BATWOMAN Review: Season 1, Part 1

Ruby Rose as Batwoman

By Javier E. Trujillo

 The Batman has been gone for three years…

…or is an urban legend — if you believe Oliver “The Green Arrow is the original vigilante” Queen.

If you were reading DC Comics post-Infinite Crisis, you’re probably aware that Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman took a year-long sabbatical and the events that transpired during this time were chronicled in the weekly series, 52. It was during this series that the modern Batwoman, Katherine “Kate” Kane made her debut, before headlining Detective Comics for a year post-Batman R.I.P. and eventually spinning off into her own title.

With this history in mind, Batwoman’s live-action counterpart is following much of the same trajectory. Ruby Rose made her super-heroic entrance during Arrow season 7, episode 9, entitled, “Elseworlds, part 2” and like a Batarang, quickly spun out into her own eponymous series.

The first episode of Batwoman aired on October 6th, 2019, two days after the opening of Todd Phillips’ Joker on the silver screen. Once again that weekend, audiences were thrown into a world without The Dark Knight.

The pilot starts off with an epic feel recalling Batman Begins with its sweeping landscape showcasing a barren, icy climate. Much like the early episodes of Arrow, our heroine provides a voice-over narration as she escapes a frigid deathtrap before segueing into a flashback.

Before we continue further, I feel The CW does an excellent job adapting our comic heroes to the small screen. Having said that, I want to stress the word “adaptation” again. This isn’t a direct translation like the Sin City movies. As with all their other shows, liberties get taken to make things work better for the medium. It’s these liberties that give us new characters and exciting dynamics that make the show’s fun and fresh. Look at Iris’s dad, Joe West, or Sarah Lance, the White Canary. When watching this universe, it’s best to just roll with any comic continuity changes and enjoy the ride. As we’ll see, there are universes of possibilities out there.

With that out of the way, the first big change from comics to screen is the manner in which Kate loses her mom and sister. The Joker has caused a bus to collide into the car a young Kate, her twin sister, Beth, and her mom are in. Kate manages to get free out the back, with Batman tethering the car to prevent it from falling off the bridge it is precariously balancing on. It doesn’t hold, and the car plummets below, with Kate’s family lost. Kate spends her time growing up looking for her sister and wondering why Batman seemingly abandoned them.

For those unfamiliar with the comics, Colonel Jacob Kane’s wife and daughters were taken hostage and only Kate seemingly survived. Not having their loss be the result of his military career doesn’t fundamentally change the story-the tragedy is still there, but now with a Batman layer.

An important part that does remain is Kate’s later relationship with Sophie Moore in a military academy. Their relationship gets discovered, causing Sophie to renounce what happened and for Kate to stay true to herself and be discharged.

When it gets realized that Batman has stopped defending Gotham, Col. Kane forms the Crows, a security firm to offer protection in a city where violence is escalating. One of his star operatives is…Sophie Moore. It’s a great change that brings Sophie back into Kate’s orbit and creates tension, especially now that Sophie has married Tyler, a fellow Crow. I love how director Marcos Siega presents the scene where Kate realizes Sophie has moved on with a man. The camera is framed off-center, reflecting not just Kate’s focus, but how her worldview has been thrown off balance.

Kate goes on a quest similar to Bruce’s training, with the death trap we see her open the pilot in being a part of that. Using her ingenuity she escapes, only to be told to do it quicker next time. Kate wants to be worthy of joining the Crows and has been traveling and learning for years to be the best she can be, now that she’s no longer in the military.

When new villain Alice attacks a Batsignal decommissioning ceremony the Crows fall prey to her gang and Sophie, who’s working security at the event, gets abducted. Mary, Kate’s stepsister, somehow manages to reach Kate on a satellite phone in the frozen wilderness and tells Kate to come back. So starts her voyage home, to a Gotham that has changed in her absence, with Wayne Enterprises seemingly abandoned and in disrepair.

Showcasing her physicality, Kate free climbs up the side of the Wayne building and makes her way in, only to be stopped by Luke Fox, who’s serving as security, amongst other things. She’s able to turn the tables on him and access the surveillance cameras to give her a lead.

Kate winds up locating and taking on Alice’s gang at Burnside Orphanage. The kitchen fight is a hard-hitting affair, showcasing Kate’s fighting prowess and leads to her first encounter with Alice. Alice reveals her vendetta against Jacob Kane and the Crows. Rachel Skarsten portrays Gotham’s latest terror. DC tv fans may recognize her as Dinah Lance from the short-lived Birds of Prey series. She’s fantastic here as Alice, at times reminding me of Uma Thurman’s portrayal of Poison Ivy, but in a good way. She brings menace and insanity to the role and it plays well in this grounded, non-neon take. As the episodes progress, she’s able to elicit sympathy out of a very damaged character who does horrific, personal things to the main cast. Her episode is heart-wrenching, particularly when she almost gets saved from her fate as a child.

