In the first episode of DC Universe’s Titans, viewers will see a very different Dick Grayson from the one portrayed in the comics, the Batman ’66 television show, and even the Teen Titans animated series. The fun-loving, wise-cracking daredevil is gone. In his place is a young man terrified of the brutality he can inflict and still reeling from the first great trauma of his life: the death of his parents.
It is an unusual take on the first Robin, but one that appealed to Titans star Brenton Thwaites. When Rotten Tomatoes talked to him recently about the character, he likened Dick to someone realizing they are part of a cycle of abuse. In this case, though, the abuse was the questionable training Dick received from Batman.
“I think in training someone that young to be a weapon, there’s definitely emotional scars from that, and putting such a responsibility psychologically on someone so young also effects the day-to-day in really subtle ways,” he said.
As in other tellings of the Batman and Robin myth, Titans’ Dick Grayson comes to live at Wayne Manor after the death of his parents during their trapeze act at a circus. He also becomes the Boy Wonder, but Dick’s backstory on the new series swerves in a different direction from DC Comics lore. Instead of Robin making Batman a lighter character, the darkness of Batman’s crusade infects his young ward. When audiences meet the character in the series, he is one year out from leaving Batman behind, but nowhere near the beginning of a journey toward healing.
“I think that deep down, there is a pain and a confusion to Dick,” Thwaites explained. “We start the series from a point where Dick Grayson is broken. He’s unhappy and he’s suffering.”
That suffering leads Dick to walk away from superheroes and become a cop in Detroit. As Thwaites saw it, that choice stems from the part of Dick Grayson “that wants to do good and do the right thing” even if circumstances lead him back to the vigilante life. Falling back on his training leads to the fight scene early in the premiere in which Robin mercilessly beats down some street toughs and says the now-infamous line immortalized in the trailer: “F— Batman.”
“It’s something he probably wanted to say for a long time. But being on your own for a while and hiding this character and almost living a lie, you don’t get to say stuff like that, but I feel like that line is something that he thinks all the time,” Thwaites said of Dick’s motivation in the moment. “‘F— him — for doing this to me, for kind of absent-mindedly treating me this way, and spitting me out like an animal.'”
Despite Dick’s anger at the start of the series, though, Thwaites believes there is a genuine love between the two characters and that Dick is able to see how much Bruce taking him in really means.
“He was a kid who lost both of his parents at a young age and Bruce Wayne took him in and became that father figure that he needed and educated him, fed him, put a roof over his head, and trained him to be what he thought was what was right for Dick,” Thwaites said. But as Dick realizes “that perhaps that wasn’t the best way to teach a kid,” the tension between them began to grow.
Splitting up the Dynamic Duo is not a new concept — back in the comics, Dick walked away from Bruce in the early 1980s and has been Batman more often than he’s been Robin in the eras since — but examining their partnership in regard to the trauma it could cause a young boy is a new spin. To Thwaites, “holding Batman accountable for his actions” is something film and television is only beginning to grapple with, but it’s also something worth looking at.
“We love Batman. We love that he’s that vigilante, that guy that is as bad as the bad guys,” he explained. “But Dick Grayson represents someone who maybe doesn’t want to be as bad as the bad guys, wants to be the good guy, doesn’t wanna cross that line of being lethal, wants to hold Batman accountable for his actions and learn from that and maybe go on his own path and maybe do something a little differently.”
In Batman and New Teen Titans comics of the 1980s, that something was a new persona, Nightwing, and a leadership role away from Batman. Though Thwaites took a look at some of the New Teen Titans comic books by Marv Wolfman and George Perez, he avoided anything after Dick adopted his new identity. He also chose to avoid the various volumes of the Nightwing comic book as they feature a version of the character who has confronted and processed the emotions Thwaites’s version is only beginning to comprehend.
But back in the context of Titans, the attempt to do something differently begins with Dick mirroring Bruce’s actions and taking concern in the welfare of a teenager. In this case, Rachel Roth (Teagan Croft), a young runaway who comes to Dick’s precinct on accident, but realizes she recognizes Dick as “the boy from the circus.” That moment changes everything for Dick.
“That’s something Dick’s hidden from everyone for so long, only Bruce would know that information and Bruce wouldn’t tell anyone that,” he explained. “So, here’s this random girl that stumbles into his office and tells him she’s been chased by these killers, this person’s killed her mom and naturally, there’s empathy and there’s that willingness to protect and sort out the situation from the detective side of Dick Grayson. But then she mentions, ‘you’re the boy from the circus,’ and all these past feelings and emotions have been brought to the surface.”
One of those feelings is an initial distrust of Rachel, even as the do-gooder aspect of the character takes the driver’s seat. As Thwaites put it, “Does Dick accept that she knows who he truly is or does he try to hide it for a little bit and see if she’s just lying about it? Those question marks add a little bit of tension to our relationship.”
Those questions continue to pile up as Dick learns more about Rachel and her very unusual situation. Nonetheless, the two are soon partnered up and Dick finds himself in Bruce’s shoes.
“He is the mentor and the patriarch and is struggling with teaching this kid how to navigate in this crazy world,” Thwaites said of Dick’s new situation.
And though he knows something about grief and pain, he still lacks all the answers. In the Titans version of the world, costumed vigilantes are commonplace, but powered people like Rachel and Starfire (Anna Diop) appear to be a new occurrence in the world.
As with the New Teen Titans comic book, there is an attempt to mix genres on Titans, which is something Thwaites enjoyed about the show.
“We have a cool horror element with Raven, we have an interesting sci-fi story with Starfire, Beast Boy adds the monster element to the show, and you feel like you’re in a hand-to-hand combat superhero story with Hawk and Dove and Robin. I feel like that melting pot is unique to our show,” he said.
Another unique element of the show is the way it addresses grief in the superhero context, particularly in the cases of Dick and Rachel. And while the series begins with them almost incapable of dealing with their traumas, Thwaites believes they can eventually find some sort of healing.
“I think that healing can be in the shape of using it for good, not bad,” he said. “Using that loss, that grief, that anger and frustration for a good cause and to becoming a better person as opposed releasing it in a sea of a brutality.”
While the first season of Titans sees all the characters facing emotional traumas and demons of the past, there are lighters moments for Dick that reflect some of the character’s comic book persona. The quick wit is on display in his early scenes, even if he fails to get the reaction he is looking for, and Thwaites said more of the traditional Robin spirit will appear toward the tail end of the season. One thing he would like to do in subsequent years is capture some of the spirit of Teen Titans GO!, the series based on New Teen Titans for younger children in which the stakes are much lower.
“We could go to the diner to get a pie,” Thwaites suggested. “It’d be good.”
New episodes of Titans are available weekly on DC Comics’ new streaming service, DC Universe.