The CW’s “Batwoman,” the latest installation in the “Arrowverse,” a fictional comic universe, delivered a shaky first performance, resting on the well-trodden stones of the many superheroes and villains that came before it.
The drama begins, in the grand tradition of superhero network dramas, with a quest and somewhat unfounded savior complex. Kate Kane — the future Batwoman, played by a vaguely Australian-sounding Ruby Rose — returns to Gotham City after spending several years abroad, training in the hopes of joining the Crows, a private security company founded by her father after Batman’s mysterious disappearance. She comes to save her ex-girlfriend, Sophie (Meagan Tandy) after her kidnapping by a new supervillain: Alice (Rachel Skarsten), a sinister parody on Lewis Caroll’s “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.” Alice has no real superpowers or distinction save for clear insanity — she lacks both the supernatural bite of Poison Ivy and psychological thrill of the Joker, the latter compounded perhaps by a lackluster performance on Skarsten’s part.
Alice’s character epitomizes the primary problem with “Batwoman”: its cloying unoriginality. Every piece of the plot, every character trait and flaw, has been repurposed and refitted from somewhere else. Kate grapples with the childhood tragedy of losing her mother and sister in an automobile accident, but her devastating backstory is merely a variation on Bruce Wayne’s theme. Her stepsister, Mary (Nicole Kang), appears at first glance to be superficial and self-obsessed, but later reveals a hidden “deep” side in an anticipated character reversal. At the end of the episode, Sophie introduces Kate to her husband, thus unveiling a tidy love triangle.
Archetypal characters and tropes have the inevitable effect of a predictable plot. Superhero series in particular, like hospital dramas, find themselves all too-often lapsing into a formulaic progression revolving around a villain, a victim, and a superhero setting out to do one thing but actually realizing or discovering something else, usually about themselves and their personal lives. What distinguishes one good drama from the next, however, are the depths of the characters and the different twists and turns along the way. Even the grand reveal at the end of the episode was not shocking so much as expected: Alice is Kate’s sister. This comes as little surprise. The deaths of Kate’s sister and mother are left intentionally ambiguous, and the motif of their matching ruby necklaces pops up at convenient, significant moments.
The larger problem, though, is that “Batwoman” attempts to hide its plot flaws behind the guise of representation. True, the cast is diverse, with a lesbian protagonist and lead love story. True, also, that Kate does not parade around the show in a parody of a sexualized femme fetale; instead of 24/7 latex bodysuits, she wears black leather jackets and jeans. She has character traits and talents beyond a pair of long legs and the ability to aim and fire.
Unfortunately, the storylines associated with this representation are still not all that original. Kate and Sophie have a secret romance at a military training school, and when discovered and given the choice of either denouncing their sexuality or being expelled, Kate leaves and Sophie stays. It’s a stereotypical depiction of lesbian romance a tried-and-true recipe. When these tropes are mixed with supposedly-representative characters and conflicts, they have the ill-fated effect of coming off as focus-group pandering.
All this is not to say that “Batwoman” has been rendered completely irredeemable by its premiere. The show has an undeniably political undertone that has the potential to become compelling food for thought rather than fodder for repetition. Kate and Sophie’s threadbare relationship drama is saved by their classist differences. Sophie does not stay at the military academy out of shame, but rather because she does not have the financial security to leave. Mary, who studies medicine, opens up a free clinic to give medicine to the less-fortunate, a somewhat pointed attack at the healthcare system in the United States.
The family dynamics, too, have the potential to make interesting drama. Kate’s father (Dougray Scott) clearly has unresolved feelings for his late wife and daughter. This is particularly apparent when he tells Kate, “You’re all I have left.” Nonetheless, he has an image-conscious, viciously-ambitious wife and stepdaughter who prevent him from reaching any sort of resolution about his tragic past.
Batwoman’s character ultimately has the most potential. She stands as of now at a fork in the road: could either go the route of the stereotypical superhero, resolving her tragic backstory piecemeal and struggling to reconcile her abilities with her desires, or she could fall off the path altogether and become someone new to the screen. The show, after all, is called Batwoman. At the end of the day, she determines its success or its failure.