Ian Thomas Malone

A Connecticut Yogi in King Joffrey's Court

Monthly Archive: August 2021

Monday

23

August 2021

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Classic Film: Sylvia Scarlett

Written by , Posted in Blog, Movie Reviews, Pop Culture

The Golden Age of Hollywood offers pretty slim pickings for queer-positive content for LGBTQ cinephiles. Gender variance is played almost exclusively for laughs, while broader gay representation tends to skew exclusively negative in the rare instances where homosexuality is even referenced at all. Being asked to offer transgender film recommendations is often just an exercise in figuring out which presents the least amount of cringe.

With all this in mind, 1935’s Sylvia Scarlett is an unusual outlier for a film centered on gender variance. Katharine Hepburn does a fabulous job in the lead role, remarkably transformed into “Sylvester” Scarlett as she flees France with her father, Henry (Edmund Gwenn), a hapless crook wanted for embezzlement. Henry’s inability to keep his mouth shut as to his crimes attracts fellow schemer Jimmy Monkley (Cary Grant) into their orbit, leading the three to team up for a series of cheap scams across England.

The first on-screen team-up of Hepburn and Grant is largely a disaster after its charming first act. Based on the Compton MacKenzie novel The Early Life and Adventures of Sylvia Scarlett, the film doesn’t have any obvious clue as to how to adapt a book into a feature. There isn’t really much of a narrative present across the 90-minute runtime, instead playing out like a series of loosely connected vignettes.

The comedy ends immediately after the narrative shifts gears away from the con job hijinks toward a bizarre romance between Sylvia and Michael Fane (Brian Aherne), who met the group during one of their “performances.” Michael is almost completely unphased by Sylvester revealing herself to be Sylvia, itself made weirder by the presence of Michael’s wife, Lily (Natalie Paley). Even stranger is how the film seems to forget about Jimmy, only for him to appear sporadically throughout the second half while throwing vague hints at also wanting a relationship with Sylvia.

The narrative offers no explanation for why Sylvia continues to occasionally present as Sylvester even after all the characters know who she is. There is no consistency from scene to scene beside the cast, almost no follow-through on any of the film’s storylines. The whole ordeal is a puzzling display of incompetence from director George Cukor, otherwise among the most talented filmmakers of his era.

Sylvia Scarlett does have some obvious appeal for LGBTQ audiences. Hepburn delivers a tactful take on gender variance in a film that is otherwise a disaster in practically every regard. It’s a stretch to call it nuanced in a narrative that looks like each scene was compiled without a second thought. LGBTQ audiences deserve better than the mess that is Sylvia Scarlett, but at least it is a respectful disaster.

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Monday

23

August 2021

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Black Widow is a bland action film without any sense of purpose

Written by , Posted in Blog, Movie Reviews, Pop Culture

Comic books don’t necessarily need to be concerned with timelines and continuity. Just this past year, Marvel Comics have released new material set in 2006’s Civil War storyline and a whole line of X-Men comics set during their famous 80s run. The idea of a Black Widow film being released after the death of Scarlett Johansson’s Natasha Romanoff in Avengers: Endgame feels a bit cheap, along the lines of Ant-Man and the Wasp being set in the same pre-Infinity War era, but it’s hardly unprecedented.

The big difference between film and comic books here is that fans have plenty of options for content. Fans who love the X-Men have more than ten monthly books to cater to their every inclination. Nostalgia isn’t the only thing that’s being served. That’s not completely true for the MCU, where Black Widow serves as the first theatrical release in more than two years. Marvel film fans who want new content don’t have a ton of alternatives.

The problem with Black Widow is that the whole ordeal feels like an obligatory afterthought, simply going through the motions with only a perfunctory sense of charm. The film sees Natasha joined by a group of “family” members including Yelena Belova (Florence Pugh), Alexei “Red Guardian” Shostakov (David Harbour), and Melina Vostokoff (Rachel Weisz), as they take on the Red Room, where black widows are trained. Standing in their way is Dreykov (Ray Winstone), the Red Room’s answer to Nick Fury, and the Taskmaster (Olga Kurylenko), an assassin with the ability to mimic elite fighting styles at will.

