Red Stewart reviews the premiere episode of Batwoman…
Whenever I look at the Rotten Tomatoes scores for The CW’s various superhero shows, I can’t help but wonder if television critics have slipped into a soft bigotry of low expectations. What I mean is, these long-lasting serials have had a real opportunity to revolutionize the comic book genre the way Smallville did back in the day, or the way the Marvel Cinematic Universe is doing now: and we have seen this potential dug into significantly with such production highs as “Tricksters,” “Kapiushon,” “Lawanda: The Book of Hope,” and “Phone Home.”
Yet we have also seen a lot of disappointments. The Arrowverse, but really The CW as a whole, has gained a reputation for indulging in their young adult soap opera roots, and these traits have come into fruition multiple times with tired love triangles, cliche “will they, won’t they” arcs, rushed dramatic highs clearly trying (and failing) to imitate Shakespearean dialogues, and, worst of all, seasonal rot of long-time characters who go from being likable to unbearable.
I say all this because the latest addition to the Arrowverse, Batwoman, had a genuine opportunity to fight off that image. It had everything going for it: an established kick-ass lead actress (Ruby Rose), a familiar and brooding setting (Gotham City), a superhero not reliant on extensive VFX budgets, a comic book background that was powerful yet underrated by the public, and, best of all, early positive reception for the character based on her appearance in the 2018 crossover “Elseworlds.”
And then they proceeded blow all of this- everyone knows about the mediocre trailer released that generated a lot of heat for its forced progressive message, but there were a lot more flaws to it than just that. Rose, who gave a great performance in the films John Wick: Chapter 2 and The Meg, was monotonous without charisma; the supporting cast looked like, to quote Cat Grant, “the attractive, yet non-threatening, racially diverse cast of a CW show” aka a basket of archetypes; the cinematography of the sets was blurry, evidently done to hide unfinished CGI, and overall there seemed to be nothing to differentiate it from other superhero shows of a hero stepping in to save a city from being overrun by a gang of criminals (as we haven’t already seen that done to death in Arrow, Black Lightning, Daredevil, Luke Cage, and so forth).
Despite all this, there was still a chance that we could’ve been proven wrong, that there was simply a disconnect between the marketing and writing team. But alas, such was not the case. If the pilot is anything to go by, Batwoman will probably go down as the biggest disappointment of 2019. It takes all the problems audiences have had with The CW and doubles-down on them unapologetically, as if that the equivalent of making a bold statement.
And bold statement there could have been. Katherine Kane was a revolutionary character, an openly-lesbian hero created in 2006, years before the pro-LGBT movement kicked off a series of legislative victories (The Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act of 2009, the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell Repeal Act of 2010, and of course the Supreme Court ruling of Obergefell v. Hodges in 2015 among others). She was someone who attempted to be a patriot by attending the United States military academy, but got kicked out for refusing to lie about her sexuality.
Of course, one could argue that we live in an era where that kind of story isn’t as impactful anymore. After all, we’ve seen a surge in LGBT representation on mainstream and cable television, gay marriage isn’t a major issue anymore, and even contemporary media like the video game Gone Home have had to take on a period feel to convey the reality of what homophobic situations were like. However, I was willing to give a pass here as there are still communities throughout the U.S. (and the world for that matter) that indulge in outdated, puritanical cultures that oppress members of the LGBT community, and any attempt at depicting this kind of representation is bound to have a positive impact on at least one individual (as was proven with the Supergirl story arc regarding Alex Danvers coming out in season 3).
Boy, oh boy, though was this botched hard. The Kate Kane of the Arrowverse is not given any characterization whatsoever beyond being a tabula rasa lesbian slate for the writers to exploit for whatever faux-progressive purpose they have in mind. She’s nothing short of a HIMYM character with martial arts skills- a female protagonist suffering from daddy issues who happens to have channeled all those problems into becoming a wannabe Batman-figure. Who was she growing up? How did her interactions with her father devolve into a broken relationship? How did she meet her beloved who ended up getting her booted from the cadet school? How did she know where to go to get combat and survival training?
