Tim Drake: “I’d love to know what happened between you two.”
Dick Grayson: “Things change.”
Tim Drake: “No kidding. You guys used to be the greatest. Batman and Robin, the Dynamic Duo.”
Dick Grayson: “Maybe you should ask him.”
Tim Drake: “I did. And you’ll never guess what he said. ‘Things change’.”
– Old Wounds, Batman TAS
Even before the first trailer for the Titans TV show aired, there had already been backlash from the fans about it – mostly concerning set photos which revealed some of the team’s costumes, with some comparing Starfire’s look to that of a prostitute. With the disappointment of Justice League on the big screen, it seemed like a one-two punch of negative responses from fans. Then came the haymaker, as the Titans trailer landed… complete with a warning that it contained adult themes, violence and explicit language. However, even that warning couldn’t have prepared fans for what came next.
“F**k Batman,” Robin says with a scowl, before apparently snapping someone’s neck and then using one criminal’s gun to shoot several others.
The reaction from the online fandom, as expected these days, was almost instantaneous. Before long, the trailer was getting more dislikes than likes. The common theme for most of the responses was how Warner Bros. and DC had gotten it wrong yet again, in particular with regards to fan-favourite character Dick Grayson, Robin – later to become Nightwing. He seemed to be talking and acting contrary to his behaviour in comic books, something fans tend to notice. In an attempt to explain away the controversial line, writer/producer Geoff Johns stated “If you look at when Robin first left Batman in the comics, there was a lot of uneasiness and him being lost,” adding that “Robin is clearly struggling with his past with Batman.”
It’s a solid explanation, and Johns is right that there was uneasiness, awkwardness, and at times outright hostility between Grayson and his crime-fighting mentor Batman/Bruce Wayne. Long-time fans know that and can understand that… yet it still seemed completely wrong. Was there anything in the comic books that could have made him ever drop the F-bomb in regards to the Dark Knight?
One of the most interesting things behind Grayson’s transformation from Robin to Nightwing is the fact that so many fans don’t quite know why it happened, just that it did. There’s no single clear-cut moment that isn’t contradicted by revamped continuity or even the on-screen versions, let alone by fan speculation.
Was it Robin being shot whilst teaming up with Batman, causing Batman to clamp down on his crime-fighting activities? A lack of trust developing between the two, or Bruce’s refusal to adopt Grayson? Grayson’s increased understanding that the two had different methods as to how to fight crime, or wanting to step out from the shadows and be his own man? Was it simply that Jason Todd was ready to gain the Robin identity from him? Or was it jealousy, prompted by Grayson’s crush on Barbara Gordon – who instead had feelings for Bruce?
The original disbanding of the Dynamic Duo was mostly handled in the pages of Marv Wolfman and George Perez’s New Teen Titans. By 1983, Dick Grayson had evolved from being the fun-loving young teenage Robin to a more angst-driven and socially aware character, one who even asked his teammates to bend the rules of law occasionally. Although it must be said that even when he did so, he also abided by a court order that prevented him from approaching a mobster he wanted revenge on. By December of that year, in issue #37, he informed Bruce Wayne that he was disbanding their partnership.
Grayson: “It’s about time, Bruce. I’m 19. No longer a kid… I’ve realized that my ideas of justice and yours have become radically different.”
Bruce: “You want to officially end our friendship?”
Grayson: “Our partnership… as in Batman and Robin. Not our relationship as Bruce Wayne and Dick Grayson…”
Despite Dick’s insistence on their friendship being solid, during a subsequent team-up he feels bitterness that every time he steps out on his own, Batman steps in and he’s reduced back to being the Boy Wonder. Afterwards, the resentment is put to rest once more as Batman admits that they’re equals – while Dick shakes his hand and admits that he’s only as good as he is because of Batman.
It isn’t long after that when Dick Grayson completely relinquishes the role of Robin and adopts the guise of Nightwing. There’s still some lingering resentment from Dick towards Bruce though, and at Donna Troy’s wedding he confronts Bruce about his mentor having never adopted him…
Bruce: “I guess I never gave it much thought back then. And then, before I knew it, the Boy Wonder became a man and I realized how much time had slipped by. But believe me, I couldn’t have loved any son more. I know I haven’t said it much, but I’m proud of you.”
