Sunday, February 28, 2021

ARROW: SEASON 1 (2012-13), TITANS: SEASONS 1-2 (2018-2019)


PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *metaphysical, psychological, sociological*

Producer Greg Berlanti’s SMALLVILLE series ended a couple of years before the founding teleseries that led to his “Arrowverse.” But although both shows offered up a heapin’ helpin’ of romantic anxiety and tortuous trust issues, the earlier show’s take on a Young Superman seemed consciously modeled on Joss Whedon’s BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER, but without the horror-fantasy’s darker edges. ARROW, debuting years after the phenomenal success of the very dark (and often dire) Bat-flicks of Christopher Nolan, gave viewers an edgier hero capable of killing during his war on cosmopolitan crime.

That hero, known as the Hood for most of the first season, was of course patterned on DC Comics stalwart Green Arrow, and is played with stern aplomb by square-jawed Stephen Amell. In the comics Green Arrow spent most of his existence as a very lightweight superhero, but he entered a “grim and gritty” phase in the eighties and even eschewed his signature use of wild trick-arrows. Though every comics-derived teleseries chooses various dishes from the buffet of established continuity to produce its adaptations, ARROW seems somewhat indebted to the Green Arrow who uses arrows that can kill—and indeed, the Hood does kill a handful of hardened criminals in his first few episodes.

The comics character trained himself in archery while marooned on a desert island. Berlanti’s Oliver Queen follows a similar trajectory, but he starts off as an irresponsible playboy rather than a hero pretending to be one, and the island on which he’s isolated for years is full of almost as many bizarre characters and situations as your average LOST episode. Once Oliver returns to normal society, he’s fired with the will to become a vigilante, but his course is compromised by a retinue of family and close companions never seen in the comics-- mother, sister, stepfather, best friend, former girlfriend and girlfriend’s father. (The last two hate Oliver’s guts because the playboy went on a jaunt with the girlfriend’s sister, who died during said jaunt). On the plus side, the Hood receives support from the two charter members of “Team Arrow,” tough bodyguard John Diggle and IT-girl Felicity Smoak. The vigilante (who will eventually accept the “Green Arrow” moniker) also gets the beginnings of a rogue’s gallery taken from the funnybooks, derived from such characters as Count Vertigo, Deathstroke and Merlyn the Magician.

The first two or three seasons are the best in the series, before the show became impossibly overburdened with a badly conceived ensemble of crimefighters. At this point, the hyperkinetic fight-scenes are still shot well enough that viewers can make out what’s happening, and all the soap operatics are mildly engrossing, though always a little on the superficial side. In an early episode Felicity remarks to Oliver that his family drama is reminiscent of HAMLET, with him returning from far-off parts to find his mother remarried to another man (though this time the father’s demise is laid at the son’s door, and the “Claudius” is actually less of a criminal than the “Gertrude”.) There’s a big criminal scheme that in 2012 might’ve been seen as “the Revenge of the One Percenters,” and indeed Berlanti follows Nolan in avoiding most of the non-wealthy malefactors. But from a contemporary standpoint there’s a more interesting synchronicity that appears in a flashback that takes place on Oliver’s island. When Berlanti’s writers imagined a plot to destroy China’s economy by shooting down an airliner, little did they imagine that eight years later China would unleash its own evil plan, whereby the entire world would suffer economic devastation.

Berlanti’s soap-operatics would reign supreme in all the rest of his Arrowverse productions. But TITANS, produced for HBO and taking place on a “separate Earth,” has more resemblance to the horror-themed melodrama of the nineties BUFFY series than it does to anything in the Arrowverse—or, for that matter, in the celebrated NEW TEEN TITANS series from which most of TITANS derives. In this production Berlanti shares production credits with two other famous (or infamous) names in superhero fare, Geoff Johns and Akiva Goldsman. But since neither man is particularly well known for dark, edgy drama in their respective film-and-TV work, I have to assume all three producers tailored this superhero adaptation to fit HBO’s standards. Since I’ve never liked Johns or Goldsman, and since I’ve found most of Berlanti’s TV shows execrable in the last four years, it’s nothing short of a miracle that the TITANS show comes together as well as it does.

Given that the core idea of TEEN TITANS depends on the formation of a team of heroic young sidekicks, TITANS practically requires the setting of an Earth where numerous superheroes throng the skylines, much like the status quo of DC superhero comics. Most of the “elder” heroes—Superman, Aquaman, Wonder Woman—are referenced but not seen, while Batman is seen only in the non-costumed identity of Bruce Wayne. When the series begins, a Teen Titans hero-group operated some years ago, but that assemblage ceased activity for reasons undisclosed in the first season. Dick Grayson, now a twenty-something rather than a Boy Wonder, has split from his role of Batman’s partner, and he pursues a mundane form of crimefighting in police work. But, as in the introductory issues of the eighties comics series, Grayson becomes involved with some new kids on the superhero block: analogues of Raven, Starfire and Beast Boy. To cope with the various problems of the newbie heroes—most of which revolve around Raven and her rapacious demon-father—the former Robin calls upon members of the former group—the Hawk, the Dove, and Donna (“Wonder Girl”) Troy. Much to his chagrin, Grayson is also obliged to call upon the resources of his erstwhile Bat-mentor, and thus he ends up saddled with Batman’s new partner, a “new Robin” named Tim Drake. The second season adds three more luminaries to the lineup: Conner, a twenty-something clone of Superman, and both Jericho and Rose (“Ravager”) Wilson, son and daughter to the super-hitman Deathstroke.

Despite what might seem an unwieldy ensemble, the TITANS writers do a sterling job of designing strong melodramatic arcs for most of the characters. The weakest link is indubitably Beast Boy. The character became a regular member of the New Teen Titans in order to provide the feature with comedy relief, but this version of Beast Boy is largely played straight, perhaps to avoid undermining the dominant grimness of the show. But this version of Gar Logan remains a weak concept, and the show’s budget can’t handle the character’s specialty, that of transforming into countless animal forms. The alien heroine Starfire presents parallel problems. As long as she’s an energy-wielding alien princess stuck on Earth, she doesn’t strain the limits of the show’s potential. But when the second season makes allusions to her returning to her home on the world of Tamaran, and pursuing a conflict with her acrimonious sibling Blackfire, the experienced TV-watcher knows good and well that TITANS won’t be able to pull off that level of set-design and FX.

The character-arcs in both seasons are generally strong, but the interweaving plots about each season’s respective “Big Bad” lack cohesion. Season One focuses on Raven, bewildered by the onset of her demonic powers and pursued by various groups, some of which work for her father Trigon. By season’s end, it’s hard to recall who was on whose side, and for what reason. But the first-season episodes are strong in maintaining a sense of nightmarish dislocation as the other heroes get pulled into Raven’s outre world.

Second season reveals that the first group of Titans broke up because of the depredations of Deathstroke, who has vowed to destroy any group of Titans Robin puts together because the villain believes the hero responsible for the death of Jericho. The comics-version of Jericho was not particularly memorable, and his contribution to this narrative feels shoehorned in. However, there’s a somewhat better balance between the A-plot of Deathstroke’s vendetta, which includes all of the developments with his daughter Rose, and the B-plot dealing with the genesis of Conner, who’s given life by a laboratory run by Superman’s nemesis Luthor. Season Two concludes with the Death of a Hero, though the producers cannily suggest that it might be one who famously perishes in the comics, in a skillful act of misdirection.

A season 3 for TITANS is in the offing, but I wouldn’t mind if the show closed while it remained relatively “on top,” unlike a certain series about a green-clad archer.

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