It’s telling that the HBO Max series Titans kicks off its third season with a truncated version of one of the most notorious Batman stories ever told. The premiere episode, “Barbara Gordon,” begins with a hilariously brief version of A Death in the Family, Jim Starlin and Jim Aparo’s comic featuring the Joker’s murder of Jason Todd, the second Robin. In the Titans episode, Bruce Wayne is on a flight and unable to help Jason, who goes after the Joker alone, in spite of Bruce’s warnings. And he gets bludgeoned to death by the Joker, who is shown from so far away that it might as well be any random crook with a crowbar. Jason (Curran Walters) goes out like a chump.
This may well be a point intended by Titans’ writers — heroes turning away from the impulse to turn inward and go it alone has been a major series theme from the jump — but it all goes down too quickly for viewers to feel strongly about it, mostly because Titans almost immediately launches into another famous Batman story. It’s worth noting that while Bruce Wayne occasionally shows up — much like in Titans season 2 — there is no Batman in this story. This is the “fuck Batman” show, remember?
Titans has always been a little too in love with the Batman side of its Batman-free narrative. While it’s technically an ensemble drama about the past and present roster of a teen superhero team coming together, the show definitely has a main character, and it’s Dick Grayson, the first Robin (Brenton Thwaites). Now operating as Nightwing, he’s leading the Titans, which now comprise Starfire (Anna Diop), Gar Logan (Ryan Potter), and Connor/Superboy (Joshua Orpin). However, before the series can dive into what the team is like now, Jason’s death calls Dick from the Titans’ home city of San Francisco back to his old Gotham City haunts, and the Titans eventually follow.
The spine of Titans season 3 is an adaptation of Under the Hood, the 2004-2006 Batman story by Judd Winick, Doug Mahnke, and others who resurrected Jason Todd after his 1988 death as the villainous Red Hood, out for revenge. The Titans take on it holds few surprises for anyone with a passing familiarity with the source material or one of its other adaptations, like the 2015 video game Batman: Arkham Knight. Titans doesn’t stray very far from the story’s major beats, at least not in the first six episodes made available to critics. That isn’t even that big of a problem; the show’s second season similarly spun out a version of Marv Wolfman and George Perez’s classic The Judas Contract story from The New Teen Titans, which wasn’t terribly subversive, but was still exciting to watch. The Judas Contract, however, wasn’t a story about Batman. It was about the Teen Titans.
This might make it sound like Titans ignores its non-Bat-related cast more than it does. And, well — they aren’t absent. Kory eventually gets a subplot picking up a thread from the last season, where her maybe-evil sister arrives on Earth looking for her. While it takes a while for them to show up, Hawk and Dove (Alan Ritchson and Minka Kelly) return, and the show’s longest-running non-Dick character arc returns with them. Unfortunately, that’s kind of it for the season’s first half. Continuing a trend from the last season, the writers often forget Connor and Gar (their powers are expensive to depict, after all), which hurts all the more, since they’re frequently the show’s only reliable source of levity.
It is downright bizarre to see Titans so thoroughly move away from what made it work so well in its previous seasons, which was the tricky tonal balance between dark and violent superhero drama, and fun teen angst. Titans still comes with a harder edge and better action than the average CW superhero soap, but it’s risking its heart and wit with a story that clearly favors a small portion of its cast. There’s little room for enjoyable or playful twists, like the season 1 arc where Rachel Roth (Teagan Croft) took Titans down a horror-fueled road with her strange supernatural powers. (So far this season, she’s missing entirely.) Or season 2’s Big-style goofiness of a fully-grown Superboy learning about the world for the first time, because he’s only known the inside of a lab.
Instead, the current iteration of Titans is steeped in the dark, agonized world of the person it initially wanted to get away from: fucking Batman.
The first three episodes of Titans season 3 are now streaming on HBO Max. New episodes premiere on Fridays.