The core group of Johansson, Pugh, Harbour, and Weisz all have pretty solid chemistry. Harbour in particular works well as comedic relief, essentially the Russian equivalent of Captain America with a dad bod. The found family dynamic is constantly undone by the actors’ complete inability to maintain Russian accents, which far too often completely fall off by midsentence. It’s distracting and more than a bit unprofessional.

The action sequences are perfectly fine. Director Cate Shortland has crafted a competent film that knows which notes to play, but too often the narrative lacks the necessary dramatic stakes to carry it through a bloated 134-minute runtime. As a feature, it’s a bit of a slog to sit through, something that might have been better as a Disney+ series that had more time to flesh out the supporting cast.

Johansson looks quite comfortable, unsurprising given her decade-long tenure in the title role. What’s missing from her performance though is a sense of drive that made her character so much fun in films like Captain America: The Winter Soldier. Some of that makes sense, given the fact that the audience knows what’s going to happen to Natasha, but this dynamic takes a lot of air out of the experience.

The MCU has been designed for years to be an à la carte experience, ensuring that casual fans don’t have to watch dozens of films to keep up with its main installments. While there are some skippable entries into the MCU, Black Widow feels like the very first that was designed to be inessential. With the Avengers being in a state of flux post-Endgame, fans might be a little anxious to see what comes next. While some of these characters will undoubtedly pop up down the road, Black Widow finds itself stuck in the past with an audience that’s understandably hungry for the future.

 

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Thursday

19

August 2021

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An Alternative for the Word Cisgender

Written by , Posted in Blog, Social Issues

Words matter. Transgender people deserve the right not only to have words that define ourselves, but broader society at large. Transgender and non-transgender doesn’t work in the same way that people don’t go around saying gay and non-gay. The “non-gays” have plenty of other words such as heterosexual and straight.

The word “cisgender” sparks a lot of negative emotions. Plenty of people hate the term. William Shatner, a nonagenarian, spends time on Twitter railing against the word, a public meltdown that lasted several days. It’s pretty funny to think about the idea of Captain Kirk shaking his fist at the passage of time, but underneath the humor lies a starker reality about the word cis.

Much of the criticism of the word cis is inherently disingenuous in nature.  #CisIsaSlur is complete nonsense lacking any cohesive argument exclusively spouted by people with clear histories of transphobia. The first applications of the word cisgender are medical in nature, just as heterosexual became common through its usage by German sexologists in the 1800s. The major difference in the origins of “hetero” and “cis” is that the former is a Greek prefix while the latter finds its roots in Latin.

So why is “hetero” seen as okay while people like Shatner object to the word cis? Hetero has had more than a half-century in the mainstream public lexicon, while cisgender is still seeing gradual acceptance to this day. An earlier form, “cissexuals” has been around since the 1990s, tracking with how transsexuals used to be the mainstream term for transgender. Plenty of people even within the LGBTQ community still don’t completely understand what cis means.

Cis also faces a broader, more serious issue. Cis is a terrible word, not because it’s offensive, but because it is a clunky word to say out loud. Hetero has multiple syllables, while cis only has one, ending abruptly in a hard s sound. Cis also sounds a lot like “sissy,” making it a hard sell for anyone with a fragile ego. It’s hard to blame any cis people who hear that word used to describe them and think that it sucks. Cis does suck.

Cis is highly unlikely to ever go away, at least not completely. It’s too well known by now. It would take a Vatican Council of trans people to come together to mount a serious effort to abolish the word, something that did eventually happen with transsexual. Transsexual was an easy target though, far too easily leading people to conflate sexual orientation with gender identity.

What cis needs is a synonym, like “straight” for hetero. The origins of straight being used to refer to sexuality are pretty absurd, initially referring to supposedly “reformed” homosexuals who walked the “straight and narrow path” to Jesus. One can laugh at the implications of the word straight, suggesting that homosexuals are bent or crooked, but the fact still remains that society does pretty well with the word. No Star Trek captains complain about being called straight.

Along those same lines, I introduced an alternative to cis in my comedy album Confessions From My New Vagina. Within the trans community, we have gender-fluid people. For our cis brethren, I give to you, the gender-solid.

