Lately, I’ve been watching a lot of DC movies and TV shows I’ve missed throughout the years. I’ve had more time to watch TV, and HBO Max seemingly has everything they’ve put out, making it more convenient to catch up. Much of what I’ve seen has been unimpressive and unremarkable, but I’ve come across a couple of big exceptions. I’ve already reviewed Doom Patrol, but here, I want to do things a little bit differently. Two of the shows in question feature similar stories and concepts and even star some of the same characters. However, they differ wildly in quality. One is among my favorite shows I’ve ever seen, and the other one… well, I wouldn’t recommend watching it for any reason. Let’s dig in.
Created by Geoff Johns, Brandon Vietti, and Gargoyles mastermind Greg Weisman, Young Justice premiered in 2010 to rave reviews. After two seasons, it was canceled, but later revived in 2016 due to fan enthusiasm. The show follows the protégés of several prominent members of the Justice League, such as Robin (Jesse McCartney,) Aqualad (Khary Payton,) Kid Flash (Jason Spisak,) and Superboy (Nolan North). They seek independence and mastery of their abilities, and encounter unique obstacles as they branch out. Each season features a time-skip and new character rosters. As new heroes and villains appear, older ones are lost for one reason or another. The show has a vast, dynamic cast and excels at making each character understandable and entertaining while juggling long-form story arcs and smaller subplots. Young Justice currently has three seasons, all streaming on HBO Max, with a fourth on the way.
Titans premiered on the DC Universe streaming service back in 2018. Although the show’s trailer and promotional materials were initially met with skepticism and derision, it has developed a following and has decent scores on IMDb and Rotten Tomatoes. Titans stars Robin/Nightwing (Brenton Thwaites), and follows his adventures, from being a detective in Detroit to reuniting the Titans with new members. Titans currently has two seasons, both streaming on HBO Max, with a third on the way (unfortunately for me).
To start with the obvious, Young Justice is far more aesthetically pleasing than Titans. Ironically, I avoided Young Justice for years because I didn’t like the animation style; I didn’t like how different the character designs were from Batman: The Animated Series and Justice League. Time and again, I don’t watch things because of the animation, and I have frequently regretted it. Not only is Young Justice beautiful, but the animation evolves throughout the seasons. And unlike the updated animation for The New Adventures of Batman and Robin, I like the changes made here. All of the villains look appropriately intimidating, especially Vandal Savage. The animation is also simply gorgeous in its own right, and I have to appreciate the sheer amount of detail in every frame. I don’t like any of the character designs in Titans, with the exceptions of Hawk (Alan Ritchson), Dove (Minka Kelly), and the Doom Patrol in their brief cameo. Brenton Thwaites’ (Maleficent, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales) Robin just looks comical to me, with his edgy mask and grim visage. Their attempt to make him an edgelord badass who don’t need no Batman falls flat for me as a result. The character design for Anna Diop as Starfire/Kory Anders was much commented on when the show was first announced. Most of this was a mixture of racism and slut-shaming, but I will admit I don’t like her clothes or hair, especially in season one. I don’t care how provocatively she’s dressed (I’ve always seen this character scantily clad anyway), and I see the race of an alien character as a non-issue. But the vibrant pinks and purples clash, and her hair is overblown. I find her gaudy casual wear hard to believe, either for a Princess or a serious government agent, both of which she is. For that matter, Teagan Croft’s Rachel Roth/Raven has many of the same issues; ditto Ryan Potter (Big Hero 6) as Beast Boy. The show’s attempts to humanize these characters fall flat, and the vibrant colors of their regular wardrobe and hair make one wonder how they fit into everyday life. I honestly don’t get it; I would have expected more color in the superhero costumes and less in the day clothes, but Titans takes the opposite approach. The show also has this grimdark gray tint over the film, producing a gloomy mood that permeates the entire experience.
