The first three episodes of Titans Season 3 released on HBO Max yesterday waste no time making it clear that Titans can be a very different show. Despite still being centered around darker themes, it is hard to miss that the start of the season feels like Titans is being dragged away from its overly broody, dispirited origins. Episode 1 immediately portrays our heroes as an actual team that takes down bad guys and sticks around for the San Francisco press—the people love them. Already, the show feels more optimistic and a bit more enthusiastic.
Dick Grayson himself is a bit jarringly more upbeat in these first scenes. He is snarkier and less dejected, fully embracing his role as the leader of the Titans. Koriand’r is similarly lighter and friendlier right off the bat. Season 3 also wasted no time in updating her look once again. While it’s a bit tedious to see her physically change so frequently—especially while the others remain exactly the same—each time Titans updates Kory she tends to look more and more like the strong and intimidating royal alien that we want her to be. The other characters showcased in the early minutes of Episode 1—Gar, Conner, Dawn, and Hank—all are given brief but meaningful re-introductions that emphasize how far the characters have come in terms of their physical abilities and relationships to one another.
The first three episodes are ignited by the death of Jason Todd. While Season 2 ended with the death of Donna Troy, using Jason’s supposed death as the focal point here is genuinely a clever move. Fresh off of the trauma and perceived abandonment he endured by the Titans last season, Jason as Robin impulsively and unpreparedly confronts the Joker alone, only appear to be quickly and brutally beaten to death. Already the show has married the internal tensions of the Titans with Gotham City lore, which Titans has repeatedly flirted with in the past. Dick’s discovery of Jason’s strange chemical inhalant and Bruce Wayne’s utter psychotic break following Jason’s death sparks a detective thriller that sees the Titans relocate to Wayne Manor to investigate.
There is heavy emphasis on Bruce Wayne/Batman, Gotham, Dick, and Jason in the first three episodes. While the show seems rightfully aware of its past success in its portrayal of Dick as a damaged former Robin and his relationship to Bruce, this theme starts to feel a bit excessive at times. The way in which Titans is going out of its way to literally tell (rather than show) us how Bruce is a psychopath who destroyed the lives of young Dick and Jason is too forced. Dick and Barbara Gordon talk about how Bruce is in denial several times, Barbara yells at Bruce in front of Dick about how horrible he was with the Robins, and Bruce promptly opted to murder to Joker all to bring it home that Bruce is, well, terrible. The introduction of Barbara has so far been positive, as she anchors our characters into Gotham a bit more smoothly. It also expands our known Bat-Family and exposes us to more of its secrets and scars.
Still, the show wasted an opportunity to emotionally hook the audience at the start by glossing over Jason’s “death.” Given the groundwork the series has laid, it likely would have been effective to wallow in the loss for a moment before quickly moving on to his Red Hood alias and continually focusing on how Bruce is, again, terrible. Not only does the rushed and vague death make the Red Hood twist more predictable, but it also dampens how much impact the story could have had with a more intense focus on the implications of Jason’s death on the Titans and even in Gotham. Instead, it is mostly used as a quick plot creator and a reason to aggressively communicate that Bruce is, once again, terrible.
The emphasis on Bruce is clearly a ploy to emphasize Dick. Showcasing Bruce as terrible and doomed to be terrible is any easy way to make Dick look worthier. It also spurs the recurring theme through these three episodes that Dick should “be a better Batman.” This will surely set the course throughout the season for Dick to continue to go through turmoil as Batman’s legacy. There were moments in Season 2 where this dynamic truly shined for the show, but at a certain point it gets repetitive. Dick’s character and the series’ exploration and development of it is no doubt one of its best assets, but it’s coming at the expense of Titans being about Dick and Gotham City rather than the Titans.
Jason’s Red Hood is an OK villain so far. While his presence isn’t particularly menacing or frightening, he does commit significantly violent and sadistic actions at the beginning of his tenure which cements him as a formidable and serious foe for the Titans. While Jason’s change in character is just convincing enough, it falls short of being truly gripping or believable. Still, his more manipulative and puppet master-type edge is more interesting than his Robin. His role does bring forth more intricate detective-type work and storytelling than in previous seasons. It has the unfortunate tendency to drag, but when it’s at its best it can be compelling. In any event, it’s certainly an upgrade to the splotchy and often incoherent plotlines of the past.
Aside from developing a cohesive and streamlined story, the first three episodes have also vastly improved on their portrayal of their titular characters. Gar remains cheekily charismatic, and Conner, the newcomer, has been well implanted as his number one companion. The two have an innocent, childlike dynamic that suits both characters consistent with how they’ve been established in previous seasons. Honestly, the two—especially Gar—deserve more screen time based on how well they interact amongst themselves and as side characters in others’ stories. Perhaps more is in store for them later in Season 3. Kory, on the other hand, is very slowly improving, but the script never seems to give her much personality or even room to express one. Rachel is absent for the first time. To be honest, it wasn’t all that noticeable until it was mentioned in the show. While I’m sure the character will return from Themyscira bringing potentially several major plot lines to the table, her absence is letting Titans breathe and regroup at the moment following the overly ambitious Rachel-centered Season 1 and Rachel-heavy Season 2.
The greatest praise that can be given to these first three episodes is Hank’s arc. Hank and Dawn always had the problem of being two characters that did not exist without the other. True, their relationship was a driving force of Hawk and Dove, but neither felt overly interesting. In the brief space where the two were no longer a couple, Hank was given more screen time and the character was actually one of the more enjoyable to watch. He gained aspects of humor and even joy without losing his short-tempered and sturdier ways. He also had warm moments with several Titans that he normally would not interact with much. When Jason implanted the bomb in his chest, it initially felt like a generic beat-the-clock episode. It played out as one, but the ending took the bold step to actually kill Hank at the very moment all seemed saved. It was a little disappointing to see him and Dawn make up so quickly in the midst of it all after they had finally been released from the constraints of being attached, but ultimately it was all in favor of making Hank’s death actually impactful. For the first time in the series, a death actually felt like a loss. Not only did the Titans lose Hank, but they seemingly lost Dawn as well after she decided to leave following his death.
Episodes 1 through 3 delivered a solid start to Season 3, and are undeniably of higher quality and more enjoyable than Titans episodes have been in the past. It comes with the unfortunate tradeoff of losing focus on the actual Titans in favor of a Gotham-centered plot. The action is also noticeably missing so far from the series, particularly with respect to any hero whose powers rely on (less than ideal) visual effects. Where some is included, it’s perfectly decent, but there’s not enough of it to drawn from at this point.