Batwoman, the latest entry in The CW’s Arrowverse slate of TV shows based on DC Comics, is set in a version of Gotham City where Batman has been missing for three years. To combat the crime and despair that’s spread through her town, Bruce Wayne’s cousin Kate Kane (Ruby Rose of Orange Is the New Black and John Wick: Chapter 2) borrows his equipment and mantle and takes to the streets.
In the first two episodes of Batwoman, which premieres on Sunday, October 6th, most of Gotham just believes Batman has finally returned. Kate hasn’t established her own superhero identity yet. And neither has her show, which feels stitched together from Batman canon, Batwoman’s comics, and elements of other gritty comic book shows.
Kate has her own obligatory tragic backstory, featuring a car accident caused by one of the Joker’s plots. Batman bought enough time for Kate to escape, but the car fell off a bridge with her mother and twin sister, Beth, still in it. Her father Jacob Kane (Dougray Scott of Taken 3) found a mission in Batman’s failure and created the Crows, a private security firm staffed by elite veterans. The Batwoman pilot shows Kate undergoing intense training to join the family business. Then she’s called to help save her former girlfriend and Crow member Sophie Moore (Meagan Tandy) from Alice (Rachel Skarsten), a murderer and terrorist with a penchant for quoting Lewis Carroll, but no relation to Batman’s own Alice in Wonderland-themed villain, the Mad Hatter. Alice is Batwoman’s primary enemy in the comics, and two episodes in, the show is already setting up a dynamic akin to Batman and the Joker, where the two define each other and push each other to extreme action.
The problem is that this, like so much of Batwoman, is familiar material. The show’s tough, brooding protagonist makes it feel similar to Arrow, and it’s clearly meant to be an Arrow replacement, since that show is launching its eighth and final season on October 15th. But while Arrow kicked off with a bizarre mix of elements from Batman Begins, Lost, and Dexter, the beginning of Batwoman feels like a much more straightforward mix of street-level heroics and soap-opera family drama.
Arrow also had the advantage of riding the leading wave of modern superhero TV shows, which let it escape much comparison with other entrants in a crowded field. Batwoman instead faces comparisons with the much higher production values of Netflix’s Marvel Cinematic Universe shows. In the DC Extended Universe, Supergirl has distinguished itself with its higher power level and overtly political plotlines, while The Flash and Legends of Tomorrow lean into superhero silliness. But the grittiness of Batwoman puts the show more in line with Netflix’s Jessica Jones or Daredevil. While Netflix’s shows were narratively inconsistent, they delivered phenomenal performances accompanied by gorgeous sets and genre-defining fight scenes that The CW’s budget simply can’t support.
While the actors may settle into a better dynamic later in this opening season, most of the performances in the first two episodes feel stiff. Skarsten’s performance is the highlight of the show so far, swiftly alternating between whimsical dialogue and vicious threats. But other characters are dealing with the heavy burden of getting enough exposition out of the way to set up a supporting ensemble for Batwoman, in the style of all the other CW shows. That cast includes Kate’s med-student stepsister Mary Hamilton (Nicole Kang) and Luke Fox (Camrus Johnson), son of the Wayne Enterprises researcher played by Morgan Freeman in the Christopher Nolan films. When Kate finds the shockingly obvious secret entrance to the Batcave in Bruce Wayne’s office, Luke agrees to rework one of Batman’s suits to fit her, and teaches her about the hero’s array of useful gadgets. It’s infuriating that so far, Kate still hasn’t asked him how he learned Bruce’s secret, what happened to her cousin, or any questions that don’t suit her immediate needs.
Batwoman’s writers have followed in the footsteps of the first seasons of Arrow and The Flash by giving their title character an unavailable love interest. Kate and Sophie met while attending a military academy that banned gay relationships. Their romance got Kate expelled, and Sophie renounced her to stay enrolled, eventually graduating and marrying a man. It’s a powerful reminder that while significant progress has been made in LGBT equality, discrimination based on sexual orientation is still legal within many US institutions.
That conflict also has a lot more depth than the ones in Arrow and The Flash, where the heroes pretty much had to wait for their romantic rivals to die so they could make their moves. As Mary puts it during a beautifully awkward family breakfast, “Can we talk about the fact that [Sophie’s] married to a man? I’m not trying to label her or anything, but what’s her deal, exactly?” Sophie doesn’t seem particularly happily married, but the question remains whether she’s bisexual, or has suppressed her sexual identity to help her career. Considering the powerful on-screen chemistry she’s shown with Kate, hopefully it won’t take a full season and a dramatic death for them to figure it out.
For a show about an openly gay woman, Batwoman is otherwise surprisingly conservative in its politics. While most of the Arrowverse shows are produced in Vancouver, Batwoman shot some of its exterior scenes in Chicago, the same city where The Dark Knight was filmed. Chicago’s high rates of gun violence have made it a punching bag for Republicans arguing against gun-control legislation, and this version of Gotham carries through the theme by making the city into a nightmare of urban decay. It’s particularly jarring seeing shots of the city’s landmark areas, which are typically populated by international tourists, instead covered with trash and homeless encampments.
The conservative messaging goes beyond the visual cues. While Kate decided to become Batwoman instead of joining the Crows, viewers are still meant to sympathize with Jacob and Sophie as they operate a paramilitary organization within a major American city. Gotham’s police want to lock Alice up in Arkham Asylum, even as she questions Kate’s sanity, in an homage to the “Who’s crazier?” question at the heart of many Batman and Joker plots. Given the controversy around the release of Joker and mental illness repeatedly being used as a political scapegoat for mass shootings, it’s unfortunate that Batwoman couldn’t take a more nuanced, original approach to the issue.
Rose’s version of Batwoman first appeared on-screen in 2018 in the Elseworlds Arrowverse crossover event, and the first few episodes of Batwoman actually take place before that plot, to establish how she became Gotham’s protector. Two episodes in, she has yet to don the distinctive bright red wig she wore in that event, the one that makes it clear she’s a different Caped Crusader from the one who’s built such a huge fandom. Presumably, the wig will eventually be a plot point showing she isn’t satisfied with living off her cousin’s powerful reputation, and that she intends to forge her own path. Hopefully by then, Batwoman’s writers will be on track to do the same thing.
Batwoman premieres on The CW on Sunday, October 6th, 2019.