Thursday, March 21, 2019

Greg Berlanti, the DC TV Universe and Warner Brothers’ Critical Misunderstanding of their Intellectual Property, Part 1

As a lifelong comic book reader, I love me some Doom Patrol, both the silver age wackiness and the Grant Morrison drug-fueled fever dreaminess. So when I saw that the DC Universe app was going to have its own Doom Patrol show, I broke down and sprang for a subscription.

There’s not much else on the App right now, but their schedule for shows premiering in 2019 is ambitious to say the least. Aside from watching Doom Patrol, the thing I was most excited about was the old Spirit pilot starring Sam Jones as Denny Colt. I hadn’t seen it since 1987 and I’m looking forward to revisiting it. I made the decision to wait, not immediately watch it, because I might need a palate cleanser.

Turns out, it was a good call. Seeing that Doom Patrol was going to be a weekly show, and only two episodes were online, I figured I’d be more frustrated than gratified. With nothing left to lose, I decided to try out Titans

I’m also a fan, unsurprisingly, of the New Teen Titans from the 1980s, the now-classic Wolfman-Perez team-up that was one of the most popular comics of its time. I liked, too, the older Teen Titans stories from the 1970s and 1960s, too. It was a neat idea; the teen sidekicks of the famous DC heroes got together to form their own group, consisting of Robin, Aqualad, Wonder Girl, and Speedy—and later, of course, a lot more characters in the teenage demographic, like Hawk and Dove.

Most people now know of the Teen Titans from the ridiculously and incredibly popular animated series, Teen Titans Go! Or whatever it’s called. You know what I mean. Shows that were made to appeal to the younger, anime-watching crowd that also managed to cover a lot of the original story material from the comics, as well, thus placating the fifty-year-old men who were hate-watching the show in case they “messed anything up.”

When this live-action series first put cast photos of the actors online, the aforementioned fifty-year-old men and an assortment of other curmudgeons lost their shit and complained so much about how stupid the characters looked, in particular, Starfire, that the social media blitz clammed up and decided to let the show speak for itself.

It spoke, all right, but what exactly did it say? It said, “Fuck Batman.” In the trailer, no less. 

I was caught off-guard by Robin throwing his R-shaped knives into a thug’s eye socket, blinding him. The blood. The brutality. All of which I have seen before in a number of DC projects. Just…you know…never in a Teen Titans project. Not like that.

Granted, blood in a DC TV show is nothing new; Arrow continues to be equal parts Tragedy Porn and Stuntman Sizzle Reel. Even the other shows in the Berlanti-verse, Supergirl, the Flash, and Legends of Tomorrow, have strayed out of the light and into the dark on more than one occasion as events warranted.

But this? It was almost hateful. Even when the comic was dealing with serious subjects in the 1980s (characters having intimate relationships, betrayal of secret identities by super villains, and all of the other melodramatic elements that made the comic a must-read for the first fifty-sixty issues), there was a clear line of what we were going to see and get. Scenes like Raven’s mother being impregnated by Trigon, Dick Grayson and Kori’s relationship, Terra’s creepy Lolita-turn when she betrayed the team, were all more suggested than made implicit.

I know, I know, it was the 1980s. Maybe that frame of reference is too old for modern audiences. What shall we use, instead, then? The animated show? Which just got a movie made (many years past its expiration date, but whatever)? These goofy-looking sprites? Yeah, no.

How about one of the increasingly insular comic book reboots that have rolled out over the years, each one trying to capture the zeitgeist, at a time when comics publishing numbers were lower than any previous decades? Doesn’t seem like a smart idea.

The options don’t look good, but when you consider who this show is aimed at—new viewers? People who say they like comic books but don’t own any? The tried-and-true fans? Anime kids? Young adults? Beats me. I don’t think they know, either.

In a nutshell, the tone of the show is really at odds with the history of the intellectual property. I mean, it’s THEIR intellectual property, and they can DO whatever they want with it. I just never thought, in a million years, they would do THAT with it.

Mind you, this is not about the look of the show—the money was well spent. Granted, Kori in the show does look like…well, like a Disco Queen, but as soon as her powers kick in, her eyes go green and she turns orange and it looks just like the comic character, so, check. Garfield can only turn into a tiger, because you have to build CGI animals when he does that and it’s easier to animate one model instead of twenty. So, tiger. Robin’s costume is great. So are Hawk and Dove’s costumes. Nice mix of “super hero” and “practical.” Typical Greg Berlanti production values, no complaints there.

I just don’t know where the seemingly open hostility is coming from. In Titans, Dick is a man-whore, with several old and somewhat broken relationships extant in the first season. Berlanti manages to give us both iterations of Hawk and Dove, but only after the first pair is broken up by a tragic accidental death. The Doom Patrol cameo is fun at first, but tires quickly, mostly because the Chief is a nickel-plated asshole.

Since Raven is the maguffin in this first season, we get to see a lot of her life in flashbacks, in between her being passed from self-appointed guardian to self-appointed guardian like a hockey puck.  In the Berlanti-verse, where telling any kind of lie is actually worse than committing murder, Raven’s emphathic touch makes her the most powerful character to ever walk the earth.

