Batfamily Dynamics In ‘Titans’

So you know how I love the Batfamily? Well, I do. And that’s another reason watching Titans makes me geek out like an idiot. It’s so centred on Dick and his growth that we get a lot of insight into how his family affected him. It gives us a unique and compelling take on Dick’s relationships with both Bruce and Jason, without having them as his entire story, and it’s fascinating to watch.

I loved getting to see Dick interact with Jason. But I haven’t seen anyone discussing the one thing that kind of weirded the comics fan in me out – the ages and the impact they have on the inter-Batfam relationships. Jason is the only character whose age we canonically know, because it was actually brought up in the show. Sure, people involved with the show have given us some numbers – or at least, vague ideas – for the others, but remember, Writers Cannot Do Math. So until everyone else’s age is solidified within the show, the only thing I’m willing to assume is Jason’s. Unless he was lying for some reason I don’t understand, Jason is explicitly nineteen. He’s also explicitly been with Bruce for about a year, so pretty much immediately after Dick left. Presumably, him going out as Robin has been recent, both because Robin hadn’t been seen in over a year as per the beginning of the pilot and because he needed time to learn the necessary skills. That confuses me, because it means Jason has been a legal adult for the entirety of his relationship with Bruce. He’s not an adopted son anymore. He’s not a child soldier. He’s young, brash, stupid, but he’s not exactly the kid that sees it as a game – he loves it, thinks it’s fun, but he also is okay with the idea that he’s drawing fire. It changes the relationship between all of them.

I’ve always thought that the age of becoming Robin was most essential to Dick, and less so for everyone else. This is because Dick’s story was about loss and pain. It’s a clear parallel to Bruce’s – they lost their parents at about the same age. They started fighting crime to deal with it. By the time Dick became Nightwing, he’d been Robin for pretty much half his life, and he’d set aside the role in a way Bruce never would have been able to, had their positions been switched. In the show, he’s been Robin for even longer. So it makes perfect sense that in the show, he is having a hard time letting go! With everyone else, except perhaps Damian, it seemed like their age was much less important. But now, I’m wondering if I was wrong. It may not matter whether Jason is eleven, thirteen, sixteen. But I think it does kind of matter that he’s a minor.

One of the recurring points in the comics is that Jason kind of saw being Robin as a game. He wasn’t as emotionally invested as Dick, who had a personal reason for putting on the mask. He was a kid that was kind of in over his head. Aging him up changes the tragedy, because now he knows what he’s going into. He’s not just a kid having fun and loving the attention anymore, he’s an adult more capable of making his own choices. So for me, his anger at Bruce upon his resurrection won’t ring as true anymore. Likely, Bruce’s guilt won’t, either. It seems likely that, if Death In The Family is ever adapted in this show – which I doubt, honestly – they’ll have to take his becoming Red Hood in a very different way. With the implication that Dick telling him he should cut out the tracker in his arm will lead to him doing just that, leaving Bruce unable to find him, I wonder if adapting that arc would focus more on Dick’s guilt than Bruce’s.

That leads me to Jason and Dick’s relationship. I find that very interesting, thanks to the age gap. DC often tries to convince us that they’re very close in age, rather than Jason being closer to Tim’s than Dick’s. I seem to recall Rebirth insisting that they’re only a year or two apart. This is despite the fact that I’m pretty sure when Jason was introduced, he was eleven and Dick was eighteen. But Titans is actually acknowledging that Dick is significantly older. More than that – because both of them have been aged up, it’s easier to see how much they’re in different stages of their lives. That made it fascinating to watch, because Dick was clearly trying not to take out his anger at Bruce on Jason, and only partially succeeding.

Throughout the scenes when they were discussing the Robin moniker, I was unsure whether it was clever or an oversight due to DC’s long history of ignoring how personal Robin is to Dick. When I look at it from my own perspective – that of a fan that knows the history of Robin – I think the former. And since it’s on a DC streaming service, viewership is mostly limited to DC fans with a solid knowledge of the comics history. So from that perspective, it makes a beautiful amount of sense to not bring up what Robin really means to Dick – his family’s colours. His mother’s nickname for him. Dick has spent a long time closed off from other people. He’s not going to just spill his life’s story to the random kid that came barging into his life wearing his costume and calling himself by his name. It’s more than enough that the audience knows why he’s questioning why Jason didn’t make his own identity, why he’s upset that his father figure handed over his name and costume to someone else the second he left, why he’s having such a hard time letting go of Robin and carrying the suit with him across the country. But. That doesn’t work as elegantly for viewers  that aren’t comic fans.

The episode didn’t delve into the origins of Robin, why Dick has so much difficulty letting go, why he has every damn right to take his suit all around the country and be annoyed at the kid that acts like he knows what Robin represents without knowing any of the history behind it. So for viewers that don’t know and love Dick Grayson, it must come across very differently. Jason’s speech must seem like a genuine armour piercing speech, cutting to the heart of Dick’s issues. And to an extent, that is the case. Dick doesn’t really know who he is, doesn’t know what he wants or needs. But it isn’t like he’s a kid that’s outgrown his favourite sweater but doesn’t want his little brother to get to have it. This isn’t about him refusing to move on. It’s about him being unable tobecause he’s afraid of what letting go will mean.

