It’s difficult to critique the pilot of Batwoman. There are certainly issues with it. There are criticisms to spare. But there’s something powerfully unique about the CW’s latest superhero show and it makes it really difficult to get too bogged down in the faults. This is the first solo superhero series centred on a queer character which makes it vitally important even if, sometimes, it gets caught up in its own mediocrity.
CW screened the pilot last night for an audience at San Diego Comic-Con. We’ve seen a rough cut of the same pilot and it should be noted that some things, like clunky edits in fights, weird musical cues, and crummy effects, could very well be changed by the time the show premieres on the CW later this year. As we’re still months away from most people seeing it and things could change I’ll be avoiding major spoilers (and there’s at least one that is devastatingly lovely).
Ruby Rose’s Kate Kane isn’t the first queer superhero on TV. She’s not the first one on a CW show, and she’s not even the first one on a CW show that’s at the top of the call sheet. First, there was Caity Lotz’s bisexual Sara Lance. She was introduced on Arrow back in season two and has been seducing ladies on Legends of Tomorrow since the pilot. Echo Kellum played the gay Curtis Holt for multiple seasons of Arrow too, and his introduction pre-dates the coming out of Chyler Leigh’s Alex Danvers on Supergirl by a few months. And while Black Lightning may exist in a weird place in CW’s Arrowverse (it is not technically in it currently), Nafessa Williams has been playing the lesbian superhero Thunder since the first episode.
CW’s superhero shows are loaded with some pretty dang decent representation so as monumental as Batwoman’s introduction is. It also... isn’t. She’s not the first gay superhero. She’s not the first lead gay superhero. She’s the first gay superhero who is the titular character of her show, and that’s splitting hairs when it comes to semantics.
But boy it means everything when actually sitting down to watch an episode.
The pilot was written by run by former Vampire Diaries executive producer Caroline Dries, and if you ignore the lead – and many, many Bat-trappings – it’ll remind you an awful lot of the pilot for Arrow. Brooding badass returns home to brood and save people while also trying to live up to some kind of legacy. There’s a lot happening in the first hour of this show and it rarely takes a moment to let the plot breathe, instead ziplining from set piece to set piece and set up to set up.
Alice is a very good option if you’re missing a Joker.
But Arrow desperately wanted to be rooted in the real world, and Batwoman has no such notion. She’s got her own cartoonishly mad supervillain, Alice (played by ‘00s Birds of Prey TV star Rachel Skarsten) with an endless supply of costumed lackeys. She’s got a wide array of gadgets, and instead of an abandoned warehouse on the outskirts of town, she’s got Batman’s abandoned Batcave (first introduced in last year’s Elseworlds crossover).
She doesn’t have to wait half a season for some castmates who put a smile on your face either. Her stepsister, Mary Hamilton (Nicole Kang) is a bit of sunshine in the show – part naive socialite sister, and part earnest doctor to the bad side of town. Luke Fox (Camrus Johnson) is similarly a refreshing change of pace as the dorky protector of Batman’s secrets. Johnson, in particular, has to get through some cringey exposition, but does it with charm and candor.
In fact, this whole cast is charming and watchable. Dougray Scott isn’t obnoxious as Kate Kane’s work-obsessed dad despite the script, and Rachel Skarsten is measured in her approach to Alice, Batwoman’s personal Joker.
The surprise is Ruby Rose. I am usually not a fan of her acting (I found her very wooden in both Orange Is the New Black and Pitch Perfect 3). She might be great looking, and her Batwoman might look awfully Batwomany, yet Rose has limited range. When she’s given emotional heavy lifts in the episode, she stumbles. But she doesn’t fall. That’s crucial.
She kind of reminds me of Stephen Amell in early Arrow or even Lucy Lawless in early Xena. Actors who relied more on their looks and charisma than their ability to convey genuine emotion on screen. But both of those actors improved exponentially over the course of their series and Rose could very well do the same. Because when she cranks up the charisma, and does something like rescue a love interest in distress, you get why she was cast.
And you also get why it’s hard to really rag on this show too much.
There Kate Kane is, full Bat-mask, breathless from an early attempt at Batwomaning, holding another woman who she’s clearly attracted to, and finding that attraction returned. Eyes lock. Lips are noted. The superhero and their heroine are united, and their relationship revelled in.
As Kate Kane makes her way through a fairly rote superhero pilot you just keep being mindful of that fact that as average as everything is, it has never really been seen before either. Queer superheroes are often part of the larger ensemble but rarely ever the focus in live-action media. This story isn’t the ensembles’. It’s Kate Kane’s. And because it’s hers it’s pretty easy to overlook the silly and the mediocre.
With Arrow ending this autumn the CW could have been lacking in a brooding rich kid turned vigilante. But Batwoman is going to fill the hole left practically perfectly. The bonus, for people who care about such things, is that instead of a straight white guy murdering his way through the city it will feature a gay white woman punching her way through the city. I, for one, am totally okay with that (and eagerly look forward to Batman’s inevitable appearance).