This feels like the plot twist of every single Greg Berlanti show I’ve ever seen.

But the real broken relationship is Batman and Robin. We get to meet Jason Todd, and he’s a fully-functioning sociopath. Dick feels that he “doesn’t like who he becomes” when he’s in his Robin suit. Not Jason Todd, though. He’s a half-step away from cutting off his own hand, affixing a chainsaw to the end, and saying “Groovy.” The amount of time given to Dick walking away from Bruce to try and find his own way is frustrating in the extreme, for one major reason: the show goes out of its way to tease Batman, showing us gloved hands, flapping capes, grunts, bad video camera footage, and more. Anything to prove that’s Batman, right there, only we can’t show him to you, because of rights issues regarding TV and Movies.

I get it. You get it. We all get it. Dogs get it. Berlanti likes Batman. Like, a lot. If you squint at Arrow and change the color scheme, that dark tone in the series suddenly makes sense. Oh! This was supposed to be Batman! Now all of the ultra-violence, rain-slicked, neon-lit city streets, and bestial grunts from our titular hero makes perfect sense. He just re-skinned his Batman TV show pitch. Different trappings, sure, but the emotional core is very much Batman: Year One. They do eventually move away from this tone, but only in the last two seasons. The first four are definitely Greg Berlanti’s Gotham City with the serial numbers filed off. The guy has the entirety of the DC universe to play with, everything from Supergirl to John Constantine, but I guess you never forget your first crush, now, do you?

An Open Letter to DC Comics and Warner Brothers

Dear Guys in Suits:

I will hand-sew Greg Berlanti a Catwoman costume to wear if you will please, pretty please, just let him have sex with the Batman, so he can get it out of his system, already.

A lifelong fan of DC Comics

I don’t think there’s a project Greg Berlanti can field that doesn’t in some way point back to Batman. It’s the single longest audition tape I’ve ever watched in my life: seven years of Arrow, The Flash, Legends of Tomorrow, Supergirl, Constantine, and who knows what else he put in his other shows, too?

You may well be asking what the problem is. I mean, everyone likes Batman, right? Even me. Yet I have spent a lot of digital ink on this, and so clearly I’m upset about something. It’s just that, here’s the thing: Not everything needs to be Batman. Or even Batman-flavored. DC’s comic book universe is not a shared universe in the same way that Marvel Comics is. DC’s super heroes have evolved into protectors of domains, however you define that: specific cities (Gotham City, Central City), the seven seas, or Sector 2814. Whether this is by design or happy accident is not for me to say. Only that, there are differences between Metropolis and Gotham City that are so profound they are mirror images of one another. Day and Night, Light and Dark, retro-futuristic and (it’s in the name) gothic.

Taken as the thing that they are, in relative isolation and separated by theme, these domains are rich and wonderful and fully support the character in charge of them. Gods in their realms, and all of that.

The Teen Titans worked as a concept early on, and then later still, because these kid sidekicks had moved out of their domains, and by extension, their patron’s influence, and effectively interacted with the real world. The early Teen Titans stories, fueled by youth culture of the 1960s, tackled (as best as fifty-year old Jewish guys living in New York City) relevant issues. In the 1980s relaunch, the schism is made more emphatic; Dick Grayson is intentionally moving away from the Robin identity, but so are the other original members of the Teen Titans. Kid Flash assumes the mantle of the Flash. Speedy, Green Arrow’s sidekick, takes the name Arsenal. Even Wonder Girl changed her name to Troia. This shift was intentional, and it put the Teen Titans into the DC universe not as emissaries of their former realm, but as outcasts. And likewise, part of what makes the stories so compelling is watching them struggle to figure out who they are. Grayson’s transformation into Nightwing is significant, but it’s only one of many similar events in the first sixty issues of the 1980s New Teen Titans.

Berlanti’s Titans instead focuses most of its time on teasing Raven’s backstory and lavishly unpacking Dick Grayson’s descent into sociopathy at the hands of the Batman. That wouldn’t be a total misfire, but adding insult to injury, Berlanti has Batman’s domain spilling out all over the Titans series, and deliberately so.

Not everyone agrees with this take, and that’s okay, because if we know anything about the way Warner Brothers has handled their intellectual property over the past three decades, it’s that their attitudes change with mercurial swiftness. So, this too shall pass. Not sure if the new iteration will be better or worse, or just different, but I do know that every five to seven years, DC sheds its skin and starts over.

I never thought I’d see a live-action Titans show on television, so I’m not really out anything for having watched the show, except maybe the time I could have spent watching something else, or writing, or learning Mandarin, or any other damn thing. I’m disappointed that the show has gone grim and dark and that they are swinging for the fences of an audience that may not yet exist; i.e. you have to (a) know about the DC Universe App, and (b) want to actually use it, and (c) pay for the privilege of doing so. There’s no casual fan in that mix. Anyone wanting in knows why they are buying it and what characters they are rooting for. And with an upcoming Harley Quinn show in the works, maybe seeding everything in Batman-Land is a good idea. But I don’t see millions of new subscribers pledging fealty to this service anytime soon.

More on this in Part 2.

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