Mostly because the best Teen Titans show — yep, Young Justice — has already been made. And then cancelled.
Earlier this week, word trickled out from chief creative officer Geoff Johns that shooting would begin next year for Titans, a TNT TV show based on DC Comics’ long-running Teen Titans series. Johns — himself a one-time writer of an incarnation of the Teen Titans — also tweeted that Nightwing would be part of the show. That seems to support previous speculation that the TV series would be about Dick Grayson creating his own heroic identity and leading a group of new young heroes.
The Teen Titans concept is predicated on the existence of adolescent sidekicks, an idea that just about crumbles under its own weight when approached with any sort of realism. It might be possible to believe that Batman would adopt and train Dick Grayson because crime took away both sets of their parents. That gets you to accept Robin, at least. But it’s exponentially more risky to ask an audience to invest in the idea that Superman, Wonder Woman, Flash and Aquaman were all ok with having high-schoolers fighting alongside them in life-or-death battles. Now, the risk here could be offset by a confident handling of tone and execution. But that’s still a tricky balancing act all on its own.
Part of the problem of setting up a live-action Titans show is that it’s going to have to exist on its own for the most part. The best part of the Teen Titans concept over the decades has been the tension between growing up in the shadow of a mentor/parent and striking out on your own. You need the adult heroes to be part of the mix, at least for the early stages of the adaptation’s existence. The late, much-loved Young Justice cartoon nailed this aspect of their lore, casting the Justice League as stern, distant yet caring parental figures constantly wrangling the younger team’s insistent desire to prove themselves just as capable as the adults.
A further problem is that the top tier of DC Comics’ superhero stable are all committed to a long rollout of movie projects. We don’t know how the movies will approach world-building and interconnectivity, at least not until Dawn of Justice comes out. And the increasing number of TV shows spinning out from the House of Superman complicates things even more. Previous statements from Warner Brothers exec Diane Nelson have established that corporate cousins DC and WB are ok with different versions of characters showing up in different adaptations:
Ms. Nelson has instead encouraged Warner producers to develop diverse and even contradictory takes. The Batman in “Superman vs Batman,” to be played by Ben Affleck, will be different from the one in “Gotham” and in coming direct-to-DVD animated movies and video games. A kid-friendly version of Batman even appeared in February’s hit “The Lego Movie.”
“It isn’t about a single approach to everything,” said Ms. Nelson. “It’s the right character matched with the right talent in the right medium.”
So, there’s a Ra’s Al Ghul in Christopher Nolan’s Batman movies and one on Arrow this season. The Flash TV show may have just started but there will be a different Flash on movie screens in the next few years. Given how most long-lived comics characters have passed through the filters of different creators and sensibilities, this isn’t without precedent.
However, this multiple-universes approach doesn’t make the idea of sidekicks any easier to swallow. The smartest thing Marvel did in the initial stages of building out its cinematic universe was to suggest there was a pre-history that the audience and characters weren’t privy to. Without a similar conceit in DC-related movie and TV adaptations, it’s going to be tough to have audiences buy into the idea of teenage partners. Sidekicks are a second-stage accoutrement for heroes. A superhero needs to have completed his or her own growing pains before picking up a younger protégé. There needs to be a sense of maturation to a character’s mythos for a sidekick to work and, with everything just starting to get off the ground right now, it’s unclear if any of DC’s adaptation projects will have that.
All of this is to say the main characters in the Titans pilot will probably only have loose associations to other established heroic legacies. With Dick Grayson, the connection will likely be more direct, as they’d have to be. But, the odds of seeing a Kid Flash or a Miss Martian are small. And the chances of any scenes where Dick tells Batman to go screw are infinitesimal. (Let me also say I’d love to be wrong about the above presuppositions.) But, with a little tweaking and inspiration from past storylines, it’s entirely possible that a Titans show could succeed on its own.
The classic Judas Contract story arc would be a good set-up plotline for a TV Titans show, because its juicy soap-opera elements don’t need the prior existence of a superhero universe to work. It happens just as the 1980s iteration of the team is starting to gel, having pulled off a few big victories and starting to expand its roster. You don’t need a Batman or Wonder Woman for that story to work and when it was happening in print, The Judas Contract almost seemed to be happening in its own pocket universe.
The subtext of various separate runs of the Titans comic in the mid-1990s and early 2000s focused on the main cast as a bunch of old friends in their early twenties. No longer junior partners but not necessarily on the premier superhero teams, Nightwing, Donna Troy, Flash were all trying to figure out where they fit in the world.
Some of the best moments from Geoff Johns’ run with artist Mike McKone happened in a story arc called The Future Is Now, where readers got a glimpse of Superboy, Wonder Girl, Robin and Kid Flash as adults who took over the prominent roles of their mentors. The once-teen heroes were darker reflections of the heroes they looked up to, which is another tension a Titans TV series could play with. Imagine a Kryptonian-descended character who looks up to an off-screen Superman but doesn’t have Kal-El’s restraint. (Yeah, I know that this is pretty much Young Justice’s take on Superboy. Like I said, it was the best Teen Titans show.)
The Titans series that’s being developed could acknowledge that a Justice League exists even if those characters never appear, sort of like what’s happened on Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. But, as a fan of various Teen Titans series over the last three decades, it seems like an iteration of the team without older heroes to serve as foils could miss out on so much good story potential. I’m a huge Nightwing fan — even the ponytail version — but part of what’s so great is the push-and-pull tension between Dick Grayson’s my-own-man hero persona and his relationship with Batman. He owes a debt to a bigger concept but is still cool on his own. The creators in charge of adapting Titans to have to figure out how to do the same with their TV show.