Nicole Kang plays Mary Hamilton, Kate’s stepsister. At the start of the pilot, I found her vapid and annoying, but like Bruce Wayne’s playboy persona, it’s just a front. After Kate gets free from Alice, we see a different side to Mary-that of a healer. She secretly runs a clinic, which makes her the undercover Leslie Thompkins of the series. With her med-school training, she stitches Kate up, making Mary part Alfred, too. As we move forward from the pilot, she gets a decent amount of development. She pines for her family and continually reaches out to her stepsister to maintain a relationship, in stark contrast to her shallow, glitzy social media facade, kind of like the one a certain Gotham billionaire we’re familiar with has.

Some potential conflict is set up with Dougray Scott in the role of Col. Jacob Kane. Kate has some father issues as she feels she isn’t good enough to be on his team and earn his approval, but, like all dads, he just wants to see his daughter safe, especially after losing his wife and one of his children. I hope the series builds to the dynamic from the book, where Col. Kane takes an active part on Team Batwoman, serving as mission control from their base. Dougray Scott does a better job of hiding his natural accent than Bruce Wayne over in Titans and his involvement is a big win for the show, bringing gravitas to the fledgling series. I was happy to hear that he was cast as the Colonel. As the series progresses, he, too, has a lot to work with, coping with the loss of one daughter while desperately trying to protect the other.  The mystery of the Batwoman brings a lot of conflict, but possibly not more so than his second wife’s seeming betrayal over falsifying the records of Beth’s apparent death all those years ago. Scott brings such a verisimilitude to the series, with several heartfelt moments as the show goes on. His concern and love for his daughters are palpable and it tears him up inside as he finds out more about what happened to Beth.

Back to the pilot, Kate returns to the Wayne building and tries to intimidate Luke Fox into spilling where Bruce is. Camrus Johnson plays “nervous IT guy” well, but I’m not feeling much of a difference from the Felicity Smoak/Curtis Holt archetype over on Arrow. Hopefully, he’ll become more of a distinct personality as the show goes on. He’s gotta become Batwing at some point, right? The Crisis On Infinite Earths tie-in gives us a glimpse of that as we meet the Luke of Earth-99; an aide to the Bruce Wayne of that world. That Luke is such a different take, allowing Johnson to show his range and show that Luke can have an edgy, dangerous side and not just nervous nerd.

It’s not long before Kate’s powers of observation notices that the display showcasing her Aunt Martha’s infamous pearls is askew. Righting it, she unlocks a hidden entrance and discovers the Batcave and Bruce’s secret. We get the obligatory swarm of bats and suit reveal. The suit struck me as a hodgepodge of other iterations, a little of Gotham, some Dark Knight trilogy, with maybe a small dollop of Batfleck utility belt inspiration thrown in.

The climax finds Alice targeting a movie-in-the-park screening of Zorro. As a big Zorro fan as a kid, I always get a little thrilled when a Bat tale alludes to one of his real-world inspirations. The kids dressed up as him was a nice touch, too. Having recently seen Joker, the park setting reminded me of a tv budget’s limitations as attendance felt sparse for a city the size of Gotham. Of course, you could rationalize it that Alice has scared some Gothamites away.

Kate, now wearing Bruce’s Batsuit, confronts Alice to save Sophie, who is on the edge of a plank jutting out from a building still under construction. Col. Kane is helpless down below, as Alice has rigged a Crow vehicle with explosives. If he moves to save Sophie, she will detonate it and kill the families watching the movie. It feels very reminiscent of The Dark Knight, especially with Kate diving off the building to rescue the falling Sophie.

Alice makes her getaway, thwarted by this unexpected, new Bat. The crowd down below looks up and sees a familiar silhouette. Who says Superman has the market cornered on hope? Thinking the Dark Knight has returned, the town is buzzing, spurred on by talk radio host, Vesper Fairchild. Vesper, who was alluded to in the Elseworlds crossover, is voiced by tv host and political commentator Rachel Maddow. It’s a fun bit of casting as Maddow wrote the introduction for the trade collecting Batwoman’s time starring in Detective Comics. She positively gushes about her love for writer Greg Rucka and the character of Kate Kane, so I appreciated seeing an admitted fan get a part on the show.

