A Tale Of Two Fucks

In the trailer for Titansthe upcoming superhero show on the streaming DC Universe service, a frankly murderous 20something Robin, when asked where Batman is, growls “Fuck Batman.”

If you’ve ever wanted to hear the Boy Wonder drop the f-bomb, promises Titans, we got you covered. The moment has already stirred up some controversy and some fun on Twitter, which is saying something since the trailer also includes Dove – a character who represents peace and non-violence – inflicting gruesome violence on someone. And, as mentioned above, Robin the Boy Wonder going all Punisher on some street thugs.

The f-bomb is a declaration of adulthood here, or at least an attempt at such a declaration. It’s a fantastically juvenile moment, and if the rest of the trailer wasn’t so tone-deaf and disrespectful of the characters and concepts, I’d say it was actually brilliant. Here’s Robin trying to grow up and prove that he’s a man outside the Batman’s shadow, and he’s doing it in the most juvenile way possible. It’s like Bender in The Breakfast Club yelling “FUCK YOU!” as the door closes, an impotent expression of rage.

If that was the point – amazing! But I suspect it isn’t, as we see that Dick Grayson in Titans is a grown man, working as a detective (in Bludhaven?). Having that impotent rage wouldn’t be cool in a grown man, and it wouldn’t even be interesting – it would be pathetic. So rather than be a reflection of the juvenile nature of Dick Grayson’s rebellion, the “Fuck Batman” line reads like a reflection of the juvenile nature of Titans

Intriguingly, I don’t think that the word ‘fuck’ should be off limits in universes like this. I think there’s space for the f-bomb, because the f-bomb is the most versatile word in the English language. I could say “Fuck!” and be happy or I could be mad. I could say “Fuuuuuuck” because I am psyched or because I am in trouble. I can say “Fuck you!” in anger or jest. The word ‘fuck’ is the most malleable, wonderful word in the language, one that can modify itself (“You fucking fuck!”).

Because the word is so versatile, the way it is used is important. As we see with Titans, it can be used in an embarrassing, edgelord way (“Swearing makes me seem cool, and adult!”). But another beloved all-ages franchise recently also included the f-bomb, and I think did it in a way that properly reflected the attitude and values of the franchise.

I am, of course, talking about Star Trek: Discovery, which included this delightful exchange:

As Stamets is explaining some Mycelial Network technobabble, Cadet Tilly interrupts and says, “This is so fucking cool!” Stamets looks at her and she gets small and says, “I’m so sorry.” Then Stamets’ eyes light up and he replies, “No, cadet… this IS fucking cool.”

I love this sequence. Unlike TitansDiscovery uses its f-bomb to hammer home the enormity of what is happening in the scene, and it does so in a positive way – it’s using ‘fucking’ to underline how extraordinary the information being delivered is, and how excited Tilly is to hear it. It’s a hugely positive use of ‘fuck,’ it’s a use of ‘fuck’ that tells us not just how enormous this information is, it tells us a lot about the character using it.

Both uses of ‘fuck’ draw attention to themselves, but Discovery does it in a playful way that has the spirit and energy of Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (the previously most swear-y Trek). It acknowledges the transgression, acknowledges that this is unusual language in a starship setting, and then winks at it. If the Titans f-bomb is the teenager trying to appear cool, the Disco f-bomb is the moment when the straight-laced librarian loses her cool and lets slip language you’re shocked she even knows, let alone uses.

The Disco f-bomb has a knowing quality to it that doesn’t seek to invalidate the past of the franchise, but the Titans f-bomb sort of explicitly does. Comic fans know that Dick Grayson and Batman has a tempestuous relationship when Dick grows up, but even with that in mind, “Fuck Batman” is an extreme refutation indeed. As with so much of the dark and edgy stuff corporations force on comic characters, it drips with embarrassment over its own origins.

Maybe I’m reading it all wrong. Maybe by the end of the pilot Dick has learned a lesson and, like Donald Trump, walks his statement back (“I meant to say don’t fuck Batman.”). But I suspect that isn’t the case, and I suspect that Titans believes this f-bomb is cool, as opposed to dorky. Meanwhile, Disco has its dorkiest character curse, which helps to sell the weight of the moment and to keep the swearing from feeling like an attempt to be painfully edgy.

‘Fuck’ can belong in your previously family-friendly franchise. It’s a brave new world, and the rules are changing. But you still gotta use it right, and not in a way that makes your lead look like a petulant teenager throwing a hissy fit.