Batwoman 1×01: “Pilot”, Supergirl 5×01: “Event Horizon”, and The Flash 6×01: “Into the Void” reviews
Ahem . . .
The Arrowverse is back, people!
It’s been a long, long summer*, where we had nothing but wonderful weather and all the beauty of nature to console us. But now at last the seasons have turned cold, grey, and miserable, and that means our superhero shows are back on the air!
(*Apologies to any readers from the Southern Hemisphere.)
Arrow’s eighth and final season won’t premiere until next week, and Legends of Tomorrow won’t be back till frickin’ January, but we still have two very solid season premieres for Supergirl and The Flash. And, for the first time in four years, we have a new series joining the Arrowverse, with the kickass series debut of Batwoman! And, as if that all weren’t enough, Crisis on Infinite Earths is drawing ever closer, promising to be the most epic and ambitious television crossover that’s ever been done!
I am pumped, y’all, so let’s get into it!
Batwoman 1×01: “Pilot” review
Pilot episodes have a tough job to do. Obviously, there’s the pressure of knowing your show will live or die based on this first impression. There’s the struggle to put something good together when everyone’s working together for the first time and still trying to figure out what the show should be. But one of the biggest hurdles pilot episodes face is time.
These episodes have to introduce a lead character, a bevy of supporting characters, a setting for them to live and operate in, and a premise that gets the plot going. At the same time, they’re expected to provide a representative sample of the kind of storytelling the show will do going forward, with just as many action beats and dramatic moments as future episodes, despite not having any extra runtime to do it in.
A lot of pilots have a hard time working under these sorts of time constraints. Sometimes they’ll spend so long on setup and character introductions, there won’t be much room left for the actual story. And other times they’ll do the opposite, breezing through all that setup as quickly as possible, leaving the story feeling rushed, and the premise and characters underdeveloped.
But not Batwoman. Its pilot episode is one of the most wonderfully paced I’ve ever seen, coming out of the gate at rocket speed, introducing character after character, plot point after plot point, and action scene after action scene, without ever slowing down. Yet, despite this relentless pace, nothing ever feels rushed or given short shrift. Ten minutes into the episode, it feels like we already know these characters and this world well enough, we don’t need anymore handholding and can just let the story barrel on ahead.
Of course, this pilot does have the advantage of being based on one of the most popular superhero franchises in the world. Batwoman assumes that this is not the first piece of Batman related media you’ve consumed, so there are some facts about the setting that it doesn’t need to explain for you.
We don’t need to be told how Gotham City became such a cesspool of crime that the police are all but useless and masked vigilantes are seen as a viable alternative. By now we’ve all seen enough Batman stories, we accept that that’s just how Gotham is.
Likewise, when we’re introduced to a Lewis Carrol quoting lunatic who likes sitting on a throne made of mutilated dolls’ heads, and attacking rich people’s parties with henchmen in white rabbit masks? We don’t question it. Deranged, gimmicky supervillains are just what we expect from Gotham.
And, of course, when our hero Kate discovers an underground layer full of crimefighting gadgets and a bat-shaped suit, no explanation is needed for where this stuff came from or what its purpose is, because we’ve seen all of it in action before.
Having this groundwork in place lets the Batwoman pilot skip over a lot of the exposition that could have bogged it down. There are still a few places where delivering necessary information makes the dialogue clunky (“You’re the female Bruce Wayne” is the particular standout there), but at least the episode pokes some fun at this (“It’s Mary, your stepsister.” “Mary, our parents have been married for over a decade; I know who you are.”)
But beyond the Batman connection, Batwoman is also able to establish itself so quickly because of its choice of hero. By superhero standards, Kate Kane is a remarkably simple character. I don’t mean that as an insult; far from it. What I mean is that there’s no complex set of circumstances needed to explain how Kate first put on a Bat-suit and started punching bad guys.
