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The CW’s Batwoman pilot gets the most important thing about Batwoman right

‘A cadet will not lie’

Batwoman in Elseworlds, The CW The CW
Susana Polo is an entertainment editor at Polygon, specializing in pop culture and genre fare, with a primary expertise in comic books. Previously, she founded The Mary Sue.

Every San Diego Comic-Con, Warner Bros. kicks off the show with an evening of exclusive previews and premieres of its upcoming slate, and this year was no different. I got a chance to sit down and watch the first episode of the latest installment of the ever-expanding Arrowverse: Batwoman starring Ruby Rose.

Batwoman continues writer-producer Greg Berlanti’s run of solid superhero adaptations for the CW crowd. The show’s a little cartoony, a little gritty, and confident in the comic book elements that it picks up and the ones it discards. But if I have a favorite thing about it, it’s that the show understands that the best Batwoman stories are about integrity — and who can and can’t afford to have it.

[Ed. note: This piece will contain mild spoilers for the first episode of Batwoman.]

The establishment of Kate Kane’s sense of integrity is worth a little fudging of the edges of the rest of her story. As Batwoman opens, Batman hasn’t been seen in Gotham in three years. From Titans to Gotham to the ol’ Birds of Prey series and Arrow’s liberal use of Gotham’s Rogues Gallery, Batman is becoming the most notorious cryptid in DC Comics-based television.

Taking his place is The Crows, a private security firm headed by Kate Kane’s father, out to make Gotham City feel safe when it doesn’t trust its own police force to keep a lid on crime without a costumed vigilante. Our villain, the Lewis Carroll-quoting Alice, kidnaps The Crows’ star agent as part of a scheme to show it’s a bad idea for a private security firm to supplement a police force.

She’s not wrong! I, too, would do my utmost to interrupt a party in which a bunch of rich people excitedly count down to the moment Gotham City turns off the Batsignal for good, while safe behind a wall of private security forces. But the agent Alice kidnaps just happens to be the ex-girlfriend that Kate Kane got kicked out of West Point for having, which puts our hero on the first flight back to Gotham from the indeterminately ethnic location she was in, where she was training in obscure survival techniques with an indeterminately ethnic mentor.

In practice, Rose’s Kate Kane is a down and dirty brawler like any other scrawny male action hero in a leather jacket, and Rose knows how to sell a batsuit as well, or better, than her male counterparts. I also enjoyed the original role of Mary Hamilton (played by Nicole Kang), Kate’s step-sister. Seemingly a social butterfly, she turns out to have a refreshing secret life going on underneath — one that I’m sure will lead to her being brought into the Batfamily secrets soon enough.

The character work in Batwoman is as broad as the rest of the Berlantiverse, serving the plot more often than it should. But over all the show feels a little older, a little less comic-booky than its tonal cousin, Arrow. Batwoman still asks you to believe that a scalloped cape can act like a hang glider — but not that Oliver Queen’s family would believe that he was totally alone on that island when he came back with a back tattoo.

If there was one thing the show really needs to back off from, it’s lines like “You’re a female Bruce Wayne,” and “[The batsuit] will be [perfect]. When it fits a woman.” We get it. We’ve seen the name of the show. One of the most powerful things about Batwoman’s comic book origin is how little it is about Batman.

That said, the most important part of Kate Kane’s story remains intact in Batwoman. In Greg Rucka and J.H. Williams III’s origin story — a plot that is now, against all odds, outdated — Kate’s transformation into Batwoman began when she was kicked out of West Point under Don’t Ask Don’t Tell. She could have stayed: Her commanding officer, given her stellar grades, offered to wipe her record if she refuted the accusation of homosexual behavior. In response, she quoted the Army Cadet Honor Code: A cadet will not lie, cheat, steal, or tolerate those who do — and took the discharge.

Kate Kane refuses to lie in order to saver herself from being discharged from the Army under Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, Detective Comics, DC Comics (2009). Greg Rucka, J.H. Williams III/DC Comics

Batwoman keeps this origin, and combines it with another of Kate Kane’s ex-girlfriends; when her Army beau tells her that she was given the same offer, and took it. Kate is betrayed, but her newly axed ex-girlfriend tells her bluntly: You can afford to get kicked out. I can’t.

Good Batwoman stories are about Kate Kane’s integrity in refusing to live as anyone other than who she is. The best ones interrogate the privilege she has to exercise that integrity. Rucka and Williams did this in early Batwoman arcs when they showcased her relationship with Gotham City police detective Renee Montoya. When Renee and Kate fought, Kate had a habit of accusing Renee of hypocrisy for living closeted at work and to her family. Renee would say the same as Kate’s television ex: Kate may be gay, but she reads as white, her family supports her, and her family is rich. She sacrificed her dream, yes, but not her survival.

There was never any doubt that Kate Kane would still be a lesbian in her television adaptation, but the nuance with which her origin story treats privilege within the queer community could have been the first thing to go. I was relieved and excited to see that it wasn’t, and am interested to see what the show does with it next.

Batwoman premieres Oct. 6, 2019.

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