It’s a controversy that’s been rustling up the DC Comics fandom for the past month now. To actors, actresses and fans of color, it’s nothing but yet another example of racism in geek culture. The polarizing reactions brought forth from the Comic-Con trailer release of the new Titans series, have to lead to the usual tirade of outrage and counter-argument, mostly squared solely at Anna Diop, the face put to Starfire’s name in the ‘gritty’ overhaul of the franchise.
Like many in her position (such as John Boyega and Amandla Stenberg) Diop has been forced to limit her public social media activity in order to avoid the sheer amount of abuse leveled at her. The reason? For daring to play a character who is, at best, only coded as white in the original content, while she herself is black. But that’s not the reason that Titans threatens to flop as a true-to-form revival of Teen Titans.
It seems as though the controversy surrounding the race of a single character has the whole fandom overlooking just how cringe-worthy the whole thing is threatening to be, from the far more important aspects of style, narrative, and conventions. The first ten seconds of the Comic-Con released trailer for Titans looks like a bad rip-off of American Horror Story: Freakshow, and it doesn’t get much better from there. There is every attempt throughout to squeeze as many horror/thriller conventions into the minute-and-a-half mess. The low budget is shockingly evident even throughout the editing of the trailer itself, up to and including incredibly annoying screaming sound effects ripped right from the additional settings of a cheap kids keyboard.
An important question surfaces having dragged oneself through the trailer. How on earth do you get angry at Anna Diop just for being there, when Benton Thwaites’ Dick Grayson shows a whining emo that thinks raccoon masks and throwing knives in the shape of your first initial are a good idea? Don’t get me started on the assassination of Raven’s character from straight-faced goth icon to tortured damsel in distress. Where’s the outrage over her reaching desperately across the table for physical reassurance from a pouting Robin?
Furthermore, while there is nothing evidently wrong with the casting of Starfire considering the mere wordless seconds she spends on screen in the first trailer, many will ask why the only canonically black character in the original line-up, our boy Cyborg, is missing. Considering the ‘realistic’ spin that is evidently trying to be achieved (said loosely), would it have killed someone to suggest that you can have two black actors on screen at once, and perhaps one might even be disabled? Cyborg’s augmentations followed a horrific accident that destroyed most of his body, according to the canon. It’s hard to miss the richness of opportunity that any writer looking to tug forth the darker aspects of a character and their experiences must have missed here, and fans of the character will be left sorely lacking in the specific quality he brings to the team.
It’s easy to see what DC are trying to grab at here, and the success of similar approaches to dusting off old favorites has been pretty evident in the last decade. Unfortunately, Titans is another example of the negative trappings of ‘gritty’ superhero remakes. Since The Dark Knight, everyone wants to do it — but not all of these beloved stories translate well into hardy, dark fiction. It’s true to say that only the unspecified release date will tell, but the saturation of references to ‘inner demons’ in media that once balanced those themes with lightheartedness is arguably becoming a problem and a limit to creativity.
Make Starfire black. Bring some blood and gore in. Maybe even let Robin have a little bit of a depressive moment — he was, after all, groomed by a billionaire to beat up working class criminals after the death of his parents in a horrific accident (at least they got that bit right). If you want something to show your kids, Teen Titans Go! To the Movies is out in cinema right now. There is no suggestion here that Titans will suck because it isn’t appropriate for children, as the original content was. But to suffocate the humor, the satire, the gags that the cartoon series and comics thrived off? That is the crime that DC is being charged with today.