In your standard superhero origin, the focus is on how the lead went from being a normal person (provided “heir to billion dollar fortune” counts as normal) to someone who has both the motivation and the ability to fight criminals with their bare hands. They might suffer a personal tragedy and become obsessed with justice, arduously turning themselves into a weapon to accomplish that goal. They might suddenly acquire superpowers one day, and after learning what they’re capable of, decide this gift must be used for good. Or they might find themselves on a far off world where their innate powers make them almost godlike, and come to feel it’s their duty to protect their new home. Whatever the case, this transformation tends to make up the bulk of the origin story, establishing who the hero was, who they’ve become, and the steps they took along the way.
But for Batwoman, no such transformation is necessary. Whether out of a desire to help others, or a thirst for danger and excitement (most likely a combination of the two), being an ass-kicking do-gooder is what Kate has always wanted out of life. There doesn’t appear to be an inciting incident that made her this way; it’s just who she is. She tried becoming a soldier, and she tried becoming one of her fathers’ Crows, training herself to be an utter badass so she’d be worthy of them. And when those paths were denied to her, finding her cousin’s superhero lair merely gave her an outlet to do what she was always going to do, one way or another.
It’s hardly the most dynamic origin story in the world, requiring little change or growth from our lead character. But in a media landscape teeming with superhero stories, most of which begin by asking “how did this person become a hero?”, it’s honestly refreshing to see such a straightforward approach. Kate Kane became a hero because she wanted to be a hero, and worked hard to make it happen, simple as that. She arrives on our screens fully formed, and because we don’t need to see how she became the way she is, the episode can focus on showing us who she is, and how she’ll operate as Gotham’s latest crimefighter.
And there’s one more thing that lets this pilot keep up its tremendous pace. After an opening scene of Kate training, the very next scene has her designated love interest, Sofie, kidnapped by the bad guys. From that moment forward, Kate can never stop moving, because she doesn’t know how long Sofie might have left. And because Kate can’t stop moving, neither can the episode. She’s makes rash choices and goes through major transitions with astonishing speed, but it never feels unwarranted because of the dire circumstances. Even during scenes that are obviously there to establish characters and plot points for later, the specter of a ticking clock keeps the tension up and justifies moving from one scene to another fast, fast, fast.
There are many things to recommend about Batwoman’s series premiere, from the acting to the fight scenes to the gay representation to the prospect of “Batman, but with less of a dour curmudgeon in the lead role”. But for me, the standout quality has to be how quickly it makes its world feel real and lived in, and how it uses that to create such a rollicking, fast-paced adventure to kick off the series.
If every episode’s got this much energy and confidence behind it, we’re in for a good time.
- Continuing the “damn, does this episode move fast!” theme: that ending. Revealing to the audience that Alice is actually Kate’s sister, that’d be a standard “dum-dum-DUM!!!” twist to end a series premiere on. But to have Kate discover that fact, too? This show isn’t afraid to pull some triggers early.
- While almost everyone in this episode did a great job, Rachel Skarsten as Alice was the real standout. She makes the character fun and theatrical, someone who’s clearly putting on a performance for the people around them, but never goes over-the-top and loses her sense of reality. Given she’s playing a maniacal supervillain who obsessively quotes Alice in Wonderland, that’s no small feat.
- A lot of hay’s been made about Batwoman being the first superhero show starring a lesbian hero. But given it airs on the CW, I’d say the more groundbreaking representation is having a female lead who’s got copious tattoos and (*gasp*) . . . short hair!!
- Throwing a rich, formal gala in Gotham City is already asking for trouble, but making it a Batman themed gala? It’s no surprise a supervillain attacked; what’s surprising is there weren’t a dozen other supervillains at the gate waiting their turn.
- It’s interesting how this show is mostly doing the dark-and-gloomy version of the Batman mythos, the de facto version of the last few decades, but during the flashback scenes, we see Batman operating in broad daylight and inspiring children to say, “Batman’s here! He’s gonna save us!” It’s an odd juxtaposition.