Regarding the characters, Titans wasted little time in ruining anything and anyone I was initially interested in. The first red flag was that Dick, Rachel, and Kory aren’t sympathetic or compelling at all. Dick’s defining traits are his penchant for wanton violence and tremendous guilt over his parents and former teammates’ deaths. He constantly broods over these things, rarely smiling or saying anything encouraging. He’s a failure, but worse, he’s a liar, continually misleading his “friends.” They toy with the notion that Dick is becoming too much like Batman, but it’s never convincing and comes off as silly. He’s too whiny, complaining about his upbringing and shouting expletives at a Batman who isn’t even present. The pleasure he takes in hurting people is also far more disturbing than relatable or sympathetic. This guy sleeps with half of the show’s major female characters, and I don’t get what they see in him. Kory is tough and has a mouth on her, and that’s the extent of her character. In season 2, they explore what happens when she loses her powers, and her sister Blackfire threatens to attack her. That sounds great, but we have no emotional connection to Blackfire. Sure, she’s Kory’s sister, but we don’t know anything about their relationship before Kory’s amnesia. Everything we learn about Blackfire is told in dialogue, not flashbacks or cuts to her on Tamaran, so we can’t see what kind of person and ruler she is. Kory and Dick’s romantic relationship is lacking in both chemistry and development. They’re not terribly supportive of one another, and argue more often than not. And, like I mentioned earlier, what does Kory see in Dick anyway? She could definitely do better. In the Teen Titans animated series, these two didn’t even officially get together, if memory serves. However, they were still better developed and had more chemistry than they do here. Rachel has the most tragic backstory of all. She’s the daughter of a demon and a woman who only sees her as a means to an end. As with Dick and Kory, I wish this character wasn’t always doom and gloom. The writing doesn’t sell the character well enough to invest me in her trials, and that’s all she is. Everyone on this show is a ball of angst with some occasional romantic tension, which is usually just as bad (and extremely cringy).
All the talk of family on Titans is really just sad. Kory frequently mentions her love for Rachel, taking on a motherly role, or perhaps that of an older sister. And Dick supposedly looks out for the Titans like an older brother. The problem is that none of these characters have any chemistry, and these dynamics are stated outright in the dialogue rather than developed naturally. Characters I actually liked in the beginning, like Hawk and Dove, were quickly dragged down by poor writing. I was fascinated by their dynamic early on; the idea of a couple that works together as superheroes is pretty cool, and I liked their dialogue. However, soon it was revealed that Dawn/Dove (Minka Kelly) had a past with Robin, and Hawk/Hank dislikes him for this reason. I hate love triangles, and I hate it even more here because it spoils a subplot I was previously enjoying. Just like with Kory, I don’t see why Dawn would even be into Dick. She has a loving, supportive boyfriend who gives her a thoughtful gift. The show is more interested in flashbacks to her relationship with Dick, though. By the end of season 2, Hank and Dawn are a thing of the past. Is it really the end for these two? I don’t care at this point. And while Titans came before Doom Patrol, this show’s version of the crew annoyed me. Timothy Dalton didn’t play Caulder in this, and the other characters have very different personalities.
Young Justice explores a similar storyline, but it’s handled differently. In season 1, Miss Martian (Danicka McKellar) instantly likes Superboy (Nolan North), and by the end of the season, they’re officially a couple. Their relationship goes through numerous ups and downs, but unlike the couples in Titans, they’re problems specific to these characters. Conner was mind-controlled at Cadmus, where he was created. This left him with a hatred of mind control and manipulation in general. The first time M’gann uses telepathic communication, Conner goes off on her, understandably angry at any invasion of his privacy. For his part, Conner is an angry person who frequently overreacts. These issues become a recurring theme with the two, especially as Conner brings up M’gann’s old transgressions after purportedly forgiving her and moving on. These two have a believable connection that develops over time from M’gann’s initial crush. Their dialogue is natural, and the problems they encounter occur organically rather than the forced, shoehorned-in drama Titans frequently opts for. M’gann and Conner’s storyline as a couple also ties in with their individual character arcs exceptionally well. M’gann initially struggles with controlling her Martian abilities, later growing to abuse them against enemies. This again leads to Conner having some misgivings. Things come to a head for M’gann when she accidentally uses her powers on a friend undercover as a villain, breaking his mind. Even after she helps him restore his faculties, this haunts M’gann at least until the end of season 3. For Conner’s part, he has to deal with his temper, and eventually, he stands up for the other genomorphs created by Cadmus.