Titans is shockingly subtle for a superhero TV show. It’s utterly character driven. I’m not used to this kind of storytelling when it comes to superhero media. It’s slow. It’s indirect. It waves forward than rolls back. It has characters go through similar storylines for very different purposes. If 1×06 was about Dick’s relationship with Bruce, 1×07 was the obvious follow through – his relationship with himself. His self loathing and anger and confrontation of the fact that it’s not really Bruce he’s mad at – he’s mad at himself. 1×06 ended with Dick acknowledging that Bruce did the best he could. 1×07 focused on Dick hitting rock bottom, because if he’s done blaming Bruce, it’s time to look inwards at himself. It’s nuanced. It’s hard to watch. It’s awesome.

It seems most people weren’t expecting anything this subtle, and as such, aren’t taking the time to interpret it as they would non superhero stories. You can see that both through the complaints that 1×07 was the same thing as 1×06 and through the complaints about Donna “badmouthing” Bruce in 1×08 when she contrasted Batman and Wonder Woman by saying Batman was created to punish the guilty, rather than protect the innocent. I saw a lot of people mad about that, saying that it’s missing the point of Batman and all that, but I don’t think that’s true at all – it’s been made very clear throughout the show that this perspective on Bruce is only part of who Bruce really is, and it’s coloured by bitterness and anger. Donna’s quote was even more like that than Dick’s own thoughts on Bruce, because Donna’s attached to Dick. She loves him and cares about him and saw how much all of it was affecting him.

That doesn’t mean that Dick doesn’t still care for Bruce! It doesn’t mean Bruce is the “bad guy”. It means that Bruce and Dick are flawed people with a flawed relationship. It means that vigilantism as a lifestyle is ridiculously unhealthy. It does a disservice to the quality of the writing to simplify it down to “they’re painting Bruce as a villain”. Dick went from refusing to talk about Bruce to casually referring to him as his dad to a stranger. And yeah, sure, that was probably at least in part because it was the easiest way to get the point across without delving into their whole relationship to a random person – the guy was already weirded out by Dick reminiscing about when Donna got her first camera before even introducing himself, how much more weirded out would he be if Dick started going on about his foster father that took him in after his parents fell to their deaths in a trapeze accident? But it was also about Dick coming to terms with himself and his relationship with the man that raised him. It was him remembering that his childhood had good times as well as bad.

Kory joked about Jason being younger, healthier, and smarter than Dick. As comic fans, we know only one of those things is true. But it made me consider what I know about this version of Dick – not comics knowledge, not cartoon knowledge, just what has been revealed in the show. And that’s kind of awesome to think about, because Dick hasn’t done any real acrobatics yet. For all that a segment of the viewership complains about it being the Dick Grayson show, we don’t really know all that much about his past, either. He hasn’t gotten a chance to show off many of his skills. That’s because the focus has been on who he is, not what he can do or how he learned it or the details of how he became who he is. And it works.

I’m obviously biased, due to my love for him, but even if I weren’t, I think it would still be pretty clear to me that Robin is one of the main characters of all those to have ever been part of the Titans. Almost certainly the most popular. Dick was the only member of the original roster that was included in the main cast of the cartoon and the main cast of this show. He leads the team. He’s had a successful solo series. He’s the poster boy for how Sidekick Graduations Stick. So, yes. It doesn’t bother me at all that the show is called Titans, while really being about Dick. It probably would if any other members of the Batfamily – except Tim, but that won’t happen for a while, if at all – end up as main characters, because that would be making it not a Titans show. Focusing on Dick? That’s just picking a main character.

Dick’s arc has moved beyond his issues with Bruce and into the territory of his issues with himself. So we don’t need a confrontation to conclude the character arc he’s going through – which is good, because introducing Batman will no doubt pull focus from the team that the show centres on, even though we know full well he exists without him showing up. However, because Bruce has been a spectre hanging over Dick since the first episode, we at least need something. It’s not going to be enough for Dick to be like, “hey, I worked stuff out with Bruce, we’re cool now”. For better or for worse, whether the resolution is us hearing the beginnings of a phone call or a season ending with him knocking on the door of Wayne Manor, we have to get something, and it has to have some amount of dramatic weight. The build up has been subtle. But the conclusion needs to be more.

Titans leaves me both wanting more of the Batfam and knowing there are few ways in which that could actually work. I don’t think Jason can carry a show. I know making any other members of the family recurring characters will pull too much focus away from what the show is supposed to be about. And being one of the Titans, rather than in a Batfam show where he’d always be second fiddle to Bruce, is better for Dick as a character. All this together means that I’m holding my breath, waiting to see how the writers handle the issue in the end of season one/beginning of season two, because they’ve built it up so beautifully, it’ll be downright tragic if the conclusion doesn’t measure up.

