Comic-Con International has now concluded but, as usual, the proverbial bombshells that were dropped on the attendees in San Diego continue to send ripples all across the country. In addition to highly-anticipated first looks at movies last weekend, including Aquaman, we’ve also learned that the critically-acclaimed animated series Star Wars: The Clone Wars is making a return to finish out its run, along with attendees and press outlets absorbing the regular steady drip of new comic book, video game and TV news.
One of the more controversial premieres was the trailer for the new live-action TV series Titans, which will premiere on the DC Universe streaming service later this year. Titans is based on the classic lineup of characters from a team more regularly referred to as the Teen Titans, introduced in the 1980s by writer Marv Wolfman and artist George Pérez in their comic book series The New Teen Titans.
If you’ve seen the trailer, you likely don’t need an explanation as to why its content was controversial. Mostly centered on the new live-action portrayal of Batman’s first partner Dick Grayson/Robin, it looks extremely violent, as well as adult-oriented, which caught a lot of fans off-guard. So, we thought we’d take a little bit of a closer look at Robin’s live-action legacy, how it’s intertwined with the comics, and what the mindset of the new show’s creators is when trying to rationalize the vision of Robin that tells a group of assembled criminals, “F**k Batman.”
Robin in Live-Action
The celluloid legacy of Batman’s crimefighting partner Robin goes back to 1943, when the character himself was only a few years old after his introduction in Detective Comics #38 in 1940. That year, Columbia Pictures produced a theatrical serial simply called Batman starring Lewis Wilson as the titular hero, along with a young, 17-year old actor named Douglas Croft playing the part of Robin, the Boy Wonder. Having been released at the height of the United States’ involvement in World War II, there was a propagandic element to the serial since Batman and Robin – agents of the United States government, in this depiction – faced off against a diabolical, mad Japanese scientist named “Dr. Daka” (played by American actor J. Carrol Naish).
Still, as far as the strict imagery was concerned, the ’43 Batman serial was a very solid vision of the characters, with Batman and Robin getting scrappy in numerous outnumbered encounters with several henchmen at once, and Croft’s age in playing Robin currently makes him the youngest actor ever to play Batman’s kid sidekick. Six years later, 26-year old actor Johnny Duncan played Robin in the serial Batman and Robin, not quite keeping the fidelity of Croft’s portrayal, especially with the blatant tights he wore over his hairy legs to look somewhat boyish.
Of course, in 1966 followed perhaps the most famous portrayal of Batman’s sidekick: 21-year old Burt Gervis, Jr. – later known as Burt Ward – was cast as Dick Grayson in the 1966 TV series Batman alongside actor Adam West. Even now, Ward’s portrayal of Robin is pop culture’s most famous, with the vision of the character fitting comfortably in the irreverent, campy tone of the wider series. Over fifty years after the show first began, Ward remains largely unchallenged as the larger culture’s definitive portrayal of Robin, a fact that comic book fans chafe at a little bit.
The next portrayal of Grayson came in 1995’s Batman Forever, where the character was played by actor Chris O’Donnell. This vision of Dick Grayson was older, a little closer in age to Nightwing – the role Dick grew into in the comics after his time as Robin – and was a little harder-edged and more recognizable to comics fans while still maintaining a degree of pragmatism that the character has always had. The development he endured in Batman Forever, though, was backtracked noticeably when he returned in 1997’s Batman & Robin, panned far more than its predecessor and putting the Batman film series on pause for a number of years.
That was the last time we saw Dick Grayson in live-action, which will change in the fall with the premiere of Titans.
Dick Grayson/Robin in the Comics and in Titans
Dick Grayson is, easily, one of DC Comics’ absolute best characters. In early 2017, Comics on Film devoted an entire column to that point when we first examined the news that director Chris McKay was developing a movie about him based on his Nightwing persona to somehow fit into the DC Extended Universe. In addition to having become quite a solo hero in his own right in modern comics as Nightwing, Dick represents the best of both his mentor and himself, not typically coming with the emotional baggage that Batman himself has while, arguably, having most or all of the skill of his mentor.
Dick Grayson is the embodiment of what any parent wants for their child, what any master would want for their apprentice, and what any teacher would want for their protégé: to surpass them. That’s what makes the vision of Robin we saw in the Titans trailer all the more shocking for a lot of people, particularly those who still see Burt Ward as “their” Robin.
In the trailer, we saw a vision of Robin that seems fueled by rage, that has clearly had a massive falling-out with his mentor (at least as indicated by his choice words about the Dark Knight), and who seems to have little compunction about breaking the “one rule” that defines most depictions of the Batman/Robin partnership. Even (and perhaps especially) for comics fans, the image of seeing Robin with a criminal’s blood splashed across his face was a stark contrast to what we’ve seen before.
So, what’s the inspiration for this harder-edged take that seems to push boundaries that may even make an R-rated Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice blush? Well … it may be the producers’ way of honoring a legacy of the trailblazing Teen Titans comics on the 1980’s, weirdly enough. In his spotlight panel last Thursday in San Diego, Titans co-creator and executive producer Geoff Johns talked a bit about what the philosophy is for the tone of the show, and on the vision of Robin in particular. He said (via CBR):
“The trailer really highlights [what fellow co-creators] Akiva Goldsman, Greg Berlanti and I have done to honor Marv and George in the 80s. It was the first time you ever saw two superheroes in bed together. We’re trying to honor that spirit of envelope pushing. … Dick is really trying to leave Robin behind. … When we put this trailer together, we had a lot of talk about the language and the potential controversy but I think you guys are going to be surprised to see where this show goes.”
He’s right about the envelope pushing, since New Teen Titans wasn’t exactly much of a “kids’ book” when it came out. Still, fans are likely not incorrect by expressing apprehension about what the series will do with Robin, but as we said in this column before, Dick Grayson “is the coolest hero in the DCU. He’s friends with everybody, he gets the job done, and he’ll save you with a smile on his face.”
The show will have to prove that the guy is still recognizable under the blood on his face, so here’s hoping that Titans delivers when it premieres this fall.
Chris Clow is a comics expert/former retailer, and pop culture critic/commentator. He hosts two podcasts: Discovery Debrief: A Star Trek Podcast and Comics on Consoles. Find his column “Comics on Film” weekly at Movies.com, and follow along on Twitter @ChrisClow.