'Warrior Nun': TV Review

Courtesy of Netflix
High concept, low charisma.
6/2/2020

Netflix's dour supernatural drama focuses on a young woman recruited to fight in the divine war between Good and Evil.

On Netflix's occult nunsploitation action drama Warrior Nun, newcomer Alba Baptista plays an abused young woman offered a new start at life when she's anointed with the divine powers of an ancient relic in order to help defeat evil itself.

Loosely based on Ben Dunn's early 90s manga-style comic book series Warrior Nun Areala, which depicts a fictional military order of sexy ninja-like nuns, the series trades the comic's dedicated heroine, Shannon Masters, for a waif who has no interest in serving the Catholic Church after a degraded childhood in holy care. (Like Disney's teen mermaid Ariel, she would love nothing more than to shirk dynastic duty and skip off into the sunset with a hot boy and her new working legs, but we'll get to that.)

Thematically, Warrior Nun is nothing you haven't seen before, and aesthetically, nothing you ever want to see again. Bleak, dour and trudging, the series contains none of the kitschy, blasphemous fun of its title.

Baptista's Ava grew up in a Catholic orphanage in Andalusia, Spain, ever since a car accident claimed her single mother and left her entire body paralyzed. At the age of 19, as she lays dead in a church morgue — her death a mystery — sinister church elders chatter around her. Suddenly, a team of chainmail-clad female fighters bursts into the cathedral, barely evading blasts through stone. They're under attack and their leader is dying. Without much time to consider the alternatives, they perform a mystical emergency surgery to remove a sacred metal ring from the back of fading Shannon, and stick it into the dead girl, instead, for safe keeping. But none of them expected the dead girl to wake up again… or have newfound superpowers.

Roughly half of Warrior Nun's ten-episode season is centered on Ava discovering the world outside her orphanage bed, mostly unaware she's actually carrying a celestial halo in her back. Ava, a former quadriplegic who spent over a decade indoors at the mercy of a sadistic nun, devotes little time to the emotional upheaval of suddenly being able to walk again. Thus, the writers use her disability as a mere storytelling device, a brief obstacle to provide Ava some character-building trauma (much like in Netflix's otherwise-winsome comedy Never Have I Ever.) At some point, another character ableistically accuses her of narcissism, claiming she's accustomed to the world revolving around her care. 

While she's quick to call herself a "freak" and a "weirdo" via grating inner-monologue voiceover (reinforcing harmful stereotypes about disabled people), Ava's beauty soon attracts the eye of J.C. (Emilio Sakraya), a hunky Boho grifter. He, along with his clubbing hipster friends, squat in vacant mansions around Europe for months on end, and invite Ava to join them, teaching her how to dress, flirt and party. While Ava learns the feminine arts, the Order of the Cruciform Sword is on the hunt for their magical halo. A secret group of warrior clerics founded a thousand years ago by a Crusades-era Valkyrie convert, these grim and indistinguishable young women mostly snipe among themselves about who actually deserved to bear the halo and who was after their beloved Shannon to begin with.

Once the Order catches up with Ava, they train her in martial arts and weaponry, helping her learn to control her superhuman abilities. But she's understandably reluctant to join a sisterhood in service of the institution that terrorized her, let alone operate as God's champion. (Warrior Nun is the rare modern screen story that positions the Catholic Church as the "good guys." The original comic was criticized for both its glib take on hallowed subjects and its pious ethos.)  Eventually, after obtaining guidance from her very own Professor Dumblepriest — I mean, Father Vincent (Tristan Ulloa) — she accepts her Chosen One destiny. As if we had any doubt.

Like other narratives built on arcane ecclesiastical mythos, such as Dan Brown's action-adventure novels or Kevin Smith's black comedy Dogma, much of Warrior Nun is just plain exposition — what got us here, now. High on concept but low on charisma, the story plods along from dank candlelit crypt to dank candlelit crypt, curing the viewer's insomnia with long speeches on faith, sacrifice and priestly apocrypha. (The morose brownish-green lighting filter doesn't help.)

In between the bouts of uptight handwringing, we're subject to combat sequences, a subplot involving a techie scientist searching for a portal to the afterlife and lots of vaguely pan-European accents that indicate palatable "exoticism."  I was never quite sure what side I was supposed to be on, and frankly, I can't imagine why anyone would care about the outcome of this boggy story. Conversely to Ava feeling empowered by the ethereal halo embedded in her back, I felt drained by this show's dark drudgery.

Although they certainly try, no cast member is given enough to work with, least of all Baptista, a Portuguese actress who's saddled with impotent post-ironic one-liners like, "I think I peed a little" and "Nazis suck balls." (Despite growing up in near-isolation, Ava's still somehow managed to develop the linguistic capital of a flip tween.) But beside being as doe-eyed as lookalike Emilia Clarke, green Baptista doesn't have enough charm or gravitas as a performer to carry such tedious material. Creator and showrunner Simon Barry (Continuum, Van Helsing, Ghost Wars) is no stranger to the amusing affectations of paranormal action shows, but rarely have I seen anything in this realm so sober and self-serious. It's simply, painfully unentertaining.

Warrior Nun is another entry in the teen feminist occult fantasy genre, also populated by Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, Motherland: Fort Salem and the late, great Sky One drama Hex, and each show no doubt looks upon Buffy the Vampire Slayer as Mother Superior. Ultimately, however, they're all male fantasies of muscular, hot-girl matriarchy, Warrior Nun just being the first to prove that sour-faced warriors are boring no matter their gender.

Cast: Alba Baptista, Tristan Ulloa, Toya Turner, Lorena Andrea, Thekla Reuten,  Kristina Tonteri-Young, Emilio Sakraya, Olivia Delcán, Sylvia De Fanti

Created by: Simon Barry

Premieres: Thursday, July 2nd (Netflix)