- Aww, look at Luke Fox. Kate’s got her own Felicity/Cisco/Winn (we really need a name for this character type).
- How long do you suppose it’ll be before Kate adds the red wig to her costume? On Arrow, it took a season and a half for Oliver to add a mask to his ensemble.
- I like what they’re doing with Kate’s step-sister Mary. Having her operate an illegal free clinic (almost by accident) does give her more depth, as Kate notes, but it also gives her a reason to be involved in plot going forward, providing Kate with medical treatment and information from “the street”. A lot of action/adventure shows give the hero a family that they care about, but forget to give that family anything they can contribute to the story.
- This episode has a wider aspect ratio than the other Arrowverse shows. I wonder if that’s just for the pilot, or if it’ll be how the show’s filmed going forward.
- Kate’s initial fight with Alice’s goons was a terrific, brutal, down-and-gritty fight. It’s weird to think that in just a couple months, we’re gonna see her fighting the Anti-Monitor.
Supergirl 5×01: “Event Horizon” review
With its fifth season premiere, Supergirl displays the strengths we’ve come to expect from it, as well as the weaknesses we’ve come to expect from it.
In a typical episode of Supergirl, there will be three different kinds of stories going on: the personal, the political, and the superheroical. While the better episodes blend these three story types together so each one complements the others, in “Event Horizon” they’re kept distinct enough that I thought it would be interesting to look at them separately, and examine the ingredients that make up an episode of Supergirl.
Let’s start with the superheroic story. It begins with the promise of terrific fun, with Supergirl fighting a friggin’ T-rex at a museum exhibit about Krypton. It then takes a turn for the ominous, when it introduces the villain-of-the-week. Referring to herself as “Midnight, Murderer of Multitudes”, and described by J’onn as an alien of unknown origin, one who allied with the White Martians so she could literally feed on the deaths of the innocents, she seems set up to be truly terrifying foe.
Doesn’t quite pan out the way. Midnight is, quite transparently, a warmup villain. She’s here to serve as a harbinger for the real villain yet-to-come, and to serve as an uncomplicated threat who can start a fight scene whenever the episode starts getting dull. And since she serves such a limited function, very little effort seems to have been put into making her memorable. She’s given a generically villainous appearance, the simple motivation of revenge, no discernible personality other than angry and arrogant, and powers that are both poorly defined, and amount to little more than shooting dark CGI blobs through the air.
This is typical of how Supergirl handles its superheroic stories. While the ongoing storylines might have engaging villains and interesting plots, the villains-of-the-week often feel uninspired and a bit perfunctory. They can still make for a decent amount of fun; some good action, and cool moments like our heroes all lining up to battle Midnight (and Alex wondering how everyone changes into costume so fast). Fighting the bad guy makes for a decent distraction and adds some flavor to the episode, but it would not, on its own, be enough of a reason to tune in.
Let’s turn, then, to the political storyline. Supergirl has gradually carved out a niche for itself as the Arrowverse show most willing to do topical commentary on society and politics. This season premiere is no exception, setting up a story about journalistic ethics in the face of changing culture and technology. But, as is often the case with Supergirl’s political storylines, this is where it stumbles the hardest.
The problem with Supergirl trying to comment on politics is that it has a fundamentally simplistic, black-and-white view of the world. Its heroes are always on the right side of every issue, while the wrong side of the issue is represented by clearly labeled villains, and the best way to combat these villains is always for our heroes to stand firmly by their principles, never compromise an inch, make impassioned speeches about what’s right, and beat the bad guys up as necessary. And, in the end, good will inevitably triumph over evil.
This attitude is on full display as Andrea Rojas takes over CatCo and announces her plans to make its journalism more lightweight, clickbaity, and geared towards maximizing profit. From the obvious selfishness of her motives, to the ominous music that accompanies her, to the horrified reactions of the CatCo staff, we’re left in no doubt that she is meant to be 100% The Bad Guy. She might as well have introduced herself by saying, “Hello, I represent everything wrong with tech companies and modern media. Feel free to boo and hiss whenever I enter the room.”
