When Arrow grapple-hooks off into the sunset after its eighth and final season, the CW’s small-screen DC Universe is going to be missing an essential darkness to balance out the sunniness from the likes of The Flash and Supergirl. Luckily, nobody broods like the Bat-family. Batwoman, developed by Caroline Dries and Greg Berlanti, finally brings the Arrowverse to Gotham City full-time after the glimpse we got in last year’s “Elseworlds” crossover event. But thank Grodd, this isn’t the origin story we’ve seen time after time after time. (On average I see Thomas and Martha Wayne die more times per month than I call my own parents.) As the title character, Ruby Rose still feels like she’s settling into the role and the idea of leading an entire series, but Kate Kane is so fascinating as a character—and so fascinatingly different from Bruce Wayne—that Batwoman shows solid early signs of soaring.
The series opens in a Gotham City that’s been without Batman for three years. To get onboard with Batwoman you have to accept the fact that the public is well aware famous billionaire Bruce Wayne has also been missing for three years but haven’t put two and two together. The Gotham City Police Department I understand—the GCPD famously couldn’t solve a jaywalking without mass casualties—but surely at some point The Riddler was like “…wait.” No matter, though. What matters is that the city is in one of its trademark states of unrest, the local government finally ready to uninstall the Bat Symbol and instead look to the Crows, a paramilitary defense force founded by Kate’s father, Jacob Kane (Dougray Scott). But the unruly turns positively topsy-turvy with the arrival of Alice (Rachel Skarsten) a nursery-rhymin’ baddie straight out of Wonderland who may have closer ties to the Kane family than meets the eye.
That’s the absolute state Kate Kane finds Gotham in when she returns from a self-imposed exile, still coping with the two great heartbreaks of her life. The first: A childhood car accident caused by the Joker that took the life of her twin sister Beth and mother Gabi, despite Batman’s best efforts. The second: Getting dismissed from Crow academy after being outed as a lesbian by a superior. The woman Kate loves, Sophie Moore (Meagan Tandy) signed a document disavowing the relationship; Kate did not.
It’s that dynamic that so separates Kate from her batty cousin Bruce. When Bruce Wayne puts on the mask it’s to protect an identity and strike fear into the criminals of Gotham. But Kate Kane knows what it is for Gotham to look down at her real identity and, worse, she knows what it is to have to wear a “mask” in broad daylight. This gives the character a different brand of determination from Bruce Wayne; she’s still stubborn and boy does she brood, but her decision to eventually put on the cape and cowl is much more of a personal one. Kate Kane is less here to save a city than she is to prove a city wrong.
Unfortunately, the CW’s DC Comic series have always treated subtly like Bane treats back pain, and Batwoman is no different. For one thing, Batman never physically appears in the modern-day storyline but he still feels omnipresent, to the point where early season one—I’ve seen the first two episodes—still don’t feel entirely like Kate’s show. For another, the scripts saddle Rose with an unnecessary, flat voice-over. It’s especially a shame because Rose is a talented eye-actor, and does a great job in these first two episodes of making subtext into text as Kate reacts to the Gotham-ness of it all.
Batwoman is very much an Arrowverse series under the Berlanti umbrella and comes with all the highs and lows that distinction brings. The action is inconsistent and sometimes edited and shrouded in atmospheric smoke to incomprehensible levels. But occasionally it’s top-notch, like a premiere episode brawl between Kate and Alice’s mask-wearing thugs that gives off Daredevil-lite vibes in the way it moves from area to area and level to level of a warehouse. The show also very clearly works to gather the ensemble that’ll likely become Team Batwoman for future crossover potential, most notably Camrus Johnson‘s techy Luke Fox, son of Wayne Enterprise’s gadget maestro Lucius Fox, and Kate’s step-sister Mary Hamilton (Nicole Kang), who runs an off-the-books medical facility with stolen Gotham University supplies.
But Batwoman really sings when it’s building the adversarial relationship between Kate and Alice, an opposite-sides-of-the-coin situation with similar vibes to Batman and the Joker. Skarsten is having a blast alternating between whimsy and dangerous menace, and her villain feels like the only performance that’s been lived in for more than two episodes. Better yet, it’s bouncing off of Skarsten’s unpredictable energy that Rose’s surly, tamped down performance works best. In those moments you get a glimpse of the fully-formed badass this Batwoman has all the potential to become.
Rating: ★★★ Good — Proceed with cautious optimism
Batwoman debuts on The CW on Sunday, October 6th.