That’s the first real mistake Batwoman makes in its pilot. Rather than following Arrow’s example and filling in the blanks of Kate’s past via flashbacks, the pilot painstakingly traces her evolution from wayward ex-soldier to full-fledged superhero. While not quite as derivative of Supergirl’s pilot episode as the trailer makes it out to be, Batwoman’s debut episode still rehashes too many familiar beats. Like Kara Danvers, Kate Kane is a woman unsure of her place in the world and languishing in the shadow of her famous superhero cousin, until the day destiny calls and she creates a superhero identity of her own. That formula still works well enough, but it’s one that results in a fairly predictable start for the series.
It doesn’t help that the series is so front-loaded with new characters. Where Kate was portrayed as a lone crimefighter in “Elseworlds,” here she has a full roster of allies, enemies, and estranged family members to help flesh out the series. For the most part, these characters tend to fall into familiar Arrowverse molds. Luke Fox (Camrus Johnson) is very much the Felicity Smoak/Cisco Ramon/Winn Schott of the series – the obligatory geeky, wisecracking tech genius. Kate’s father Jacob (Dougray Scott) is more or less the Quentin Lance of the show – the law and order-obsessed, vigilante-opposed counterpoint to the main hero. Kate’s stepmother Catherine (Elizabeth Anweis) is the mysterious, powerful parent with a shady past a la Moira Queen. And finally, Kate’s stepsister Mary (Nicole Kang) is the Thea to her Oliver – a spoiled socialite with the potential to become something more.
The pilot never spends enough time with any of these characters for them to really stand on their own. The series may have done well to space out these introductions over the course of multiple episodes. As it is, neither Catherine nor Mary feel particularly integral to the plot in this first episode.
The one major exception to the formulaic supporting cast is Sophie Moore (Meagan Tandy), a key figure from Kate’s past who now works for Jacob Kane’s private security firm. The tension that results from Sophie being torn between her history with Kate and her loyalty to her current boss immediately helps viewers become invested in her story and her strained relationship with Kate. This episode sees both characters wrestle with a difficult shared dilemma, one that works better than anything else in terms of highlighting Kate’s alienation from her family and her city. That Rose and Tandy have such strong chemistry together also doesn’t hurt.
Sadly, the same can’t be said for Batwoman and her first major nemesis, Alice (Rachel Skarsten). As neat as it is seeing the actress who once played Black Canary in 2002’s Birds of Prey go full-villain, Skarsten struggles to capture the creepy yet dreamlike nature of Alice from the comics. Her dialogue (much of it Alice in Wonderland quotes) is flat and perfunctory rather than surreal. This Alice has neither the menace nor the charisma needed, and that’s a shame considering the character’s importance to the overall Batwoman mythology. But again, with the pilot juggling so many characters right out of the gate, perhaps with time Alice can gain new layers and Skarsten can work to make the character her own.
In terms of the general look and feel, at least, Batwoman does a better job of standing apart from the rest of the Arrowverse. Not since Arrow Season 1 has a series drawn so much obvious stylistic inspiration from Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy This Gotham City is cut from the same cloth – less stylized, Gothic wonderland and more decaying urban metropolis. In fact, portions of the episode were filmed in Chicago (which helps prevent Gotham from simply looking like a more dimly lit version of Star City and Central City). Certain key scenes even play like direct homages to The Dark Knight. Batwoman also borrows from that franchise in terms of its fight scenes, which tend to be shorter and more brutal than the heavily staged battles on Arrow.
It’s also worth pointing out how much Blake Neely and Sherri Chung’s score stands out. Neely has been instrumental (no pun intended) in giving every Arrowverse show its own musical identity. There’s a ridiculously high bar to meet thanks to past Batman composers like Danny Elfman, Shirley Walker, and Hans Zimmer, but Neely and Chung rise to the challenge with Batwoman. Granted, The CW indicated that the visual and sound effects in the pilot may change between now and the episode’s TV debut, but things are already shaping up well on that front.