M’gann started out as one of my least favorite characters on the show, with her “Hello, Megan!” catchphrase and over-the-top social awkwardness. Her early interactions with Conner came off as cringy; I get major secondhand embarrassment from characters hitting on someone and being rejected. However, the show’s explanation for “Hello, Megan!” was sad, relatable, and explained so much about this character. It also gave context to seemingly throw-away lines from earlier episodes. For example, Black Canary (Vanessa Marshall) remarking that M’gann turned white to her momentary horror. This is excellent writing, building something up to where you have no idea what’s coming, but it makes perfect sense when all is revealed. Young Justice does that a lot; I was always surprised, but the surprises invested me deeper in the story instead of confusing me or putting me off. By the end of season 1, M’gann was not only my favorite character on Young Justice but my favorite TV show character I’ve encountered in a while. With Titans, it’s usually abundantly clear what’s going on ahead of time. When it comes time for a “reveal,” it’s unimpactful and feels patronizing.
Another character I grew to love is Aqualad/Kaldur’ahm, who has a fascinating story arc over the course of the seasons. The time jumps are one aspect I initially found frustrating with this show, but now I kind of get it and think it’s a great idea. We get to follow these characters over vast spans of time, checking in on them during critical periods. Kaldur goes from an insecure man struggling to lead the team in season 1 to the head of the Justice League in season 3. You love to see it. Props to Khary Payton, whose performance as Kaldur is unrecognizable from his voice for Cyborg in Teen Titans, but still just as good. I only wish he had more screentime in “Outsiders,” but I understand he’s no longer part of the central team. I love the crew’s dynamic in general, from their inside jokes to the complex interpersonal connections they develop over the seasons. I would never have guessed that Artemis and M’gann would become best friends. In retrospect, I have to appreciate how subtly and convincingly they went from acquaintances who liked the same boy to the best of friends. I love how the characters in Young Justice actually talk through their issues and tell one another their deep, dark secrets rather than letting the situation continually escalate. I hate all the secrets and scheming in Titans so much, and it’s part of why I can’t believe those characters are friends, let alone lovers or a patchwork family.
Titans is marketed as a more mature, dark story about young heroes, but the show fails miserably at this conceit. The constant attempts to shove sex and foul language at the audience betrays a lack of understanding of adult storytelling. Young Justice only implies sexual scenarios, and the team employs lingo they invent, which evolves naturally. Young Justice does lean into the violence, especially in season 3, “Outsiders.” Lots of meta-human brawls occur this season, and we see Victor Stone’s gruesome transformation into Cyborg. Sometimes, shows produced for an adult audience try so hard to seem mature that it has the opposite result, feeling like a child’s idea of what adults like. Unsurprisingly, Young Justice was created by Greg Weisman, as Gargoyles also excelled at exploring adult themes and situations with grace.
There’s so much more that Young Justice succeeds at, leaving Titans in the dust. What little comedy exists in Titans is unfunny, cringy, or both. The running gags in Young Justice are hilarious, and my favorite joke in the show comes from Guy Gardner when the Justice League is in space. Either you know what I’m talking about, or I won’t spoil it for you. I was in tears from laughing, and I’ll leave it at that. Young Justice also has lots of fun Easter eggs, such as an appearance from Lex Luthor’s henchman Otis and a Doom Patrol/Teen Titans Go! crossover that had me in stitches; totally unexpected, which made it even better. Young Justice also handles its female characters better, both hero and villain. They have relationships and show interest in boys, but unlike in Titans, they don’t exist to prove Dick Grayson has got game. And as for female villains, it’s no contest. I don’t like any of Titans’ villains; it makes a joke out of Trigon and turns Slade into a moody, whiny brooder. Titans‘ only female villains are Blackfire (who we know nothing about), the mom of that murder family, and Rose. Rose turns coat as soon as a boy shows interest in her, and murder mom isn’t important or even entertaining for her brief stint. Young Justice has villains like Granny Goodness and Cheshire, all wildly different and with interesting motivations and relationships to one another and the show’s good guys. I expect Vandal Savage’s daughter Cassandra to become a more prominent player after the emphasis she was given in season 3.