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The Strange Need For Adaptations Of Specific Storylines

Every time a rumour about the Batman movie surfaces, I see countless Tweets saying that it absolutely has to be an Under The Red Hood adaptation. This has been going on for years – ever since the picture of the Robin suit from Batman v Superman was released, people have been jumping up and down about Jason Todd. There are constantly people that don’t like the DCEU whining that it’s not just like the animated universe and that they should just make live action versions of those movies. I don’t get that.

One of the reasons I love Batman v Superman is that while it’s loosely based on a specific story – that being The Dark Knight Returns – it’s not chained to it. It takes liberties with the source material and makes it something unique, while still lovingly bringing to life certain panels and the rough plot and referencing countless other comics. It may get criticized for making those changes, but what’s the point in watching something that’s just slavishly devoted to depicting something with complete accuracy that already exists without any imagination or creativity?

I’d love to see Jason Todd in live action as much as the next girl, but if I wanted to see Under the Red Hood, I’d watch the animation. It’s an excellent movie. It’s well worth a watch. But if that plotline were included in a live action movie, I’d want to see more than just Jason and Bruce. I think the rest of the Batfamily should have a role, especially Dick and Tim, because Jason becoming Red Hood had a lot to do with the legacy of Robin and the feelings of being replaced. The DC animated movies are good, but also very simplistic, without complex character arcs. Live action movies can elaborate on all those things.

The upcoming Dark Phoenix movie bothers me for different, but related reasons. Let’s set aside the retcons and continuity issues and the Phoenix Force for a minute. As iconic as that comic arc is, as much as it was an excellent story, the way that it’s remembered is a fundamentally sexist premise based on the idea that the most powerful character in the universe can’t possibly be a woman, because women are temperamental. That’s not entirely accurate – people tend to forget that in the actual comic, Jean did maintain control for a very long time. It was the Hellfire Club messing with her head and manipulating her that made her lose her hold on her powers. But at this point it doesn’t matter, because like the phrase beam me up, Scotty, it’s so ingrained in our cultural consciousness that Jean Grey went crazy and couldn’t control the Phoenix Force, no amount of pointing out that that wasn’t really what happened will be enough to make people forget it. I’m not interested in seeing that committed to screen. I want to see creative changes made to the source material, challenges to how we perceive stories and characters.

So many Superman stories revolve around locking Lois out of the loop and either insulting her intelligence by making her, a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist, suspecting but incapable of proving that Clark Kent and Superman are the same person; insulting her intelligence by making her so oblivious, she can’t see what’s right in front of her; or turn Clark into an asshole that lies to and tricks her. Sure, maybe that’s historically a major part of the Superman mythos. Doesn’t mean it’s right, or a good plot element. Man of Steel didn’t include any attempt at lying to Lois, and that was one of the best decisions it made.

Adaptations are great because they’re adaptations. After all, translations themselves can be works of art. This NPR article does a fantastic job of explaining how that’s the case. Works based on another don’t need to follow a specific storyline, or adapt them word for word, image for image. The creators get to make their own choices about what it should be like, what story they want to tell, what needs to be there and what doesn’t. And we can disagree on whether they made the right choices, or whether their choices made for a good movie, but it’s important that they get to make those choices. I disagree with many of the creative choices in the X-Men movies, and I’m completely free to discuss that, but that doesn’t matter, because their job is to make the movie they think they should, not what I do. I don’t get to tell them how to do their job or what they should write. They can’t stop me from expressing what I do and don’t like.

It’s not just about comics – the same thing holds true for the live action versions of Disney movies. I don’t understand why we need them. Animation isn’t some lesser form of art that’s just a trial run for a story before it gets made into live action. It’s great and gorgeous on its own merits. You don’t see people trying to claim that Impressionist paintings aren’t important works of art because they aren’t photorealistic. The Impressionist movement was shunned and dismissed at the beginning, but over time, we’ve come to recognize the value and beauty in their work. Animation involves just as much skill as live action films. It needs excellent actors and a whole lot of time and effort. It’s disrespectful to everyone involved to suggest that a live action movie must be exactly the same as an animation. To the people involved with the live action movie, by saying their talents should be used to make a paint by numbers instead of an actually creative work. To the people involved with the animation, by saying their work has to be remade, usually with singers less skilled than the original ones.

The difference between the live action Disney movies and comic adaptations is that I don’t even think the former should exist, at least not as they are. I’m not a fan of remakes that don’t make any kind of meaningful change to the story. If they do, viewers can either like the change or not, but otherwise, there’ll just be comparisons to the voice actors, and the voice actors are almost inevitably going to be better at singing/emoting vocally, just because their job requires a different skill set than actors that are used to being seen and being able to rely on non verbal action. There’s plenty of reason to make comic adaptations still, because there’s a wealth of unexplored material, but only if they’re genuine adaptations, not just blind reconstructions. Being inspired and holding true to the spirit of the source material is good. Using it as a crutch and being utterly dependent on it is bad. Drawing upon what’s not in the actual source but in an adaptation, or that’s somehow made it into our collective memory of the story? That’s the worst of all.