‘Titans’: Character Growth And Respect For Dick Grayson

Now that we’re most of the way through the first season of Titans, I finally feel ready to comment: I genuinely love it.

I was very much surprised to find that that’s the case, between that first trailer, the story details, and the weird age lifts. Though maybe I shouldn’t have been – Geoff Johns is heavily involved, and I have my issues with him and his approach, but he is the man that flat out refused to write Nightwing’s death in Infinite Crisis. He has a healthy amount of appreciation for Dick as a character. I should have had more confidence that my favourite character was going to be treated well. He has been. And that’s good, because even though the show is called Titans and it’s Rachel that drives the plot, at heart, this is a show about Dick Grayson – and specifically as Dick Grayson, not Robin or Nightwing. It’s about him figuring out who he is and what he wants. It’s a character driven story. The plot matters, the villains matter, but it’s primarily about Dick and his internal conflict, his familial relationship with Rachel, how his figurative demons parallel her literal ones.

Fans of the Titans team may or may not love it. And I’ve seen a number of comments from people that are frustrated by the backseat the others – particularly Gar – have taken in favour of Dick and guest stars. But as someone whose primary investment in DC has always been Dick…it’s kind of perfect for me. After all the mixed feelings and confusion about how it was going to turn out, I’m really glad I watched it. I was terrified of this show for the same reason that I was terrified when the Nightwing movie was announced – he’s a hard character to get right. But much to my shock, Titans gets it. What it does spectacularly is capture the almost paradoxical nature of Dick Grayson.

When I first saw the story details, I anticipated it flattening his character by focusing on the anger that was a huge part of his character in the 80s. And that’s certainly part of him. But it’s also not even close to everything, because even though he is angry, even though he’s obsessive and paranoid, he’s also funny and charming and likeable. In a lot of ways, he’s a more complex character than even Batman, because with Batman, there are a ton of equally valid interpretations. You could focus on his obsessiveness driving everyone that loves him away. You could focus on his refusal to stay down. And any one of those will help you understand a solid chunk of who Bruce Wayne is. That works, because those are all different sides of the same type of trait. That’s not the case with Dick, because with him, you kind of need a solid grasp of all those elements of his character, because his traits are so different from each other while all equally important. Titans is doing a genuinely impressive job presenting all those traits in a way that makes sense.

The characterization doesn’t feel flat at all. Dick does have that anger, that need to move out of Bruce’s shadow, but he’s also got his comics counterpart’s charm and decency – it’s most obvious with the motel owner in “Together”, who he turns down politely and tactfully when she’s hitting on him, but we also see it with Amy, who warms up to him after a thirty second conversation despite how much he tried to keep to himself before, and Kory, when their arguing softens into friendly and flirty bickering. Through his relationship with Rachel, we see the comfortably steady and reliable figure he’s becoming, the one that in the comics-verse is so important to guiding Damian. We see his intensity through his interactions with everyone. And through all of it, we see the seeds being planted for him facing his past, reconciling with Bruce, becoming more comfortable with who he is, letting go of Robin and becoming Nightwing.

Personally, I prefer it when Dick leaves because he’s grown up and it’s time for him to live his own life, not because of any major fight with Bruce or being fired or anything like that. He grew up in a circus – he was born to be the star, not play second fiddle to Batman. Bruce said as much himself. But there still is a lot of merit to the way Titans is showing it. Them not being on speaking terms opens up a lot of areas for character development. Also, it gives Dick more room to breathe and become his own hero on his own without his mentor overtaking his story. Otherwise, there would be very little explanation for why Bruce doesn’t have more presence in the show. Beyond that, in the context of Titans, it just makes sense.

Dick and Bruce are more similar than different. It’s been noted on multiple occasions that Dick is basically Batman with social skills. As such, they’re bound to clash, especially because what Bruce wants more than anything is for Dick to be better than him. As he put it in Young Justice, when Diana asked if he’d introduced Dick to crime fighting so that he’d grow up like him: “No. So he wouldn’t.” That conflict runs deep within the show, and it’s fascinating to watch.

A large part of why comics!Dick stopped working with Batman in the comics was because of his issues with identity. He was spreading himself too thin. He didn’t know how to balance his desire to see the best in people with his learned cynicism, or how best to help people. That identity issue is at the heart of his character arc in Titans. He’s fought crime in a city so terrible, Amy’s reaction to finding out where he was from was Jesus since he was a child. That didn’t leave him much time to figure himself out. And now that he’s not on his own anymore – now that he has Rachel to protect, Kory constantly prodding at him to get him to open up – he has to figure that out and come to terms with the mistakes he’s made.

“Jason Todd” was the a major part of that character growth. It was also a clear step in the road to Nightwing. It was a fascinating episode for me, because it forced Dick to confront his past – his vicious, brutal past. Don’t get me wrong. I love the traditional, goes after Zucco but doesn’t kill him bit. But you know what? It makes a painful amount of sense that he would. It’s also very easy to connect to different pieces of DC media. For one, it reminds me a bit of Batman v Superman – as we did with Bruce there, here we see Dick making decisions that are hard to watch, that we don’t want to look at, that aren’t heroic…but that we know will lead to him growing, being better, doing better. The idea of him killing once than being horrified at what he’d become reminded me of Bruce’s arc in Gotham. It also reminded me of Batman Begins – not for what it was, but what it wasn’t. In Batman Begins, we see Bruce trying to justify leaving Ra’s to die, saying something like, “oh, not saving you isn’t the same thing as killing you”. Titans makes no such pretense. Dick acknowledges that he killed Zucco. He talks about it. It’s a whole episode of him dealing with the fact it’s time for him to stop living in the past, stop living in anger and regret, because the cycle of vengeance won’t make the world a better place. And as he does so, he comes to understand that his memory is flawed, because it’s been coloured by rage and grief, and it’s time for him to move on and forge a new identity. As Jason put it, he doesn’t know who he is. The episode culminates with him acknowledging that Bruce tried his best. It’s absolutely gorgeous character development.

Not all of the show is as well done as Dick’s arc has been so far. Some of it has been kind of sloppy.  Take the Beast Boy appearance at the end of the pilot – it wasn’t much of anything, it didn’t need to be there, it was just a minute or two of, hey, there’s Gar, he’s in this, remember? Similarly, I wasn’t big on Kory’s scenes before she met up with Rachel. I mean, I liked watching her…but only because Anna Diop has enough presence and charisma to keep me from rolling my eyes and getting annoyed with how her amnesia plot was a dumb thing to pull focus from Rachel and Dick for. And when the season is only eleven episodes, it’s kind of frustrating to have the team keep splitting up. Outside of Dick – and his relationship to Rachel, because that’s just awesome – it’s a pretty mixed bag. However, the way Dick has been handled? The progression has been so damn good, he alone will make me want to watch season two.

For a popular character, Dick doesn’t get all that much respect. I’ve written about that before. We see it with how his movie seems in permanent limbo. We see it in the comics, where he’s wandering around with amnesia and calling himself Ric. We saw it when his 75th anniversary was kind of hijacked by Harper Row, when DC kept trying to kill him, when we get increasingly ridiculous reasons why he hasn’t actually surpassed Bruce and still needs a mentor. It’s been going on a long time. But this show isn’t falling into that trap. He doesn’t need a mentor. He doesn’t need to work under Bruce. He’s Dick Grayson, and that’s fucking awesome all on its own.

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