Gender-solid is a nice bland synonym for cis people who can’t stand a linguistically shitty word. Pairs great with straight as well. Cishet lends itself easily to the “straight & solid” moniker, perfect for the fragile egos who are too afraid to be labeled a “cissy.”

Is gender-solid perfect? No. Trans people are also solid with our genders, but we’re also not bent either (at least, not all the time). Straight has its function. Cis does too, in theory, but it’s hard to fault cis people for not wanting to be called a word that really doesn’t sound all that great.

Cis isn’t going away, but gender-solid is a nice synonym that can help it along the way to an eventual boring destination. It’s silly that trans people have to put up with this nonsense, but it’s not like any of us were particularly consulted on cis either. Cis is a lousy word. We need something, more solid, gender-solid.

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Wednesday

18

August 2021

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Classic Film: The Revolt of Mamie Stover

Written by , Posted in Blog, Movie Reviews, Pop Culture

Part of the beauty of 1956’s The Revolt of Mamie Stover is the way the film’s core themes have evolved in the nearly seven decades since its initial release. The original 1951 novel of the same name served to illustrate the decline of American society, a criticism that every subsequent generation has heard a billion times before adulthood. No matter if its 1956 or 2021, the kids are always blamed for ruining everything.

Jane Russell leads the show in the title role, playing a twenty-six-year-old woman on a ship to Honolulu, looking for work at a local dance hall that caters to off-duty servicemen. Set in 1941 against the backdrop of the attack on Pearl Harbor, Honolulu is the place to be for people looking to make a quick buck off all the chaos. While never explicitly stated in the film, it is heavily implied that the shady dance hall, which serves watered-down liquor to soldiers looking to book private sessions with its employees, makes its fortunes through prostitution.

Mamie quickly bonds with fellow passenger Jim Blair (Richard Egan), a writer and reserve officer with a house in Honolulu. Due to the dance hall’s strict rules against its employees having bank accounts, Mamie enlists Jim to help her protect her savings, which quickly accumulate as a result of her prowess in the field of seduction.

Russell delivers a powerful critique of capitalism’s inherently sexist applications, thoroughly debunking any nobility within the military-industrial complex. Mamie spends her money buying up local real estate, whose owners are eager to sell in the face of imminent war. Derided as a war profiteer and a trollop, Mamie thrives in an environment that doesn’t want to have a place for women.

Public opinion on America’s unending wars has certainly changed drastically in the decades since The Revolt of Mamie Stover. Mamie’s modest success is mere peanuts compared to the billions made by corporations and their private armies intent on eternal combat in the Middle East. When combined with capitalism’s decades-long efforts to terraform Hawaii on behalf of the tourism industry, one can’t help but root for Mamie’s quieter sense of protest.

Which isn’t to say that The Revolt of Mamie Stover is a perfect narrative. The 92-minute runtime is spread a bit thin between Mamie’s romance with Jim and her gradual domination of the dance hall. Dance hall owner Bertha Parchman (Agnes Moorehead) largely takes over for Jim as Mamie’s primary foil in the third act, shortchanging much of Russell and Egan’s natural sense of chemistry. As Bertha’s primary enforcer Harry Adkins, Michael Pate puts in a strong supporting performance as a scummy businessman intent on preserving the status quo.

The show mostly belongs to Russell, whose charisma is more than enough to carry the film through its minor shortcomings. The title role was originally intended for Marilyn Monroe, its subject matter is a bit of an odd fit for the staunchly conservative Russell. While The Revolt of Mamie Stover’s themes will undoubtedly resonate differently with modern audiences, the film is a valuable case study as to the ways that previous generations applied varying standards of morality to unfettered greed, depending on which sex was benefitting from the fruits of capitalism’s rot.

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Wednesday

11

August 2021

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Classic Film: La Piscine

Written by , Posted in Movie Reviews, Pop Culture

The prestige TV landscape has a certain fascination with beautiful rich people doing awful things in beautiful settings. 1969’s La Piscine (titled The Swimming Pool internationally) takes two of France’s top stars of the era, Alain Delon and Romy Schneider, and deposits them in the Côte d’Azur. The dreamy narrative quickly descends into a gripping psychological thriller as the characters find themselves with little to do besides lay in the sun, basking in their own grievances.