Grayson: “Thanks, Bruce. Really.”
It’s a touching personal moment between the two, as once again their issues are discussed and overcome. Bruce Wayne, far from resorting to the self-righteous attitude some writers have portrayed him as having, talks to him from the heart. As two grown men, they work out their problems, without shouting, swearing or violence. There’s always going to be some awkward tension between them, each seeing what they view as faults in the other, but there’s no hostility.
In Secret Origins #13, published in 1987, Dick Grayson explains his issues with Bruce further. He talks about how, like Bruce, his real identity was to be his disguise… something that had become second-nature for Bruce, easily switching into his role as a playboy billionaire. But for a young boy barely in his teens at school, he struggled to handle it and it had a negative effect on his personal life. As he grew up and tried to find his own identity, he understood that he was a very different person from Batman. He later struggled at college, only attending because he felt it would keep the peace with Bruce. Yet the whole time, he felt like yelling at Batman and telling him that he couldn’t be just like him.
Those are all incredible, well-told stories which chronicle the original problems between the Dynamic Duo, and are great reading for any fan. They sum up the tense relationship of the time perfectly and in a very natural way. Before all the various reboots at DC, those stories laid the groundwork for so much that followed. By now, many fans are also aware of the after-effects too – some from the magnificent Batman: The Animated Series, which offered its own take on the events in the episode called Old Wounds.
In the episode, Nightwing explains to Tim Drake, the third Robin, exactly why he quit being Batman’s sidekick: first, Bruce misses Dick’s graduation from college and then causes him to abandon a date with Barbara Gordon, all to fight crime; later, Batman interrogates a suspect in front of the man’s terrified child – something Robin can’t condone; Bruce then reveals their secret identities to Barbara without informing Dick, and she joins him on a mission as Batgirl in which she nearly dies; Dick accuses Bruce of putting her life in danger, and punches Batman. Years later, as Nightwing, the tension between them remains… but he understands that Bruce is a good man, and decides to rebuild their friendship.
All of these are great examples of the sort of problems Geoff Johns was referring to, as to why Robin would drop the F-bomb about Batman. Dick Grayson has had moments of hostility and bitterness towards his mentor over the years, and their relationship fell apart before it got better again. In the trailer, a criminal refers to him basically as Batman’s sidekick, something he obviously bristles at. His response is natural.
Except… it isn’t natural at all. That’s the problem.
For all the hostility between the two characters in other media, for all the arguments, and even with Robin punching Batman in the animated series, “F**k Batman” seems a step too far. It simply isn’t the sort of statement Dick Grayson would make – while the apparent murderous actions he then commits seem even less likely. Dick Grayson has been a favourite with fans for many, many years, regardless of whatever superhero guise he’s adopted, and with good reason.
Primarily that’s because of the wonderful creative work done in the comic books, television shows and films over the years. More than that, he’s a relatable character. While Batman has become increasingly dark, brooding and detached, Nightwing has become the vigilante detective who cares, one who can smile and be friendly, and even tease Batman for being so stuffy. He’s a hero that others look up to, but that F-bomb moment drags him down into the gutter.
It’s true that all we’ve seen of the Titans show is a trailer, and the scene may be taken out of context. Geoff Johns pointed out that it will feature character progression and it’s likely that Dick Grayson will come to gain some level of respect for Batman as it progresses. After all, that’s what happened in every other version and it worked for a show like Arrow. But even at his darkest point in the comic books, Dick Grayson was never so deliberately offensive and aggressive. Jason Todd, sure, but Dick Grayson? No.
So what was the point of Robin’s F-bomb? Given the wonderful writing in the comics over the years, by comparison this looks cheap and tacky. Presumably, it’s shown in the trailer simply to generate controversy and free publicity. If so, it worked. Except, a lot of the publicity is negative, and if that’s the sort of level this show will sink to get attention, then what’s next? A line of Titans-inspired merchandise featuring the word “F**k” scrawled over the Batman insignia, just to celebrate how hardcore it is? That’s a great way to treat your heroes.
At a time when Warner Bros. and DC need to be showing their heroes in the best possible light, this comes across as completely tone-deaf as to what’s needed and what many of the fans want. Still, at least we’ve got SHAZAM! to look forward to…