Note: this is a spoiler-free review of Batwoman Season 1. The entire season is now available to purchase in Digital HD or stream on HBO Max. Find out how you can subscribe to HBO Max here.
At what point does the Arrowverse become too big for its own good? That’s certainly a question that’s become more pressing over the past year, as Batwoman has joined the CW ranks and the network moves ahead on other spinoffs like Superman & Lois (premiering in January 2021) and potentially Green Arrow and the Canaries (status still TBD). Do fans really need yet another superhero drama on the CW, even one that finally shines a light on the Arrowverse’s little-seen version of Gotham City? Early on, the answer seemed to be a resounding “no,” but it’s a testament to Batwoman’s dogged perseverance that it eventually manages to carve its own niche in a very crowded landscape.
Building on 2018’s Elseworlds crossover, Batwoman puts Ruby Rose’s Kate Kane in the spotlight, as Bruce Wayne’s younger cousin comes out of hiding to defend a city that’s struggled without a Batman for three years. Early on, one of Season 1’s biggest mistakes is the decision to circle back and chronicle Kate’s superhero origin story rather than simply continuing where Elseworlds leaves off. That really hinders the show’s momentum early on, without actually adding much to the character or her journey by way of compensation. There’s no apparent reason why the series couldn’t have simply started out with Batwoman already established as Gotham’s new protector and filled in the details of her past when and where necessary.
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Batwoman’s other fundamental mistake is sticking far too closely to the standard Arrowverse formula. So many characters in the early episodes feel as though they’re being shoehorned into traditional DC TV molds. Like Oliver Queen, Kate is the wayward rich kid who has finally come home to save her city. Luke Fox (Camrus Johnson) is the seemingly obligatory sidekick who provides Kate with all the gadgets and snarky banter she could ever need. Characters like Kate’s stepmother Catherine (Elizabeth Anweis) and stepsister Mary (Nicole Kang) recall that early Queen family drama from Arrow’s first two seasons.
Early on, Batwoman feels entirely too much like a fusion of Arrow and the Dark Knight movies (in much the same way Arrow itself played like a mash-up of The Dark Knight and Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man movies in its first season). It doesn’t really help that many outdoor scenes are filmed in Chicago, giving the Arrowverse’s Gotham City a very Nolan-esque vibe.
This isn’t to say Batwoman’s problems stem only from its strict adherence to superhero TV tropes. In general, the series juggles too many extraneous characters who don’t add enough to the bigger picture. Kate’s closeted ex-girlfriend Sophie (Meagan Tandy) is probably the biggest offender there. Neither that character herself nor her will they/won’t they relationship with Kate are at all compelling. There’s far more chemistry to be found between Rose’s Kate and other supporting characters like Julia Pennyworth (Christina Wolfe) and bartender Reagan (Brianne Howey).
The dynamic between Kate and her father Jacob (Dougray Scott) is another missed opportunity in Season 1. Here is where the series would have done well to stick closer to the example set by the early Greg Rucka/J.H. Williams/W. Haden Blackman-penned Batwoman comics. Those comics portray Kate as a committed soldier in the war on crime, with Jacob as her handler/tech support/commanding officer. Simple, straightforward, and without the need for the sorts of extraneous supporting characters that bog down the TV series.
All this being said, Batwoman does show positive traits even early on when the series is most clearly struggling to find its voice and direction. It’s almost a shame to point this out now in light of her surprise exit from the series, but Rose is well-cast as Kate Kane. Compared to every other lead character in the Arrowverse, there’s very little differentiation between her civilian and costumed personas. That’s not a knock against Rose’s performance, to be clear, but a testament to how much Kate’s arc and the series as a whole is about the struggle to live openly and be true to oneself. Most of Kate’s emotional arc stems from that, or her struggle to reconcile the hero she wants to be with her fears of becoming something darker. Batwoman made headlines for being the first superhero TV series with an LGBT lead, and it’s nice to see Batwoman using that distinction to tell a meaningful story.
And it should also be noted that the series does improve significantly over the course of Season 1. Certainly not as quickly as it should, but enough that the series really begins to settle into a groove in the latter half of the season. The Crisis on Infinite earths crossover certainly helps give Batwoman a nudge in the right direction. The crossover both helps make Kate feel like a more active and important player in the larger Arrowverse and sets up some compelling storylines the series is able to explore in the aftermath.
In many ways, the series really lives or dies on the strength of its main villain, Alice (Rachel Skarsten). And unfortunately, it’s usually the latter in the early Season 1 episodes. While the series sticks fairly close to the source material when it comes to Alice’s dynamic with Batwoman and her tragic backstory, there’s something vital lost in translation. Where the character has this uniquely haunting, surreal quality in the comics, on TV she mostly comes across as someone firmly and awkwardly committed to a Lewis Carroll bit. Skarsten never feels very genuine playing the prancing villainess of a post-Batman Gotham City.
The good news is that both Skarsten and the show’s writers seem to find their footing with the character over the course of the season. The series becomes less and less fixated with Alice the supervillain and more on the lonely girl who had to affect a new personality in order to survive a hellish existence. When the character’s latent humanity shines through, which it does more and more as Season 1 progresses, she really starts to come into her own and become the necessary yin to Batwoman’s yang.
Like all Arrowverse shows, Batwoman tends to be pretty hit and miss where its villains are concerned. But here, too, the series shows definite improvement over the course of Season 1. Early misses like Magpie (Rachel Matthews) and Tommy Elliot (Gabriel Mann) are given second chances later in the season and come back stronger in Round 2. Others like Dr. August Cartwright (John Emmet Tracy) and his physically and psychologically scarred son Johnny (Sam Littlefield) are more consistently compelling. Batman fans may be turned off by the lack of A-List Gotham City villains, but the series generally makes the most of this off-kilter lineup of rogues. It helps that Season 1 never really hangs its hat on any one villain (even Alice), instead opting for a more organic approach to world-building that leaves plenty of possibilities open for Season 2. Even with as weak as the series started out, and as long as it takes to truly come into its own, there’s ample reason to be excited for Season 2 now.
If you want a deeper, spoiler-filled dive into individual episodes, here are IGN’s past Batwoman: Season 1 reviews (some episodes weren’t reviewed because press weren’t provided with screeners in advance of air):
- Episode 1 – “Pilot”
- Episode 2 – “The Rabbit Hole”
- Episode 3 – “Down Down Down”
- Episode 4 – “Who Are You?”
- Episode 5 – “Mine Is a Long and a Sad Tale”
- Episode 6 – “I’ll Be Judge, I’ll Be Jury”
- Episode 7 – “Tell Me the Truth”
- Episode 8 – “A Mad Tea Party”
- Episode 9 – “Crisis on Infinite Earths: Part 2”
- Episode 10 – “How Queer Everything Is Today”
- Episode 11 – “An Un-Birthday Present”
- Episode 12 – “Take Your Choice”
- Episode 14 – “Grinning From Ear to Ear”
- Episode 15 – “Off With Her Head”
- Episode 16 – “Through the Looking Glass”
- Episode 20 – “O, Mouse!”
Source: IGN.com Batwoman: Season 1 Review