Titans’ cast of superheroes and villains has gotten so large that the series has largely shifted away from dedicating entire episodes to single characters, but this week’s straightforwardly named “Conner” focused on nothing but the latest live-action incarnation of Superman and Lex Luthor’s genetically-engineered offspring.
Superboy’s got two dads, and Titans is very insistent about you understanding that keenly. Unlike the way it was obvious “Aqualad” was going to promptly dispose of its Atlantean character as soon as he was introduced to the series, “Conner” immediately gives you the impression that Titans has plans for Superboy, which maybe explains the episode’s crash-course of a story.
“Conner” bridges the gap between Titans’ first and second seasons by following the moments when Conner first freed Krypto and escaped from the Cadmus Labs. While the officially recruited Titans were busy dealing with Rachel’s father and the reemergence of Deathstroke, Conner was still being born, in a sense.
Though physically mature, Conner awakes in the lab terrified and knowing nothing about the world beyond the fact that his instincts tell him he’s in danger. After Conner breaks his way out of his incubation pod, we see him kill a number of Cadmus employees, and it at first seems like “Conner” might be leaning into Titans’ signature grim-darkness. But the episode quickly takes on a more complicated and at times lighthearted tone that feels like something the series hasn’t really led with before.
Moments after murdering the people who were experimenting on him, a naked Conner makes friends with Krypto, decides to name himself Conner, and runs off with the super-powered dog in a silly disguise to hide somewhere in the world, despite the fact that he doesn’t really know… much of anything.
For all of Conner’s power, he knows nothing about subtlety, meaning that it isn’t long before Cadmus scientist Dr. Eve Watson (Genevieve Angelson) and Lex Luthor’s right hand woman Mercy Graves (Natalie Gumede) are at the lab formulating a plan as to how to retrieve their missing “asset.” To Mercy, Conner’s merely another piece of Luthor’s valuable property that needs to be returned to its rightful owner, while Eve’s feelings are a bit more conflicted.
Part of her is just as eager to get Conner back in the lab in order to study his unique genetic structure — the results of years of engineering work that she and her team put in at Cadmus. But Eve also feels some degree of sympathy for Conner, or at the very least she understands that if Mercy and Lex were to get their hands on the boy, their grand plans for him would be nothing but villainous.
Conner’s none the wiser about the danger he and Krypto are in, though, for a number of different reasons — first among them being the fact that functionally, he has the mind of a child (albeit one who’s growing rapidly more intelligent as he experiences more of downtown Metropolis). While Conner doesn’t have any memories of his own, it’s explained that the boy carries epigenetic memories, memories from the two people who contributed the genetic material that made him and which are now stored in his DNA.
When presented with the opportunity to save a woman from a mugging, Conner springs into action like an excited kid, but he dispatches the criminal with a cold brutality that’s at odds with the brighter side of his burgeoning personality. When he first sets eyes on Superman’s logo on a vendor’s t-shirt, he’s immediately drawn to the symbol and he knows that it means something, but he isn’t sure what.
Because following his instincts has served him well, Conner decides to keep doing so, immediately gravitating toward the image of a picturesque wheat field plastered on the side of a truck. Conner might not know who he is, but he knows that his “home” is somewhere out in the countryside where the sky’s big and blue, so he improbably hitches a ride that just so happens to drop him off in nearby Kansas.
“Conner” often feels like a long-lost pilot for a Superboy series in a way that other characters’ feature episodes haven’t. This is partially because the episode crams so much of Superboy’s backstory into such a short amount of time, but the episode always feels brisk and expertly truncated rather than rushed.
When Conner arrives in Kansas, the episode attempts to fake the audience out by implying that he’s about to set foot on the Kent’s farm and meet Superman’s family, but of course, it’s the Luthor property where he arrives and meets Lex’s elderly father Lionel (Peter MacNeill). It’s in Conner’s interactions with the people and things closest to his genetic forebears where “Conner” shifts into an interesting psychological space.
Though Conner doesn’t know Lionel personally, he has emotionally powerful, but muddled, recollections of the kind of fear Lex felt as a child when being beaten by his father. Conner doesn’t grasp what his flashbacks mean when he begins to have them in the Luthor house, but as he sits and speaks with Lionel, the boy gradually realises that he has some sort of connection both to the house and to the man he’s just met.
When Conner presses Lionel about the way he treated his son, Lionel concedes that he was rough on the boy, but it came from a desire to instil a kind of humanity in him that he felt his son was fundamentally lacking. Through Lionel, “Conner” introduces the idea of Lex Luthor having potentially been a brilliant sociopath as a child, something that Conner can’t wrap his mind around; on some level, he understands that Lionel’s implicitly talking about him, though neither can be fully sure of that.
But just as things are coming to a head on the Luthor property, Eve and the Cadmus soldiers arrive prepared to capture the super boy — and when Conner realises that he and Lionel are both in danger, whatever darkness is in him recedes to give over to his heroic instinct to protect people who are in danger.
Titans’ special effects have never been much to write home about, but “Conner” illustrates how television productions have all basically gotten the Superman power-set down to a tee at this point, and it is rather nifty seeing Conner outrun bullets in small spaces (not to mention Krypto zapping people with his laser vision).
Of course, Conner has no problem taking out the soldiers, but when he comes upon Eve, he hesitates as she begins to explain her involvement in his creation and the genuine regret she feels about Cadmus’ entire operation.
Eve’s relatively quick change of heart about Cadmus makes “Conner” feel a bit like a piece of very personal fanfic that the author inserted themselves into in order to hammer home a few points before giving the character a heroic, melodramatic sendoff that forever changes Conner. Eve knows that even though Conner has the capacity to do terrible things, he also has Superman’s warmth and greatness.
Conner has both Lex Luthor and Superman’s knowledge in his mind, but he lacks any of the context for it, meaning that it’s up to him to decide how he’s going to apply it all. Eve is not Conner’s mother, but she becomes a maternal presence in his life for the short time they’re together before she realises that if she wants to ensure that Conner never becomes like Lex, he has to understand what kind of man Luthor is.
Common sense would say not to bring the anger-prone manchild clone to the place where his creators killed many people and where multiple early, failed clone experiments sit in abandoned tanks, but this is a comic book show.
Eve wants to atone for the sins she committed in the name of science, and it almost seems as if she knows that Conner’s going to snap and try to kill her when he sees the other attempts at creating a hybrid being like himself. But the part of him that comes from Smallville and wears an S on his chest (that isn’t an S, yes, yes, whatever) wins out, and Conner realises despite her previous actions, Eve does truly care for him and want him to be safe.
Conner wants to bring Eve with him and escape to freedom, but they both know that would never end up working, and so the boy and his dog escape and…somehow end up wandering into just the right place and the right time to witness Jason Todd’s impending fall from the previous episode.
The way “Conner” suddenly weaves Conner’s story in with the rest of the Titans is jarring and messes with the episode’s pacing in a way that makes it difficult to exactly follow how Conner gets from point A to B so quickly. That being said, having Conner scoop Jason out of the air to narrowly avoid Titans having to do “A Death in the Family” is slick, and hints at what kind of new energy the half-Kryptonian’s going to bring to the team.
That is, unless that Kryptonite bullet he gets shot with actually manages to kill him, which which case, Conner might end up leaving Titans just as soon as things were getting interesting.