'Batwoman': TV Review

For better or worse, a proficient heir to the 'Arrow'-verse.
10/6/2019

Starring Ruby Rose, The CW's latest DC Comics adaptation fits in quickly with the network's less distinctive, still solid superhero entries.

Even if they only cross over once per calendar year, The CW's DC Comics adaptations, all produced by Greg Berlanti, are designed to function almost as nesting dolls. Whatever minor differences they might have in terms of tone or voice or scale or acknowledgment of superpowers, it's much easier to point to fundamental similarities in storytelling, style and and aesthetics.

The true outlier in this group is the loopy anarchy of Legends of Tomorrow, which not coincidentally has emerged as easily the creative leader of the pack.

They can't all be outliers, and for all of the pre-premiere emphasis on the things that make its heroine different — She's gay! She might be Jewish! — what's most immediately apparent about The CW's new action drama Batwoman is how limitedly distinctive it is. There are advantages to this, namely how few growing pains Batwoman experiences from the character's debut in last fall's multi-show crossover. Legends of Tomorrow, in contrast, went from crossover to excruciatingly uneven first season before finding itself. Still, it's hard not to feel like at one point, Batwoman was aspiring to be something more radical and adventurous than a by-the-numbers origin story leading to a female-centric Arrow. Thus far, it is not.

Though Batwoman was already entrenched in the cowl in last fall's Elseworlds crossover, the stand-alone series reintroduces us to Kate Kane (Ruby Rose), daughter of Gotham royalty. Her father is Jacob Kane (Dougray Scott), who runs a private security force tasked with protecting Gotham after the mysterious disappearance, three years earlier, of Batman. Coincidentally, billionaire Bruce Wayne also disappeared three years earlier. Wayne was Kate's beloved cousin and a key part of her support system after the death of her mother and sister, a tragedy that Kate partially blames on Batman's inability to save them.

Kate dreams of becoming a part of The Crows, her father's armed militia, but she had to drop out of training academy over her relationship with Meagan Tandy's Sophie. While Kate left town to train on her own, Sophie denied her sexuality, became a Crow and almost a surrogate daughter to Jacob.

As Kate returns to Gotham, the city is being terrorized by the maniacal Alice (Rachel Skarsten), leader of the nefarious Wonderland Gang and fledgling crime lord bent on bringing down The Crows. Alice has a very specific vendetta against the city and against Jacob.

Created by Caroline Dries and directed in early episodes by Marcos Siega, Batwoman has a lot of ground to cover, including Kate's inevitably swift discovery of her cousin's secret, with the help of Camrus Johnson's Luke Fox (son of Lucius Fox, if you know your Batman lore). There are secrets aplenty, and the thing I probably appreciated most about these first two episodes is how little contrivance there is in keeping some of those secrets compartmentalized. Perhaps the most frustrating thing about so many of these DC shows has been the endless "How long will it take for Character A to find out Secret B that probably didn't need to be a secret anyway?" and Batwoman has a welcome amount of openness and information sharing from the get-go.

The series also does surprisingly well with establishing several key supporting characters. Scott makes Jacob more nuanced as a loving-but-pained paternal figure than the series probably required. Tandy, whom I'll always like from Survivor's Remorse, gives Sophie an interesting combination of sweetness and ambition. Skarsten makes Alice more than just the sort of deranged mental patient the Batman universe typically invites, more than just the Joker clone she first appears to be. I especially liked how much depth the show rushes to give Nicole Kang's Mary, Kate's social media-loving step-sister, who could have just been jokey comic relief and has already, after two episodes, become the character I'm most curious about.

Around Kate Kane and Rose, there's a question mark. The camera is intrigued, gravitating toward her angular features, spiky hair and convincing swagger. I'm not sure she's as good at conveying the required authority or enigmatic mystery. There's an interpretation of Batman in which he's a repressed, damaged cipher denying his own internal torment to stop Gotham's cavalcade of freaks and monsters, a manifestation of law and order as vastly less exciting than untethered evil. So maybe that's how Batwoman is approaching Kate Kane and her alter ego, so it's intentional that she's being upstaged by everybody around her? That her sexuality and religion and approach to vigilantism are afterthoughts? I'm not sure.

It's less likely to be intentional how interchangeably brooding and bland Batwoman is as a visual experience. Audiences are coming to this world off of Fox's Gotham, a show with countless flaws, but an undeniable panache when it came to production design, costuming and world-building. Batwoman has none of that. This take on Bruce Wayne's troubled hometown is rudimentary Vancouver-as-Murky-Uber-City world-building and surprisingly little joy has gone into creating uniforms for The Crows, a main costume for Batwoman or Alice's fashion choices, which have Victorian flair in her original comic incarnation. The series has multiple lairs dedicated to eccentric comic characters and multiple attempted large-scale action sequences, and there isn't a "Man, that's cool!" moment in either episode I've seen.

Arrow, The Flash, Supergirl and Black Lightning have all had moments where I was truly enjoying either the stories they were telling or the way those stories were being told. Much more frequently, though, they've felt like they were built for assembly-line viewing to keep audiences caught up on as many shows as possible with as little commitment as possible. That's the mode that, for better or worse, Batwoman has arrived in. It's easy enough to watch that I'll stick around to see if it blossoms into something more.

Cast: Ruby Rose, Meagan Tandy, Camrus Johnson, Nicole Kang, Rachel Skarsten, Dougray Scott, Elizabeth Anweis
Creator: Caroline Dries, adapted from the DC Comics character
Premieres: Sunday, 8 p.m. ET/PT (The CW)