Jean-Paul (Delon) and Marianne (Schneider) are staying at a friend’s villa for a month. The beautiful scenery of the French Riviera provides ample kindling for the non-stop sexual tension between the two, a relationship that’s just over the two years mark. Jean-Paul is a failed novelist with a perpetual chip on his shoulder, unhappy with his job at an advertising agency.

The arrival of an old friend, Harry (Maurice Ronet), and his daughter, Penelope (Jane Birkin), rekindles old flames and older grudges. Harry, an old lover to Marianne and friend/rival to Jean-Paul, has done extremely well as a record producer, eager to rub his success in anyone and everyone’s faces. The hot sun provides more than adequate kindling for jealousy to transcend fantasy into reality.

As the title suggests, La Piscine takes place almost entirely around the swimming pool and its corresponding villa. The small cast and intimate setting work quite well for director Jacques Deray to craft his psychological case study into the ugly nature of human emotion. There’s barely any plot in the 124-minute narrative, but Deray brings a keen sense of timing to his pacing. The sleepy story never manages to drag, a highly impressive feat giving the scope of the production. If it weren’t for the swimming pool, the whole production could have been easily adapted into a stage play.

Delon and Schneider, who were in a long-term relationship that ended several years before the production, have a sense of chemistry that’s perfect for the narrative. Their passion is real, but it’s an aged sense of love, peppered with loss, never quite able to completely hide the scars of time. Summer’s lust stirs the emotions, surfacing a kind of innate sadness.

In Jean-Paul, longtime Delon fans will see a different side of the actor floating in the water. Delon has a knack for playing impeccably suave hotshots, mavericks with devil-may-care attitudes. Here, Jean-Paul does care, a vulnerability rarely seen from the iconic actor.

The summer months fly by in the blink of an eye. La Piscine delights in its slow-burn story, a gripping thriller powered by three lead actors at the height of their craft. The story itself is a little rougher around the edges. Deray doesn’t always display a clear sense of purpose for Birkin, whose Penelope frequently skirts between being an actual character and a mere object of fascination for the rest of the cast. Similarly, the backstory of Harry’s relationships with Jean-Paul and Marianne remains a bit unclear, receiving only scattershot mentions throughout the narrative that seems to contradict itself at times.

There’s a reason shows like Big Little Lies and The White Lotus throw unlikable rich people into exotic locations to be awful to each other. Hedonism tickles the mind, extreme wealth and lust eliciting naturally intense emotions. La Piscine understands that better than most, a masterpiece that packs quite a punch in modern times.

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Tuesday

10

August 2021

0

COMMENTS

Confessions From My New Vagina (Promo)

Written by , Posted in Blog, Podcast

ITM has a comedy special out! Ian wanted to share some thoughts about why she wanted to make a trans-themed comedy album. She’s a little rusty after taking the summer off from podcasting, but very happy to have the special finally out in the world.

Confessions From My New Vagina is available on all major music streaming websites.

Spotify

Apple Music

Amazon Music

Thank you for your support. Please tell all your friends and family and strangers on the street.

 

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Sunday

8

August 2021

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The Suicide Squad should have been better

Written by , Posted in Blog, Movie Reviews, Pop Culture

2016’s Suicide Squad is a strong contender for worst DC film ever made, a true abomination of filmmaking. Director David Ayers has so strongly denounced the atrocity that it feels almost unfair to mention him when talking about it. Underneath the repetitive montages and failed self-referential humor existed a fairly strong core, backed by commanding performances from Margot Robbie and Viola Davis. It’s easy to see the appeal in The Suicide Squad for a talent like James Gunn, architect of Marvel’s finest dysfunctional found family, The Guardians of the Galaxy.

The bar for a sequel/soft reboot is so low that it’s almost not even worth mentioning. Two hours of Harley Quinn painting the side of a building with an old toothbrush would be better than the 2016 trainwreck. Gunn would be forgiven for trying to steer as clear of the first film as possible, but the director does deserve some credit for earnestly engaging in the aspect of Ayers’ mess that did work, namely through Quinn, Amanda Waller, and team leader Colonel Rick Flag (Joel Kinnaman).