Writing in one of Bruce’s black casebooks, Kate has come to peace with Batman’s role in the loss of her sister and mother. She also makes a realization about Alice that will play across the next few episodes — one readers of the comic will be well familiar with.

Ruby Rose is perfect as Kate Kane/Batwoman. The script gives her everything she needs to showcase her intelligence, strength, and capability to pull off a credible Batwoman. She may not be a natural redhead, but I think her black hair works better for the character, making her feel more Wayne-like. Plus, it makes the wig she will later don as Batwoman have more sense as a red herring. Acting-wise, I felt she did a great job carrying the story and selling the various internal conflicts Kate has within her. As we get into Crisis on Infinite Earths she seems more at ease in the role, even as the script calls for her to acknowledge she’s the new kid on the crossover block still.

The main thrust for the first half of the season is the mystery of Alice and what really happened to Beth all those years ago. Though she is the “Big Bad”, the show still finds time to sprinkle in characters familiar to longtime Bat-fans (and probably ones we won’t be seeing on the big screen in the near future). Magpie, Hush, and even Julia Pennyworth pop up, with Nocturna on the way! Batman’s Rogue’s Gallery is so deep, I’m more than happy to see some of the lesser-known villains get their time to shine. Gotham is a big city after all and it makes sense that we’d see criminals of all stripes make their way out of the woodwork to take advantage of the Dark Knight being gone, even with the Crows trying to keep the peace.

While the second chapter of Crisis takes place in Batwoman, Kate actually appears in all five parts, holding a key role. Paragons of Truth, Hope, Destiny, Courage, Honor, Love, and Humanity are needed to save the Multiverse. Kate and Kara “Supergirl” Danvers are dispatched to Earth-99 in search of the Paragon of Courage, known as “The Bat of The Future” and believed to be the Bruce Wayne of that Earth.

Kate meets her “cousin”, only to find him presumably much older than she last saw him and only able to get around the manor with the aid of an exo-suit. He serves as a dark reflection to a possible future for the fledgling hero. This Bruce is an amalgamation of versions seen in Batman Beyond, Kingdom Come, and Batman v Superman, which itself was a take on the Batman/Superman dynamic from The Dark Knight Returns. As Kate’s relationship with Kara grows, this Bruce, masterfully brought to life by longtime Batman voice Kevin Conroy, shows her a reality where the World’s Finest eventually become mortal enemies. This bitter Batman has abandoned his one rule and serves as a warning for what Kate could become if she’s not careful.

The Crisis firmly establishes Kate’s burgeoning role in the Arrowverse as it goes forward. She gets revealed as the Paragon of Courage, which one might not think was earned at this stage in the game, but going against the Anti-Monitor, especially in her novice, non-metahuman state requires a great deal of said attribute. Yes, there are several non-metas there, like Diggle, Wild Dog, and Alex, but they’re seasoned crime fighters at this point. The CW has found its Bat and by the end of this crossover, she is part of a league that will stand at the ready next time it’s winter sweeps.

Now, I could quibble about the Batsignal being smaller than the one seen during the Elseworlds crossover that the pilot is a prequel to or why they waited three years for a decommissioning ceremony for said signal in the first place, but it’s a nerdy nitpick not worth expounding upon. There’s a lot of setup, which is to be expected in a pilot and a first season, but there’s a lot of fun and excitement, too, with plenty of little easter eggs for the observant fan. For years fans have wondered about the Batman side of the Arrowverse and now we are finally getting some answers.

Much like the founding show Arrow, Batwoman owes a lot to the precedent set by Nolan’s trilogy. Its influence is keenly felt, but I didn’t see it as being derivative. In fact, with Arrow wrapped up, this show will have a big void to fill and what better way to do that than a fresh take on one of the newest Caped Crusaders? The fights may not be as graphic as a Marvel Netflix show, but they had a visceral element to them and also serve a story point, too, showing both Kate’s talent and inexperience. She may be able to take out a room, but her Bat-a-rang aim may still need some work.

Batwoman fits right in with the other shows on The CW, yet still captures a unique voice in the overcrowded landscape. The Arrowverse style isn’t for everyone, but if you’re a fan of what the CW does in their corner of the DCU then this is shaping up into a worthwhile entry. The cast has a lot of material to work with and does a phenomenal job making the show pop.

As we all wait for Matt Reeves to do his thing, this is a fantastic way to keep the Batsignal shining across the Gotham skyline. I know I’ll be back, same Bat-Time, same Bat-Channel! – Javier E. Trujillo

 GRADE: A

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