The episode never acknowledges that there could be valid reasons for sacrificing some journalistic quality in the name of attracting viewers. Hard hitting journalism doesn’t do much good if nobody reads it, or if the journalists can’t bring in enough money to keep their publication going, but that argument is not presented seriously here. In Supergirl’s moral universe, pragmatism exists only as a smokescreen to cover either villainy or apathy. Taking a high-minded stand to defend your principles is always the right thing to do, and will always work out. Andrea is wrong, while Kara and James are right, end of story.
This attitude makes Supergirl’s political storylines difficult to watch. Even if you generally agree with the position they take, their portrayal of the topic is so obviously rooted in one-sided wish fulfillment, at best it has little meaningful to say beyond “thing bad”. At worst, it’s insulting to the people who have to deal with the issue in real life, where finding the right course of action can be complicated, where compromises have to be made, and where steadfastly sticking to your principles is not enough to win the day.
So, if the political storyline was so poorly done, and the superheroic storyline was so middle of the road, that puts the burden on the personal storyline to salvage the episode. Luckily, this kind of story has always been where Supergirl does its best work. While the show’s political conflicts are achingly simplistic, the personal conflicts between characters are usually allowed more nuance. And while monsters or supervillains are often thrown into an episode with little thought beyond “well, we gotta have one somewhere”, the personal storylines are always treated as the main event.
All of this is to say that the bubbling conflict between Kara and Lena this week was hands down the highlight of the episode. We can all agree that Kara was wrong to keep this secret from Lena for so long, and that Lena is overreacting more than a tad, but we’re still given good reasons to sympathize with them both, to see where they’re coming from, and root for them to patch things up. It warms every last inch of your heart when it looks like things are finally all right between the two, and it fills you with dread when you see how much anger Lena is still holding onto.
But this story wouldn’t be nearly as powerful without Katie McGrath and Melissa Benoist delivering some of their best performances yet. The greatest strength of Supergirl has always been its talented cast, and that’s on full display here. McGrath does fantastic work playing Lena’s friendliness as a mask for the icy cold beneath, and playing that icy coldness as a mask for seething bitterness even deeper down. And Benoist . . . well, damn. I don’t want to say Kara’s confession is the most I’ve teared up at a Melissa Benoist performance, but it’s definitely up there. She captures just how much of an open wound Kara is in that moment, and whatever you think about her waiting so long to come clean, you can’t help but feel every inch of her pain in that moment.
So, yeah, the personal story this week was pretty darn great. And with the political story being weak, and the superheroic story being . . . let’s call it serviceable . . . “Event Horizon” averages out to be a decent enough episode. And that’s the sort of ratio Supergirl normally manages. If that sounds like damning with faint praise . . . well, okay, I’ll give this episode a little boost above average.
I mean, it had Supergirl punching a T-rex in the face. That’ll earn anything some extra love.
- I loved seeing the characters argue over who’s the greatest movie villain of all time. Nia says Hannibal Lecter (ditto), while Brainy argues for Miranda Priestly from The Devil Wears Prada. Alex and Kelly get a cute bonding moment when they both champion Hans Gruber from Die Hard. Kara, meanwhile, chooses Voldemort, which . . . oh, Kara, you tried.
- After that opening scene, I’ve had Twisted Sister’s “We’re Not Gonna Take It” stuck in my head for the better part of a week. So, thanks. Thanks for that.
- Alex and Kelly as a couple feels a little more natural than it did last season, but they’re still nowhere close to the adorableness of Nia and Brainy.
- I do like that Kelly now has a job at Obsidian North. It gives her a purpose in the show beyond being Alex’s girlfriend/James’s sister.
