, succeeded at this in fits and starts; both outings were ambitious and explored oft-neglected parts of the done-to-death Batman mythos, but they all also overburdened themselves with too much stuff and a lopsided focus on Dick’s transition from maligned Boy Wonder to reinvented vigilante.
At the end of the second season Dick (a very good Brenton Thwaites, who like Dylan O’Brien suffers by being too handsome to be taken seriously) finally became Nightwing, with the outfit and everything, so it would be reasonable to expect that Titans Season 3 was done with that particular arc. But no such luck! As it happens, this third go-around, now exclusive to HBO Max, is more obsessed with Dick than ever before, and it even moves him and the rest of the team to Gotham City to make the point clearer than ever.
And if you thought the first two seasons were grim, well – you haven’t seen anything yet. It’s probably only right that the move to Gotham also darkens the tone, but even in the few episodes provided to the press, it’s surprising how much the show commits to seriousness. There’s some light, don’t get me wrong. Hawk (Alan Ritchson) remains hilarious, and Gar/Beast Boy (Ryan Potter) has formed what is essentially a comic relief double-act with Conner/Superboy (Joshua Orpin). But for the most part, thanks to some major early character deaths and decisions, Titans Season 3 rivals even Batman’s darkest tales for their grown-up sensibilities – probably because it’s adapting a couple of them at once.
Anyone familiar with “A Death in the Family” and “Under the Red Hood”, which is basically most fans of Batman or anything adjacent to him, will know exactly where this season is going in its first few episodes, even if where it’s going beyond that point is difficult to discern. This is partly because of some changes to the source material made to accommodate the presence of the Titans and build on the events of the previous two seasons. With Donna Troy dead, Rachel has gone to Themyscira in the hopes of reviving her, Hawk and Dove (Minka Kelly) are on the rocks, and Starfire (Anna Diop) is experiencing weird visions and blackouts. Some of this drama slots neatly into the main plot, but a lot of it doesn’t, leading to a now-familiar imbalance between Dick and the rest of the cast.
But! Titans Season 3 finally makes good on its “F*ck Batman” promise by genuinely deconstructing the idea of Batman as a pop-culture symbol. In large part this relates to Dick, obviously, whose arc throughout the first two seasons has been trying to escape Batman’s shadow and then trying not to turn into Batman as the leader of his own team. But it’s also explored through the lens of Barbara Gordon (Savannah Welch), post-Batgirl and “The Killing Joke”, having replaced her late father as Gotham’s police commissioner. She often feels like a character from a completely different show, and she’s absolutely sick of Batman’s bullshit. As it turns out, having his neuroses and exploitation of vulnerable kids put on blast doesn’t sit well with the Caped Crusader, and Iain Glen’s take on the character of Bruce Wayne is surprisingly memorable in its vulnerability and introspection.
Along these lines, reimagining many of Batman’s extended family and rogue’s gallery seems like a deliberately antagonistic move, proof, if you like, that Titans is forging its own path through too-familiar mythology. The take on the Red Hood storyline is familiar in its broad strokes but distinct in key ways, and it leads to some major moments in the first six episodes that deserve credit for their boldness. Barbara’s distaste for not just Batman but the idea of costumed crimefighting, in general, is palpable, and the introduction of Scarecrow (Vincent Kartheiser) as a pothead profiler assisting the GCPD from Arkham in exchange for weed parcels is virtually guaranteed to get some long-time fans in a tizzy.
In some ways, though, a willingness to annoy fans is worthy of some respect; it shows that Titans Season 3 really is interested in telling a new, surprising story, and if its first half is anything to go by, it might very well succeed in doing that, even despite its flaws.