Like the first, the plot is barely worth mentioning. Task Force X is sent to Corto Maltese, an island in South America recently overthrown by anti-American militants who seek to unleash longtime DC character Starro the Conqueror, a giant mind-controlling starfish, upon the world. Starro is the perfect subject for an irreverent mind like Gunn’s, eager to add depth to a character many others might instantly write off.

Corto Maltese is less a mission site than a playground. Gunn is rarely all that concerned with his plot, instead spending the bulk of his 132-minute runtime having fun in his sandbox. It is a fun sandbox. Newcomers such as Bloodsport (Idris Elba), Peacemaker (John Cena), Blackguard (Pete Davidson), and T.D.K. (Nathan Fillion), are all outlandishly entertaining to watch.

The cast is a little too large for a bloated feature running entirely off a sugar high, but Gunn does an admirable job carving out sections for character development. Both Robbie and Kinnaman are given plenty of chances to shine that go a long way toward correcting the way they were squandered in the first film. Davis is predictably bankable, the perfect Waller. Elba and Cena have absolutely delightful chemistry.

Gunn digs a bit deeper beyond his A-listers, giving supporting players Polka-Dot Man (David Dastmalchian) and Ratcatcher 2 (Daniela Melchior) satisfying arcs amidst the broader chaos. The script is nothing special, but Gunn has a knack for crafting interpersonal relationships that helps buoy the film when the jokes aren’t flying a mile a minute. Surprising to absolutely no one, King Shark (Sylvester Stallone) steals the show whenever he’s on-screen, a natural source of levity.

The Suicide Squad prioritizes jokes to such an extent that the film starts to fall apart whenever it’s required to function like a story, two hours of cinematic cotton candy. That’s not necessarily the worst thing in the world. Gunn’s action sequences are spectacular and the cast knows how to carry the show when the script doesn’t give them much to work with.

It’s too easy to walk away from The Suicide Squad feeling like the talent involved could’ve done a bit more with this material. This notion is particularly true with regard to Harley Quinn. Making her third appearance in a DC film, Margot Robbie is one of the company’s most recognizable and beloved faces. Robbie is a phenomenal Harley Quinn, but The Suicide Squad hardly knows how to utilize her talents, boxing her into an arc that kind of seems like it was initially designed to elevate her, but ended up reducing her overall impact to the narrative. Robbie’s tenure as Quinn is largely defined by her fabulous performances in service to lackluster films.

Despite the fairly mediocre third act, The Suicide Squad is a pretty entertaining film, albeit not a particularly great one. Gunn is obviously capable of better. The fact that the first Suicide Squad was an abomination shouldn’t necessarily preclude its successor from being a masterpiece. This effort fell short.

 

 

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Friday

6

August 2021

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Season Three Is Titans’ Best Yet

Written by , Posted in Blog, TV Reviews

Few shows in the streaming era fire on all cylinders quite like Titans. Through a bit uneven at times through its first two seasons, there is much to appreciate in the way that the series took more after its DC siblings on The CW in emphasizing episodic storytelling rather than the slow burn dynamic deployed by costumed heroes on other premium services. Titans has never been afraid to bite off more than it can chew, a refreshingly ambitious show that manages to pay homage to seemingly every single Teen Titans era through its nearly sixty-year history.

Titans second season often struggled with the intense balancing act between the current Titans, the seemingly retired first generation, the new heroes, Bruce Wayne, and the Wilson family tree, a tall order that even Trigon would struggle with. The early episodes of season three demonstrate immense progress on this front, giving the series its strongest sense of focus since it first premiered. The pacing kinks have been thoroughly ironed out.

Season three takes a fast yet methodical approach to its narrative. As the titles of the first two episodes, “Barbara Gordon” and “Red Hood,” suggest, there’s a natural emphasis on Gotham, the home that Dick Grayson (Brenton Thwaites) can never seem to leave behind. There are some who might roll their eyes at the heightened role of the “Bat Fam,” but the change of scenery works quite well for the narrative, while still managing to include the characters whose superhero lineage doesn’t trace through the Dark Knight.