I wasn’t expecting extensive answers to all these questions, but there’s no indication that we’ll get satisfying answers in the future. The pilot, written by co-show developer Caroline Dries, rushes through everything without giving us much more than fragments of wasted potential. We get glimpses of Kane’s past, but they’re nothing more than snippets that serve one primary purpose: exposition. And that’s really the biggest issue with the debut episode of Batwoman– much like Black Lightning, it’s more interested in moving to the next story beat than giving us a character to care about. For example, why should I give a second thought to the past romance between Kate and her ex-Sophie Moore? We’re shown nothing outside of footage of them making-out prior to graduation, and that’s supposed to get me invested? Yes, it’s wrong what happened to them, but that doesn’t turn them into anything outside of archetypal homosexuals in a “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” environment.
This emphasis on exposition seeps into the dialogue, which feels like it was written by a film school drop-out. Subtlety and visual storytelling are thrown out the window as everything about Gotham City, Kane’s characterization, and the actions of supporting members are delivered in conversations that were clearly intended to lazily limit the need for filming future flashback scenes, such as when Luke Fox explains to Kane why Batman seemingly abandoned her family in their time of need (Fox himself, it should be noted, is nothing more than another introverted tech geek trope the Arrowverse has indulged in since Felicity Smoak).
I could go on about this, but that would be ignoring the other painful aspects of the show, namely the production design. I get that Gotham has to be shot in a dark setting to give it that broody atmosphere, but it’s obvious that the artisans behind the show weren’t given a proper budget to create what they wanted to create. The world is covered in a grey tint that makes everything look depressing and ugly, and not in a Gothic sense or even a desaturated beauty (the way Earth-19 was briefly depicted in season 3 of The Flash). Big architecture looks fuzzy from lack of proper rendering, and any close-ups are obviously shot on sets (and by obvious, I don’t mean obvious as in they shot these on sets- I mean obvious as in they didn’t take the time to make it look like they weren’t sets). It makes me wonder how rushed the show’s pre and post-production stages were.
The fight choreography, which could’ve at least been a redeeming factor the way it was in several episodes of Arrow season 6, isn’t anything to write home about either. While it wasn’t the worst I’ve seen, it was still so shoddily choreographed, shot, and edited that there wasn’t anything memorable about it. Kane is supposed to be depicted as this master martial artist, but the way things play out she looks like a street thug battling fellow intoxicated street drugs. At several times in the fight, it’s even apparent that punches are being faked, the worst mistake you can make when shooting an action scene. Seriously, at a time when serials like Daredevil, Into the Badlands, and even Arrow have set standards for hand-to-hand combat on television, this is embarrassing. And considering how amazing Rose looked in John Wick 2, I know she herself can properly portray a seasoned fighter when given the right training, making this an inexcusable thing.
In spite of my non-stop complaining, not everything in the pilot was bad. For starters, I really liked the premise of private military contractors taking control of Gotham City’s security following Batman’s disappearance. It’s a realistic plot point that fits well, and tying it in with Kane’s origin story has laid down a good foundation that could, theoretically, be built on in follow-up seasons.
My real praise however, and the one thing that prevents Batwoman from getting a 1/10 rating, is the portrayal of season one baddie Alice by Rachel Skarsten. Skarsten, like John Wesley Shipp, Dean Cain, Arthur Darvill, and so forth, is another one of those “legacy castings” wherein actors from past superhero/themed shows are granted recurring roles in contemporary programs. Despite the inherent favoritism and corrupt nature of these, they have surprisingly worked out for the better for past shows, and Skarsten thankfully more than lives up to the task. The deranged Alice would’ve been very easy to play as a Harley Quinn knock-off (an unfavorable comparison considering the upcoming release of Birds of Prey), but Skarsten gives her an edge, mania, and intelligence that turns her into her own villain. While I don’t think she quite nailed the vocal inflections, Skarsten’s ability to convey anger, crazy, and deep introspection with her eyes alone made her the most interesting part of the pilot. And credit where credit is due- the writers make the smart decision to have her true identity revealed at the end, rather than have it dragged out pointlessly the way The Flash team did for their speedster antagonists in seasons 2-3, meaning there is room for strong development between her and Kane.
Sadly, I have a feeling Alice will fall into the same trap Tobias Whale did in Black Lightning where it’s a terrific supervillain performance mired in a mediocre heap of rushed narratives and forced character arcs.
Rating – 3/10