Believe it or not, there was a time when there were zero superhero shows on TV. Now there are so many that they don’t all fit on TV. Even though most of The CW’s lineup is DC Comics adaptations, there isn’t room for all of them. “Titans,” which premiered last fall, and “Doom Patrol,” which launched last month, are both on the DC Universe streaming channel. The pilot episodes are available for free through March 29.
These aren’t CW overflow shows, though. Both are darker and not quite safe for children, with grim themes and some swearing (in both), nudity and sex (in “Doom Patrol”) and remarkable violence (in “Titans”). “Star Wars: The Clone Wars” veteran Kevin Kiner and Clint Mansell compose the music for both, using synthesizers rather than the classical instruments associated with mainstream superheroes. The heroes of “Titans” and especially “Doom Patrol” are outcasts, literally hiding or hiding in plain sight, but definitely not loved by an adoring public.
In “Titans” – the adult version of “Teen Titans,” which entered comicdom in 1964 — lead character Dick Grayson/Robin (Brenton Thwaites) is an outcast by choice, having left Gotham because he felt he was becoming too much like Batman. By intentional or unintentional irony, though, he behaves exactly like Batman, dropping out of the sky in a Detroit alley to beat up a criminal. By day, Dick is a Detroit PD officer who ignores his partner.
The most compelling character is purple-haired teenager Rachel Roth (Teagan Croft, resembling Natalie Portman in “The Professional”). She’s a bit like the title character of “Carrie,” complete with a scared, religious mom (although a much nicer one in this case, played by Sherilyn Fenn). Rachel is a sweet girl, but she has the devil inside her; she’s aware of this through her darker half giving her orders via her reflection in mirrors, windows and puddles. Some bad guys know about her, and one tries and fails to kill her. The mystery of Rachel, and how Dick chooses to deal with her, is unquestionably the main reason to keep watching “Titans.”
But we also meet amnesiac Kory Anders/Starfire (Anna Diop), who rediscovers she can burn her enemies to a crisp. As Kory’s memories return, she realizes she been searching for Rachel. And in the very last scene, we see shapeshifter Gar Logan (Ryan Potter), who steals a video game in the guise of a tiger.
“Titans’ ” production design is excellent, and clearly more expensive than the CW shows. It’s shot in Toronto but nicely portrays the rundown buildings of Detroit that Dick/Robin patrols. The colors when Starfire uses her powers are neat, too. The narrative of “Titans” offers nothing we haven’t seen before, but Robin isn’t portrayed in live action nearly as much as Batman, and this is a slick-as-heck vehicle for him.
The spinoff “Doom Patrol” — from a comic that debuted in 1963, mere months before “X-Men” — is the crazier of the two series, like if the Suicide Squad lived in Professor Xavier’s mansion, except that these aren’t necessarily criminals. Rather, they are physically and psychologically scarred people, and it’s great to see this kind of diversity on TV — a type of diversity that’s not discussed nearly as much as race, gender and sexual identity, but should be.
The pilot episode is a series of origin stories, most notably that of Cliff Steele/Robotman (Brendan Fraser in a welcome return to the screen, even though he mostly just does the voice). His story illustrates the wild mood swings of “Doom Patrol,” which is snarkily narrated by Alan Tudyk, who also plays the villain Morden/Mr. Nobody. Cliff was a race-car driver who, despite being a loving father to his young daughter, cheated on his wife and was generally a jerk. This is presented in an “It’s all fun and games” style similar to the “Suicide Squad” movie. But then it gets real dark, real fast with the revelation of his wife and daughter’s death in a crash with Cliff at the wheel.
Thanks to genius wheelchair-bound scientist Niles/Chief (Timothy Dalton), Cliff lives on as a human brain inside a robot. He’s joined in Chief’s secret mansion by Larry/Negative Man (Matt Bomer), who was burned in a plane crash and looks like the Invisible Man from those old movies; Rita/Elasti-Woman (April Bolwby), a beautiful former actress who morphs into a disfigured blob; and Kay/Crazy Jane (Diane Guerrero), who harbors two identities – one merely snarky, one viciously mean.
They all have powers via extraterrestrial magic (or something). However, Chief hasn’t gathered them to form a superhero team, but rather to save them and give them a home away from the society that would shun them. I’ve always felt “X-Men” is slightly disingenuous with the way it lumps together mutants who can pass as human and those who can’t; those are different situations. With the possible exception of Chief himself, the Doom Patrol contains what society used to call “freaks,” and I think even Crazy Jane qualifies, because she can’t control her mean side and therefore stands out almost as much as Robotman.
“Doom Patrol” has the richer text of the two pilot episodes, but it’s not as visually unusual (it’s shot in Georgia, like many TV series) and it offers less of an ongoing story hook. Morden is a chaotic villain who will cause plenty of trouble, and Tudyk is always good. But the narrative of “Doom Patrol” doesn’t grab me as much as the mysterious “Titans,” which also has the advantage of featuring major DC character Robin. Still, I’d give both of them a second episode if I didn’t have to pay for another streaming service.