On that note, Vandal Savage is an incredible villain. I’ve heard of him before, and I think I’ve seen him in some other animated DC projects, but I’ve never been this taken in by the character. Season 3, Episode 7, “Evolution,” is one of my favorites of the series. An alien armada comes ever closer to the Earth, and the Justice League is held back by diplomatic laws. Vandal Savage realizes he’s the one who can save “(his) planet” and steps up to the plate. Once again, the show shocked me in taking the story in this direction, but it’s really the presentation that floored me. Flashbacks interspersed throughout the episode show the beginning of Savage’s life and how he’s survived this long by taking on various monikers and conquering every place he went. It’s strange how we know that most of what he does in these flashbacks is wrong, yet seeing it happen feels weirdly inspiring. It’s revealed that we’re not just watching his memories played back; one of his daughters has been chronicling his life through the ages for posterity. Cassandra, his younger daughter, is reading this book, and we occasionally hear narration in her voice. Zehra Fazal (who also voices Halo, a primary season 3 character) does a fantastic job with this reading. It would be easy to let a narration grow stale, especially when it happens intermittently throughout an entire episode. But she really conveys the epic scope of this story stretching across the millennia and continents. I enjoyed the various villainous members of The Light up to this point. But from here on, Vandal Savage was one of my favorite characters on the show. They displayed him overcoming adversity to become the oldest man alive and one of the most powerful. I also liked how, in season 2, the Injustice League, featuring characters like Joker and Poison Ivy, were a red herring to distract the team from the Light. That was really smart, in and out-of-universe. Titans doesn’t even put this much thought into its heroes, let alone the villains.
I don’t want to be too hard on the cast of Titans, as I think it must be challenging to sell material this dumb. I thought Brenton Thwaites was good in Pirates and Maleficent, and of course, I liked Ryan Potter as Hiro in Big Hero 6 and its spin-off TV series. And a couple of the performances here are actually pretty good, like Alan Ritchson as Hank and Iain Glen as Bruce Wayne. Overall, however, there’s little competition here. All of the main characters in Young Justice are extremely well performed, and the villains range from good to great. There are some odd castings here and there, like Brent Spiner as the Joker. He’s not bad, just really, really not what I was expecting. Other Gargoyles alumni Marina Sirtis and Keith David fare much better as Queen Bee and Mongul, respectively. Bruce Greenwood reprises Batman after voicing him in Under the Red Hood. Personally, after Kevin Conroy (with whom nobody can compete), Greenwood is probably my favorite animated Batman voice. Mae Whitman, Grey Griffin, Kevin Michael Richardson, Phil LaMarr, Dee Bradley Baker, and a slew of other great voice actors feature in the show. I was delighted to hear Steve Blum, as Count Vertigo, utter Zeb’s catchphrase from Star Wars: Rebels, another series Weisman wrote for.
Overall, I was baffled by how much better Young Justice was than Titans. Don’t get me wrong; I was pretty sure I wouldn’t like Titans. However, I didn’t have any expectations for Young Justice, either. I avoided it for years due to everything from the very conceit of the show (sidekicks as the main heroes) to the look of the animation. Not only was I wrong, but I’m baffled that I waited so long to watch what is most certainly one of the best series in recent memory. It has natural, well-planned character arcs like Avatar: The Last Airbender, and a huge, rotating cast like Star Wars: The Clone Wars. The relationships between the characters, be they familiar, romantic, platonic, or anything in-between, are developed unbelievably well over the show’s three seasons. I almost can’t believe they juggle so many characters, both good and evil, and give them all such good backstories, motivations, and interpersonal connections with one another. But then I remember who’s involved, and it makes sense. I can’t recommend this show enough, and I’m on pins and needles waiting for the release of season 4, “Phantoms.” However, if you have a chance to watch Titans, just know that it is as bad as people say. I would avoid it at all costs and skip all the cringiness and frustration.