SPOILER WARNING: The following article contains major spoilers for "Titans Annual" #1, by Dan Abnett and Minkyu Jung, on sale now.
Since the start of DC's Rebirth, the Titans and Justice League have been in a pretty complicated place. With the return of Wally West awakening the memories of only his closest friends, and the Titans coming back onto the scene less than a year ago, the relationship between the two groups has been strained at best and nonexistent at worst. After twelve issues, the Titans have only interacted with their mentors in their own title only in bits and pieces, with Wally being their main envoy. The rest of the members of either team haven't shown much interest in pursuing the familiarity with one another in these group settings, beyond the occasional off hand mention.
It's been a bit strange to say the least, particularly in light of the relative strength of "Titans" on it's own. What's more, it's left the "legacy" of the team relative to the rest of the DCU up in the air -- an odd choice, considering one of the main tenants of Rebirth according to Geoff Johns was a return of "legacy" in all it's forms.
In short, the Titans have been in dire need of a moment to reexamine, reconnect and rebuild old bridges -- and thankfully that's just what the first "Titans" annual of the Rebirth era sets out to do, with the added bonus of expanding upon some of the bigger mysteries of the post-Rebirth DCU in one neatly organized package.
The one-shot story opens with members of the Titans and Justice League kidnapped; transported to a bunker against their will with no recollection of how or why they’ve been placed there. The Titans present are Dick Grayson, Wally West, Donna Troy and Garth; the Justice League representatives are Batman, The Flash, Wonder Woman and Aquaman.
Notice a pattern?
It turns out this roster of heroes and their sidekicks were specifically picked by none other than The Key -- a former Justice League villain who has been relatively off the board since the start of the New 52 -- and a mysterious benefactor he’s found himself working for. The Key’s power set, aside from obviously having to do with, well, keys, is based around “psycho-chemicals” which grant him access to extra senses. With these extra senses, The Key is able to manipulate even the most powerful telepaths and, apparently, even tap into the multiverse -- or, in his own words, “unlock every last secret in [his] head," something that the Rebirth DCU certainly has no shortage of.
However, it would seem that nigh-limitless self awareness isn’t enough. The Key is acting under orders from someone -- an outside presence -- and has been promised a gift of even more awareness if he can successfully accomplish this gambit with the Titans and the League. The end goal is to “harvest” the psychic energy that comes from the emotional conflict between mentors and proteges, which, apparently, is specific in the way it can only come from the sort of extreme conflict between people who really know how to hurt one another.
Said negative energy apparently powers something for the Key’s employer, so the Key’s plan is to stir the pot in his little prison by throwing replicas of enemies like Metallo and squads of Parademons at them until the pressure eventually makes them snap. Then, while they’re busy being at each other’s throats, he’ll take the bad vibes produced all the way to the bank. In theory, it’s not a bad plan, but with both Nightwing and Batman in the mix, it gets deciphered and dismantled pretty quickly.
WHO IS DONNA TROY?
The major trump card the Key believes he has, even after the Bats have deduced his scheming and thrown a wrench into his manipulations, relates back to one of the most complicated characters in DC’s line up: Donna Troy.
Since her introduction in in 1965, Donna’s backstory has become an infamous web of retcons and reboots, involving everything from alternate earths to time travel to full on cloning. More recently, her New 52 origin story established her as an enemy of Wonder Woman, created from the remains of Hippolyta, to be a perfect Amazonian queen -- not exactly the best way to position her in the current Wonder Woman legacy as it’s been written out in Rebirth. Later, during the Rebirth prelude series “Titans Hunt,” Donna had her origin modified a bit more, but the specifics remained largely very vague. As far as readers have been concerned, the details of how Donna went from her role as usurping weapon to normal Titan were still a mystery.
Luckily, the truth about Donna’s newly (re-)reworked status quo comes to light here, care of some carefully applied pressure from the Key and one of Batman’s bio-scanners which suspiciously reports that there are only seven traditional life signs in a room containing eight people. This would be because Donna isn’t actually “organic” in the traditional sense, something Diana reveals to the group -- and to Donna, who had no idea.
The New 52 story of Donna being designed as a weapon made to take on Diana remains intact, apparently minus the remains of Hippolyta bit, but is taken a step further. Rather than destroy Donna, Diana and her fellow Amazons defeated her and then implanted false memories within her consciousness, making Donna forget she was ever anything but a normal Amazonian girl.
As you might imagine, Donna doesn’t take the news very well -- all part the Key’s plan to generate that negative emotional energy. Luckily, her Titans teammates are able to step in before the tension between the Amazons boils over.
EXTRA DIMENSIONAL DOORS
Through their combined efforts, the imprisoned Titans and League members are eventually able to find the Key before he’s able to skim enough emotional turmoil from them to fulfill his quota. Luckily, for someone as powerful as he is, he’s really not interested in taking on so many heroes at once.
The Key beats a hasty retreat through one of his extra-dimensional doors, apparently escaping to whatever alternate dimension (or...far off location? It’s never made explicitly clear) his employer has been hiding. He attempts to apologize for his failure but it doesn’t seem like his employer is all that happy with excuses. By the sound of things (which is to say: screaming, and lots of it,) it's unlikely we'll see a return of the Key any time soon.
Unsurprisingly, the mysterious employer is never seen or named, leaving the nature of the Key’s involvement in the bigger picture of Rebirth still pretty ambiguous. However, it’s impossible to ignore the connections. For one, the Titans deep connection to the “bigger picture” of Rebirth, care of Wally West, is undeniable. Whatever happens in the future of the DCU, it’s extremely unlikely that the “Titans” ongoing is going to be anywhere but close to the heart of it. Also, the themes of negative energy and hopelessness are undeniably Rebirth-centric, relating all the way back to “DC Universe: Rebirth” #1.
If the Key really was working for or with someone pulling strings in Rebirth, some interesting complications arise. The mastermind behind Rebirth (Dr. Manhattan, perhaps?) is powerful enough to remake entire realities, so why would they need to enlist the help of someone like the Key to do their dirty work for them? And if the Key was somehow working for Mr. Oz, why not show him to the readers, if not the heroes? Why would he enlist help now, after he's been doing so well on his own? Is it possible that the Key was working for a third party, unrelated to the cosmic relating-altering force Mr. Oz keeps referring to and Mr. Oz himself? And if so...who is it?
Or, more importantly, what do they want?