Newcomer Barbara Gordon (Savannah Welch) is an early standout. Longtime fans of the Birds of Prey comic or of Babs’ time mentoring Stephanie Brown in Batgirl vol. 3 will find much to love in Welch’s portrayal of the character. Welch hones in on Barbara’s duel tutelage from Batman and her father, a woman trying her best to put the skills from her two worlds to good use.

The inclusion of Dr. Jonathan Crane (Vincent Kartheiser) is a bit more of a mixed bag. Kartheiser puts forth a thought-provoking take on Crane, one of the meatier villains in Batman’s rogues gallery, but the framing of the character in the narrative feels more than a bit derivative of another famous villain from outside the world of comic books. For a show as steeped in DC lore as Titans is, Crane is a peculiar miss.

Season three’s biggest triumph is the way that the team really does feel like a family. There’s less pressure on Dick to be the glue that holds everything together. Interpersonal conflict exists without constantly carrying the notion that this group is one blow-up away from implosion.

The cast is probably still a bit too big for a thirteen-episode season, but season three does a much better job of sharing the spotlight. Gar (Ryan Potter) and Conner (Joshua Orpin) have a natural sibling-like chemistry that boosts every scene they’re in. As Starfire, Anna Diop remains one of the show’s best weapons, her acting elevating one of the season’s more lackluster plotlines. Hank (Alan Ritchson) and Dawn (Minka Kelly) continue to shine as elder statesmen on the team.

As a show, Titans constantly makes it easy for the audience to forgive its narrative shortcomings that bump against the confines of its television medium. Evident in practically every character is the show’s deep commitment to the long game, building on foundations established in earlier seasons. This is perhaps most evident in Jason Todd (Curran Walters), a character whose entire series arc has been building toward this particular storyline. Titans pays homage to decades’ worth of Gotham history while also paving its own course through these streets.

As a character, Jason Todd is a pretty singular figure in the Batman family. Controversially killed off in 1988, the second character to assume the role of Robin was the rare superhero who actually stayed dead for an extended period of time. Resurrected in 2005 during the “Under the Red Hood” storyline, a byproduct of the events of the multiverse-restoring “Infinite Crisis,” Jason returned, with an understandable vengeance.

The story of Jason Todd is a tragedy, destined to play second fiddle not only to his predecessor, but to the Robins who came after him. Jason’s status as the least-loved among Bruce’s children is practically a running joke throughout the source material. Though more than a bit melodramatic at times, Jason is not necessarily wrong to have a chip on his shoulder.

Titans doesn’t have the luxury of twenty years to build this sense of natural tension that flows so easily on the comic book pages, but the show manages to put forth a pretty masterful study of the character on screen. Walters captures the essence of Jason beautifully, eliciting a sense of empathy that might not come easy given the character’s abrasive nature. Certain plot choices are bound to rile some hardcore fans, but the results make for quite compelling television.

The real world has changed quite a bit since Titans first debuted, putting immense strain on practically every show currently in production. There are probably fewer on-location scenes than earlier seasons, but the crew pulled off a rather miraculous feat of crafting a product that doesn’t look like it was negatively impacted by the pandemic. Few covid-era shows provide top-notch escapism on Titans’ level.

Season three features Titans’ strongest storytelling, a confident narrative that juggles its many pieces with deep reverence for the source material. There are a few bumps along the way and storylines bound to elicit a few eye-rolls, but the show has clearly learned from some of season two’s shortcomings. Titans moves with a brisk pace, the kind of narrative that would probably be better off with an episode count similar to its CW siblings.

It’s hard to define what constitutes a “normal” run for a show in the streaming era, with shorter three or four-season arcs becoming more common. Titans could in theory last for as many seasons as Arrow or The Flash, but precedent doesn’t suggest that’s likely. With that in mind, it’s reassuring to see the show pursue its big ambitions, even knowing that not everything is going to land perfectly. The streaming landscape would look a lot better if more shows followed Titans lead and tried to leave everything on the field.

The first five episodes of the season were screened for review. Season three of Titans premieres on HBO Max on August 12th.

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