Batwoman isn’t Batwoman yet. That’s not meant as a snappy, one-sentence summation of the state of affairs on Batwoman—or at least, that’s not solely what’s meant. In the two episodes provided for critics, Kate Kane (Ruby Rose) doesn’t come close to actually becoming Batwoman; she dons a batsuit, sure, and she does some punching and kicking and swooping and multi-directional ziplining. She broods and glowers and wrestles with bottomless vats of survivor’s guilt—all very Bat. But like many a superhero before her, she’s got to wade through her origin story, one booted foot after the other, a process at odds with Batwoman’s enthusiasm for racing toward big revelations. And, this is not the only tale of how Kate Kane became Batwoman in the works. Batwoman also has to establish itself as the most likely successor to Arrow, the Arrowverse progenitor, which lays down its many quivers for good in January.
That’s a long to-do list. Unfortunately, these two episodes don’t manage to check all that many boxes, and among those missed is the most important one: establishing itself as an engrossing television show worth checking out week after week. It comes close, but it doesn’t quite get there. Still, there’s potential, particularly when Batwoman stops trying to be a Gotham story, an Arrowverse show, and a familiar origin yarn, and starts focusing on what makes it different.
Kate Kane has been out of Gotham for awhile. After her simultaneous expulsion from an elite military academy and heartbreak at the hands of a classmate (Meagan Tandy of Teen Wolf), she’s shipped away by her father (Dougray Scott), the head of an elite private security force called The Crows—which was formed to fill the void left by Batman, who disappeared three years earlier. (He is also, presumably, her private tutor in the art of glowering.) But as Kate perfects many deadly skills on the ice somewhere, she also wrestles with a much earlier trauma: the loss of her mother and twin sister, collateral damage in a fight between Batman and The Joker, the former of whom she deeply resents. When Sophie is kidnapped by a similar chaotic force, the Lewis Carroll-inspired Alice (a terrific Rachel Skarsten), Kate returns and does what she did back then. She turns to her cousin, Bruce Wayne.
This time, however, Bruce is out of town. So instead, she turns to his tech and his resources, and with every moment she spends in the abandoned Wayne Enterprises building—helplessly shadowed by Luke Fox (Camrus Johnson), Lucius Fox’s son—she uncovers more secrets and even more gadgets. You can guess the rest.
It’s not just Kate’s reaction to that particular revelation that’s easy to predict. The twists revealed in these first two episodes are so clearly telegraphed that even someone who isn’t fluent in superhero storytelling should be able to guess at least one of them. (That one will also be apparent to anyone who’s read Greg Rucka and J.H. Williams III’s Batwoman: Elegy, though it’s far from a straightforward adaptation.) Yet there’s something refreshing about those revelations, which on another superhero show would likely arrive at the mid-season break, if not in the final block of episodes for the season. And one of the biggest of those isn’t only revealed to the audience, nor is it Kate alone who learns the truth. Wonder of wonders, it’s information that gets shared, rather than dragged out over the course of 14 hours of storytelling.
This is Batwoman’s greatest strength so far. Well, this, and Rose’s knack for wringing a little wry humor out of even the most perfunctory scenes with the quirk of an eyebrow. Mostly, though, it’s the show’s disinterest in dragging its feet, a choice at odds with origin-story energy but one which saves the pilot in particular from becoming plodding. It’s a quality the show shares with its protagonist, who chooses to act, to be straightforward, to assess a given situation and then run headlong into whatever she sees coming. When a character asks her if she’s running around in Batman’s outfits, it’s a bit of a shock to see her deny it, so honest is she in every other aspect of her life. Rose’s energy is perfectly suited to this kind of role. Her Kate does not rush, but she never, ever dallies.
That’s especially true of that earlier heartbreak mentioned above. Caroline Dries (who writes both of these early episodes, each directed by Marcos Siega) shoves exposition into these episodes by the tactical-gloved handful, including the relationship between Kate and Sophie, but doesn’t leave much room for nuance. Hopefully future episodes will allow more room for exploration of Kate’s life as an out lesbian, but Rose’s frank approach to these scenes, to the pain of choosing love and your own truth and finding yourself alone for your trouble, imbues them with some welcome complexity. (While certainly groundbreaking, it’s worth noting that all the trumpeting of Kate as TV’s first lesbian superhero isn’t accurate; she’s not even the first on The CW. That would be Thunder, of Black Lightning.)
Sadly, there’s just not all that much complexity, and not even the enjoyably quick storytelling can mask the boilerplate feel of these early episodes. It’s in the area of establishing itself as the future Arrowverse standard-bearer that “Batwoman” most easily succeeds, and not just because of the moment in which Kate talks to a criminal she just tackled in Rose’s best “You have failed this city” voice. Nor is that a particularly good thing for the series at this stage. Kate stalks through dimly-lit abandoned buildings, fighting bad guys five at a time, though somehow also one at a time, just like Oliver Queen. She’s got her fumbling-but-brilliant second in Luke—her Felicity, her Cisco, her Winn Schott. She feels her feelings while appropriate pop songs play; her dark backstory arrives in warmly-lit flashbacks populated by teary child actors. Only when Skarsten shows up does Batwoman feel consistently like Batwoman and not like an imitation of another series. To establish itself as a series worth watching on its own merits, it’ll need to imitate another Arrowverse show: DC’s Legends of Tomorrow, which became The CW’s best superhero joint when it stopped trying to fit in and became its weird, wonderful self.
Batwoman premieres Sunday, October 6th on The CW.
Allison Shoemaker is a TV and film critic whose work has appeared in The A.V. Club, Vulture, RogerEbert.com, and other publications. She is also the co-host of the podcasts Hall Of Faces and Podlander Drunkcast: An Outlander Podcast, the latter of which is exactly what it sounds like.