- Speaking of James, when he denounces Andrea’s plans for CatCo, he out of the blue says that he speaks for the whole staff, and that they’ll all resign rather than work for her. Which, dude! Where do you get off speaking on behalf of all your employees and co-workers like that, without even consulting them? Just because he finds Andrea’s vision for CatCo unacceptable, he assumes everyone else feels the same way and is just as willing to give up their jobs? Seriously, James is the worst.
- And what the hell happened to his eyepatch, anyway?
- The new Supergirl costume is pretty snazzy, though I think it needs, if not red trunks, at least some splash of red there in the waist/crotch area. Without that, it’s a little too much blue.
- Kara’s gonna hook up with British reporter guy, isn’t she? He ticks all the boxes for an obvious love interest: he’s handsome, talented, and has an English accent, with just a whiff of the rogue about him, and the story’s been crafted so he and Kara will have to repeatedly work together and butt heads, all while sexual tension builds between them. Yeah, they’re totally gonna be a thing.
- Doubt that’s gonna go down well with a lot of fans, though. When Lena said that Kara’s lies “broke my heart” . . . they’re just trolling the shippers now, aren’t they?
The Flash 6×01: “Into the Void” review
“You need to believe in the impossible.”
Those are almost the first words we heard when The Flash debuted on our screens five years ago. It’s an ethos that’s been with the show from its conception, and is a crucial part of what makes the series what it is. The Flash is about a world where seemingly impossible occurrences abound, where a man can run so fast he defies time, where you can meet your double from a parallel Earth, where gorillas can talk and where giant mutant shark men can find love. The thrill of discovering new, impossible things at every corner is as crucial to The Flash’s charm as the action scenes, the comedic banter, and the achingly sincere pep talks.
If The Flash has fallen from the pedestal it started on, some of that can be chalked up to the difficulty of making the impossible still feel like the impossible, still feel like something new and wondrous, when we’ve had five years to get used to it. Time travel, jaunts across the multiverse, dark matter produced metahumans? We’ve seen those things so many times, they’ve become mundane. Even when Harrison Wells is having a group chat with three different doppelgangers of himself, including a cyborg Wells from a post-apocalyptic Earth? It still doesn’t feel like we’re charting any new frontiers. That sense of wonder is gone.
In many ways, “Into the Void” is a very standard episode of The Flash. It hits almost every beat we’ve come to expect from this show: characters keeping their emotional problems to themselves until someone forces them to open up, lots of staring at Star Labs computer screens, tons of nonsense science, and a problem that can only be solved by Barry running really fast while receiving instructions via earpiece. But despite the well-worn plot, this season premiere manages to feel fresh and engaging, because for the first time in a long while, the world of The Flash seems alive with wondrous impossibilities.
After a cold open, set minutes after the Season 5 finale, the episode proper begins on a deliciously bizarre note. Barry is fighting Godspeed, the evil speedster from the future, which isn’t that crazy by this show’s standards. But then we learn this is the fourth Godspeed Barry has fought over the summer, the other three already cooling their feet at Iron Heights. And none of them are able to talk; when they open their mouths, all that comes out is a sound like a velociraptor swallowed a dialup modem.
That is some frickin’ weird stuff, and it’s not even the focus of the episode! Godspeed isn’t even mentioned again after that scene; he’s just put there at the beginning, undoubtedly to set up a future plot point, but also to start this episode out on the right note. If we think we know every trick and sci-fi gimmick The Flash is going to throw at us, that scene promises things can get much weirder and crazier than we expect. And if Team Flash brushes aside something that freaky in a single scene, what does the rest of the episode have to offer?
Well, by episode’s end Caitlin’s friend has created a cancer cure/monster serum, the Monitor has shown up to deliver some cosmic foreshadowing, and Barry has run through a black hole into what looks like a 1970’s van artist’s conception of outer space. Oh, and that black hole also happens to be a guy’s mind, which Barry needs to physically grab and put back in his body, or the city will be destroyed.
