You don’t have to have an encyclopedic knowledge of comic books in order to know the basics of Batman. The story of his tragic childhood and tortured rise to become Gotham’s caped crusader has been told so many times, in so many iterations, that it takes some real innovation to make it at all interesting anymore.
On that front, The CW’s new “Batwoman” series (created by “Vampire Diaries” producer Caroline Dries) has a couple immediate advantages. For one, it’s not about Bruce Wayne brooding around his stately manor, but his cousin Kate (Ruby Rose) coming back to Gotham three years after Batman — whom she doesn’t yet realize is the same cousin she once thought of as her “irresponsible big brother” — has mysteriously disappeared. The city is on the edge and in danger of tipping over into total chaos (though to be fair, when is Gotham ever not on the edge of total chaos?). In Batman’s absence, Kate’s father (Dougray Scott) has created a highly trained private security force of “Crows” to keep an eye on the city. As is the way of things in Gotham, however, there’s only so much they can do before some enterprising new villain — in this case a frustrated woman called “Alice” (Rachel Skarsten) whose Wonderland minions wear terrifying animal masks — makes a bid for tearing order apart at the seams.
The sooty and perpetually endangered city of Gotham, as the many movies and TV shows about it can attest, is endlessly ripe for bleak crime stories. The key to making them compelling, though, is making sure the characters around them can hold them up. To that end, “Batwoman” takes a valiant swing with its unlikely heroine, based on her recent run in the DC comics. Kate, like Bruce, is a surly rule-breaker with an enormous chip on her shoulder in large part thanks to watching her family die when she was way too young to absorb the tragedy of it. (For Bruce, it was his parents; for Kate, it was her mother and sister.) But Kate is also a gay woman who’s felt the pain of discrimination and heartbreak in a way that Bruce, frankly, never could.
The facts of who Kate is immediately make her Batwoman origin story different and intriguing. Rose, a once controversial choice for the role, does her best to reveal the flickers of pain underneath Kate’s steadfast stoicism, particularly in flashbacks to a time when she was far less jaded than she is by the time we meet her. She’s at her best when Kate gets to be a little fun and snarky, a dynamic the first “Batwoman” episode only has time to let her do with her chipper step-sister Mary (Nicole Kang) and Luke Fox (Camrus Johnson), Lucius Fox’s more neurotic son who can only watch in horror as Kate keeps uncovering more of Bruce’s secrets. There are a few plot twists, none very surprising, but satisfying nonetheless. The pilot is otherwise jam-packed with plot, standard Gotham mythology, and some unfortunately flat acting that hopefully will all become more multi-faceted in future episodes.
As The CW’s stalwart gritty superhero drama “Arrow” prepares to leave the air, the network may be positioning “Batwoman” as its most logical heir. It certainly has the right look, not to mention the same kind of self-serious, determined hero. But if “Batwoman” is going to continue to stand out among the pack, it will lean into what makes it different (namely: Kate) rather than Gotham politics as usual.
“Batwoman” premieres Sunday, October 6 at 8 p.m. EST on The CW.