Sunday, February 9, 2020

Too Much TV: BATWOMAN (2019 - ?)

Speaking of superheroes, the CW's newest DC Comics show has predictably been renewed for a second season. The bad news is that Batwoman doesn't emulate Black Lightning in departing from Greg Berlanti formulae, often looking like an utterly generic Berlanti CW show. The character is a natural for Berlanti, I suppose, since the modern version of Batwoman was heralded from her introduction in 2006 as DC Comics' first openly-gay superhero. The Batwoman show hasn't gone out of its way to make homophobia its big bad (apart from its inescapable contribution to the character's origin story) the way Supergirl has constantly battled sexism and other forms of bigotry. Instead, it takes inspiration from the most successful storyline from the Batwoman comics, pitting protagonist Kate Kane (Ruby Rose) against her twin sister Beth (Rachel Skarsten), who has come back from seeming death as the Lewis Carroll-obsessed Alice, a psychopathic gang leader. How Beth became Alice differs depending on whether you read comics or watch TV, but the differences don't really matter that much and need not be described here. What really matters is that in comics the Batwoman creative team finished up with Alice and moved on, while there's no sign yet that the TV team plans to do likewise. That's because the idea of an antagonist who is also family is right up the CW's alley, and not something they're likely to let go of right away. One difference between comics and TV worth emphasizing is that, in comics, the reveal of Alice as Beth comes at the last moment before Alice's apparent demise, while on TV the reveal comes very early. The TV writers want the family thing to complicate Batwoman's battle constantly, just as drama involving other family members -- her dad runs a private army that has taken over much of Gotham City's policing, while her stepmother was involved in shady dealings before Alice killed her, and her stepsister resents Kate's obsession with Alice -- takes up much of the show's time. Like nearly all TV, Batwoman uses "family" as a shortcut to profundity, but the family angle with Alice also underscores the larger issue of how to deal with criminals in general that runs through all the Berlanti shows.

This Berlanti preoccupation was most obvious on Sunday nights last fall when both Batwoman and Supergirl had storylines involving criminals who were family. On Supergirl we learned that the Martian Manhunter's brother had gone over to the bad Martians back in the day because his family had cast him out, fearing a unique mental power he possessed. He appeared on Earth and became a menace to J'onn J'onnz and his friends until the Manhunter pacified him. Doing this required J'onn to come to terms with his own guilt in having wiped the brother out of his own and his father's memory out of fear, and to perform a risky act of submission -- or atonement, if you prefer -- to the aggrieved brother. All of this worked, of course, and the brother hasn't been a threat since then. Similarly, the Kane family have to deal with Beth/Alice's grievance against their having "abandoned" her, after a long, obsessive search, while she was the captive of a mad doctor. Kate herself always felt that her dad gave up the search too soon, and both she and her dad feel the guilts after learning that stepmom had created fake evidence of Beth's death to help them move on, as it were. The larger point here, it seems, is that Berlanti and his writers want society to recognize some role in the creation of seemingly evil people rather than treating them as inherently irredeemable bad seeds. They're not consistent about this, since some villains (e.g. Damian Darhk) are portrayed as cartoonishly, disposably evil, while the great exception that seems to prove the overall rule was Andy Diggle, the brother of Arrow sidekick John Diggle and henchman to the aforementioned Darhk, who defied all efforts at redemption and finally goaded his virtuous sibling to shoot him down in a fit of rage. His persistent viciousness actually made Andy a breath of fresh air in Berlanti-land, but the writers seem to see him as an experiment not to be repeated again. I suspect that Berlanti doesn't believe that anyone rally deserves death for the things they do. There's nothing wrong with that as a real-world political philosophy, but it does limit one's options in creating a dramatic fantasy world, and it also means that Batwoman probably will be hobbled for some time to come by its constant back-and-forth over what to do with Alice.

A little while ago, after Alice poisoned her stepmom, it seemed as if Kate had given up on trying to save her sister. But then the Crisis on Infinite Earths crossover happened and Batwoman received fresh indoctrination from the literal Paragon of Hope, Kara Zor-El, on not giving up on people. That pretty much assures us of more frustratingly repetitive dialogues between hero and villain and contrivances to keep Alice free, while the writers retain their option to make Alice's sidekick, the master of disguise called Mouse, the real big bad so Beth can be redeemed after all -- as, I'm compelled to admit, she eventually was in the comics, though by a different writer than her creator. It may be that a significant part of the DC/CW audience responds to this sort of drama the way Berlanti wants, but others may feel that the Alice story has gone on past its proper expiration date but has been sustained artificially to no good effect.  The writers may feel vindicated by the show's renewal, however inevitable that may have been, but they shouldn't think themselves truly successful until they prove they can envision a future for Batwoman beyond Alice. To be fair, the Batwoman comic hasn't had much future beyond her -- the first series was canceled after the key creators quit over an editorial veto of Kate's marriage to another woman, based not on homophobia but on a dogmatic notion that superheroes should not be happy in their personal lives, and a second series was sadly short-lived -- so it's entirely possible that the TV show will give us the definitive Batwoman. To do so, it will have to move beyond where the comics have gone, but there's no sign yet that the writers are ready to do that.

1 comment:

hobbyfan said...

Batwoman doesn't have much of a Rogues' Gallery beyond Alice, but it's there, and in my opinion, the writers are in no hurry to get there, using the full season to establish Alice as the Joker opposite Kate as Batwoman, subbing, of course, for Batman. The One Nemesis. I'm reading elsewhere we'll see Nocturna, a former Batman foe who later was transferred to Batwoman, soon enough. Wolf Spider may wait until next season.

If the writers could break from the network mandate about making family a pivotal plot point, maybe they could actually get somewhere......