The picture this episode paints is of a weird, wild world, where the impossible abounds and there’s always something new to inspire awe and wonder. Perhaps nothing illustrates that better than our black hole’s creator, one Mr. Chester P. Runk.
Chester isn’t someone affected by the particle accelerator explosion. Nor was he struck by Star Labs satellite debris, nor is he part of the latest villain’s master plan (at least, it doesn’t look like he is). Nor is he from the far future or a parallel Earth. Nor is he related to anyone at Star Labs, nor did he steal technology from them or any other big tech company. All the usual avenues we’ve come to expect sci-fi weirdness to come from on The Flash? Those aren’t Chester.
He’s just a random scientist, and not even a famous one that Team Flash would’ve heard of. His big science project is something he built in his house, using parts he salvaged from the junkyard, in a bid to contact some aliens and show off for his livestream followers. And it works!
Not in the way he intended, as he most likely didn’t want to merge with a black hole, be left in a catatonic state, and almost destroy Central City. But the fact that something so incredible could come from such an unexpected source, it makes the world of The Flash feel bigger, more alive with wonders. Even the folks on Team Flash, who you’d think would have seen it all, are genuinely awed by what Chester accomplished. And Chester isn’t shy about touting how amazing this is himself. In his hilariously indulgent livestream, he offers a fresh re-wording of the philosophy that kicked off The Flash, a statement that promises this season has its eye on recapturing that old sense of wonder:
“Welcome to a world where all are welcome and anything, including the scientifically impossible, can and probably will happen!”
- It was nice getting a Flash episode without a bad guy who needs beating. The villains on this show can often feel a little superfluous, so leaving them out and turning this into more of a Star Trek style “we’ve found a weird space anomaly; how do we get out of it?” problem, it helped give the episode a different feel, despite some very familiar plot beats.
- Killer Frost trying to lead her own life, rather than just being Caitlin’s muscle, is rich with possibilities! ‘Course, most of Caitlin’s/Killer Frost’s storylines have been rich with possibilities; doesn’t mean the writers are gonna follow through on any of ‘em.
- It’s been a while since anyone referenced Ralph being possessed by the Thinker, but him using that to relate to Killer Frost was a very nice touch. I look forward to his life coaching skills.
- Candice Patton does some amazing work this episode. Her confession about how much losing Nora has hurt her is obviously the tearjerker standout, but I also want to applaud some of the subtle comic acting she does in her scenes with Carlos Valdes. Really, we need more scenes of Iris and Cisco together; she’s always at least a little by annoyed by him, and it’s always funny.
- Okay, fine, let’s talk about the big elephant in the room: the use of the Flash Gordon theme song by Queen was fan. Frickin’. Tastic! It’s not just that the lyrics are so apropos for this series it’s a wonder they haven’t licensed the song before now; it’s also the way the song is used in the episode. First, they give us those shouted lyrics extolling the hero’s greatness as Barry revs up to enter the black hole. Then they draw out the repetitive percussion beat as we wait for him to emerge, heightening suspense with the classic sounds-like-your-heart-beating trick. Then, when Barry emerges triumphant, the lyrics kick back in with “FLASH!! AH-AHHHHHHHHH! KING OF THE IMPOSSIBLE!” And in the rapid tumult of lyrics that follow, each line is paired with a different reaction shot of someone realizing that Barry really did it. That is some top-notch editing.
- All that said, it’s kinda weird no one remembered that they’ve stopped a black hole from destroying Central City before. And not in some random standalone ep, either; I’m talking about the first season finale. Though, I suppose if they’d referenced that episode, it would have drawn attention to how the black hole effects here look completely different from the ones used back then.
MVP of the Week: Lena Luthor
Her passive aggressive guilt-tripping of Kara was some of the funniest stuff Supergirl has ever done (that doesn’t involve Jon Cryer hamming it up).
Question of the Week: What’s your favorite secret identity reveal moment?