Batwoman, like Supergirl, is by her very origin a derivative of the hero that preceded her. Batwoman and Kate Kane are both interesting in their own right, of course, and the comics have done a great job of establishing that. The first season of The CW’s Batwoman worked hard to do just the same. The departure of Ruby Rose as the show’s titular character, however, recontextualizes all the work the first season did. But is it for better or worse? Spoilers follow for Batwoman Season 2, Episode 1, “What Happened to Kate Kane?”
“What Happened to Kate Kane?”
Old kids will remember a show from NBC called Saved by the Bell. The show was set at a California high school (perhaps the most California high school), Bayside High. What a lot of people don’t remember is that Saved by the Bell was preceded by a show called Good Morning, Miss Bliss, where a kid named Zack Morris went to middle school with his friends Lisa Turtle and Screech Powers, and hassled their principal Mr. Belding–in Indianapolis. The show tanked, but they knew they had potential, so they retooled the show into Saved by the Bell and lifted four of the show’s central characters and moved them all from Indianapolis to California. If you try to write a story to that, none of it makes a lick of sense. But the retooling turned the show into a television legend that aired over 100 episodes of entertainment across three series.
Sometimes, reality interferes with fiction. That’s what happened with Batwoman. This second season will be about figuring out if the showrunners managed to pick up the right pieces to move forward with in light of the dramatic shift. On Earth-2, showrunner Caroline Dries recast Kate Kane and the story kept moving. But the Crisis happened, collapsed the multiverse, and so we only get Earth-Prime, where Ruby Rose’s departure meant Kate Kane’s death. The opening moments of the premiere introduce us to her eventual replacement, Ryan Wilder (Javicia Leslie). In many ways, it feels like deja vu.
We’ve been here before
Ryan finds the Batsuit through sheer happenstance, and throughout the episode we watch her try to figure out how to use it while we learn about what drives a young woman sleeping in her van to put on a super suit and seek out bad guys to take down. She doesn’t feel qualified to wear the suit, but feels driven to do so all the same. She overestimates herself and underestimates the suit, getting herself into trouble. But when it comes down to it, she has the grit and skill to scrape by and come out triumphant. And so those who knew the city’s former vigilante find themselves thinking that maybe they have someone who can fill the shoes of the missing one.
You could replace Ryan with Kate and very little about that description would change. We’re in season 2 of Batwoman, but it’s still an origin story.
It deviates when the show switches focus to the the remaining cast members. The show doesn’t ignore that Kate’s disappearance by any means. Her father, her friends, and her ex-lovers scramble to look for her, knowing that she’s gone even as they deny it. Alice (Rachel Skarsten), meanwhile, seems to be the only one who immediately accepts reality as the sanest person in an insane world. It wasn’t Batwoman who foiled her plans, but an airplane explosion. That means that all the little gears she had in motion are spinning wildly. We meet Bruce Wayne (Warren Christie), formerly Hush, formerly Tommy Elliott now wearing Bruce Wayne’s face, returning to his life as a billionaire, greeting his old friends warmly; he’s already recovered the Kryptonite that would be used to penetrate the Batsuit.
As the episode goes on, it’s impossible to miss the cracks in the story. By the end of the episode, Tommy Elliott is no longer wearing Bruce Wayne’s face. Instead of a full season of clever deception, everyone who knows Bruce immediately clocks that he’s acting weird, and they’re well aware that someone with skill in facial replacement surgery lives in Gotham.
I kind of love this; it’s a massive bait-and-switch forced by the change in casting, but it forces the show to treat a story lifted from the comic books as if it’s taking place in real life. Tommy makes the amateur mistake of putting himself in front of people who know Bruce well immediately and letting them see how he behaves. A strong actor would be able to convince the public that he’s Wayne, but his loved ones would know something was up immediately. For once, something in a superhero show makes sense. It doesn’t happen as often as it should.
At the same time, it’s hard not to wonder what kind of plans the show had for Elliott’s Bruce Wayne originally. He seemed set to act as a major villain for the season. Watching how it played out here, though, it’s really hard to imagine it working.
She’s Batwoman, but will she ever be Batwoman?
Meanwhile, my feelings on Ryan Wilder are mixed. I like the actress and how they frame the character. Wilder isn’t a rich girl, and we find out quickly that she has some very strong, personal reasons for wanting to put on a suit that would empower her to mete out justice and protect the weak.
At the same time, just as how Saved by the Bell transplanted all its best characters into a new place and just moved on as if nothing was weird, everything about Ryan Wilder even being on the show feels strange. As I outlined in a piece moments after the announcement of Kane’s replacement, TV viewers are familiar with reality intruding on their entertainment. We have a flock of Batmen living in cultural memory right now–the late Adam West, Michael Keaton, Kevin Conroy, Val Kilmer, George Clooney, Christian Bale, Ben Affleck, and (soon) Robert Pattinson. Not to mention three Supemen, three Spider-Men, three Hulks, two Blades… the list goes on.
A fine line
We get into sticky territory here. I like Javicia Leslie and I hope she’s successful as Batwoman. I hope the show develops a new identity with her at its center that catches the public and leads to a long run; I’ll be watching. But inventing this new character both undermines the story the show has already established and the importance of having a superhero show led by a Black woman, which I think will be overshadowed by comparison to Kate Kane.
It was hard to love or hate this episode because it’s so mired in conditions outside the show. The change feels forced even considering Rose’s departure, and it casts a shadow of everything that goes on. I’m more curious where the show is going to from here, and whether it can truly recover from the loss of its main character.
You can watch Batwoman on Sunday nights at 8 PM EST on The CW or right now on The CW’s website.