A eulogy for Doom Patrol & Titans, the end of the weird little superhero era
HBO Max has been canceling a whole lot of stuff lately, from TV shows to movies literally in the can (sorry, Batgirl). Doom Patrol and Titans, a duo of little-heralded comic book TV adaptations, are the latest to hit the chopping block. Though the news came and went with relatively little fanfare, it represents the end of a delightfully weird little era that showcased a time when studios were willing to truly get weird with some big properties.
The year 2018 might not seem that long ago, but if you’re talking superhero TV shows, you might as well measure it in dog years. It was a time when Warner Bros. was thrilled to launch a DC-centric streaming service in DC Universe led by the aforementioned Titans and Doom Patrol; the “Arrowverse” of connected TV shows (The Flash, Arrow, Supergirl, Legends of Tomorrow and Black Lighting) were all going strong; and Netflix was churning out some cherry Marvel content with Jessica Jones, Daredevil and Luke Cage all in their primes. It was arguably the best time to be a fan of comic book TV, with so many great shows carving the perfect sweet spot of what it meant to actually make a good comic book TV show.
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Flash forward just a few years, and a geek from half a decade ago would barely recognize where we are now. Marvel has axed all those lower-budget Netflix projects and taken its small screen stuff to Disney Plus with big budget miniseries that are basically six-hour, $100 million movies at this point. Pretty much every CW superhero show is wrapping up or already gone, and DC is looking to follow Marvel’s big budget approach with projects based on Matt Reeves’ blockbuster The Batman universe, or movie spinoffs like James Gunn’s (hilarious and fantastic) Peacemaker series. Even Prime Video’s excellent The Boys adaptation, based on an independent comic, has gotten in on the mix by surgically deconstructing the entire genre in a bloody (and weirdly sexy?) mess.
[Doom Patrol / Courtesy of Dan McFadden/HBO Max]
But that lower budget era of TV shows, the old school, weekly format, broadcast or basic cable budget caliber type of weekly stories that feel like actual TV shows? The clock is running out on them.
As for that nascent DC Universe streamer from Warner Bros., it barely lasted two years before it was just rolled into HBO Max, which is essentially the back door through which Titans and Doom Patrol found themselves tossed on the proverbial shelf alongside Emmy winners like Game of Thrones and Westworld. But with storylines focused on everything from a former Robin going viral for saying “fuck Batman,” and a team of misfit heroes fighting an army of flesh-eating mutant butts (yes, really), those two shows weren’t exactly the most natural fit for the prestige HBO model that made up the core of HBO Max’s strategy.
[Titans / Courtesy of HBO Max]
Despite the humble beginnings, Titans was essentially the flagship show for DC Universe at its launch, focusing on a team of young heroes like two former Robins, Wonder Girl, Beast Boy, Raven and Superboy. It was basically the millennial Justice League franchise, just made through the lens of low budget TV with a tone that perfectly veered from deadly serious to just dead goofy, oftentimes in the same scene. It wore its heart on its sleeve and was unabashedly a comic book adventure, often punching far above its weight creatively with storylines featuring everyone from Batman to Lex Luthor.
Doom Patrol was the weirder pitch, a backdoor pilot spinoff of Titans that became its own series, but surprisingly grew to be the critical darling of the two. Doom Patrol features an A-list cast anchored by folks like Brendan Fraser (yes, the Brendan Fraser renaissance started here, not with The Whale), Matt Bomer, Diane Guerrero, Michelle Gomez, April Bowlby and Joivan Wade. It was basically the antithesis of Titans, with a team of super-powered misfits thrown together because no one else will take them, building a found family and trying to find their path forward together. But don’t let the elevator pitch fool you, the show is one of the weirdest ever put to screen, in a good way. Fraser played a brain in a rusty robot body; Bomer plays a character under bandages 95 percent of the time, so you rarely actually see his movie star good looks; and Wade plays a version of DC heavyweight Cyborg who just can’t figure out the superhero life. Instead of comic book mainstays like the Joker or Darkseid, the Doom Patrol’s rogues gallery featured folks like a fourth-wall-breaking Alan Tudyk, who is essentially just Alan Tudyk as an inter-dimensional smart ass. But man, did it work.
[Doom Patrol / Courtesy of Dan McFadden/HBO Max]
With The CW’s long-running Flash series also ending this year, Doom Patrol and Titans are among the last vestiges of that late-2010s boom of comic book television from a time where studios were keen to capitalize on these properties but not quite so precious they were watching that closely at what was being done with them. Both Doom Patrol and Titans are in the midst of their fourth seasons, with new episodes still waiting to burn off later this year on HBO Max. Thankfully, it sounds like the creative teams knew the writing was on the wall, and they’re reportedly set to wrap up their storylines and not leave any major cliffhangers dangling. That’s obviously good news for fans — nobody likes a cancelation cliffhanger, after all — but still little solace when you realize an entire heyday of a genre is effectively off the air whenever HBO Max decides to roll out these remaining few episodes.
There’s no doubt superhero movies and comic book adaptations are arguably the biggest thing in Hollywood these days, with no signs of slowing down. That’s great if you like those stories and want to see them keep rocking along, but it also means the weird, riskier projects fall by the wayside for more Justice League reboots and Avengers spin-offs. If nothing else, we can at least be glad these two perfectly peculiar shows existed at all — and even managed to survive four seasons, to boot.
At least we’ll always have those four glorious seasons of each streaming on HBO Max — at least for now.