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TV Review: 'Batwoman' Returns For Season 2

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

"Batwoman" returns for its second season on The CW tonight with a groundbreaking twist. Javicia Leslie is taking over the lead role, becoming the first Black woman to play the crusading hero. NPR TV critic Eric Deggans says while it's a groundbreaking change, it also uses some tired stereotypes.

ERIC DEGGANS, BYLINE: From her first moments tossing around bad guys as Batwoman, Javicia Leslie's power as an actor made her the perfect choice to take over the role. Leslie plays Ryan Wilder, a homeless woman who stumbles on Batwoman's armored high-tech battle suit. She slips into the black and red cape and cowl and starts beating up criminals. The original Batwoman, cousin to billionaire Bruce Wayne, has gone missing. When Batwoman's sidekicks show up to take the suit back, Ryan Wilder makes a strong argument to keep it.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "BATWOMAN")

JAVICIA LESLIE: (As Ryan Wilder) Trust me, I know I'm not a symbol or a name or a legacy.

NICOLE KANG: (As Mary Hamilton) Exactly. So why do you think you're worthy of wearing it?

LESLIE: (As Ryan Wilder) Because I'm the baby of a Black woman who died during childbirth that year. I'm a $20 a day check to a group home. I'm inmate 40757 - 18 months for a crime I didn't commit.

DEGGANS: She wants the justice the suit can bring, justice that society didn't provide. One of the sidekicks, Luke Fox, points out that Kate Kane, the original Batwoman, had a little better resume.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "BATWOMAN")

CAMRUS JOHNSON: (As Luke Fox) But Kate Kane was top of her class at one of the most elite military academies in the world, and she still struggled to take down criminals.

LESLIE: (As Ryan Wilder) Maybe she didn't spend enough time with them. I have been trapped in a life surrounded by criminals. I know how they think, how they act, but most of all, I know how to stop them.

DEGGANS: This is where the show's casting change pays off. By making a Black homeless woman wrongly convicted of a crime the new Batwoman, Gotham City's heroine is transformed from a rich white heiress who secretly beats up on criminals to a non-white ex-con who understands them before beating them up.

For the comic book challenged, I should explain. Batwoman is a different and less well-known character than Batgirl and Catwoman, two characters from Batman's fictional world we have seen many times on film and in TV. On The CW show, Batwoman fights crime in a Gotham City where Batman/Bruce Wayne has mysteriously disappeared. She's also an out lesbian, as is her alter ego, Kate Kane, making her one of the highest-profile gay superheroes in the DC Universe.

Ryan Wilder is gay, too, but the first two episodes of the new season spend more time on Wilder's experiences as an ex-con, as she explains her problems to her parole officer.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "BATWOMAN")

LESLIE: (As Ryan Wilder) You want to know why I haven't paid my fines? Because I can't find a job, because I don't have a home, because no landlord wants to rent to an ex-con on post-release. No one cares that the dope wasn't mine or that I'm actually a decent human. I am a file in your cabinet. That is not having power. That is the very definition of powerless.

DEGGANS: Frankly, I'm not in love with how this series keeps turning this strong Black woman into a victim and a stereotype, but that whole powerless thing will change pretty quickly. Javicia Leslie got the job when Ruby Rose, the actress who played Kate Kane in the series' first season, unexpectedly quit. Rose had a turbulent time as Batwoman, criticized by comic book fans when first cast, then accepted as she excelled playing the character onscreen. Given all that, I'm impressed that producers chose a new actress and character as Batwoman, opening up new storytelling possibilities centered on race, class and police overreach. "Batwoman" still too often feels like a talky soap opera with fight scenes, but these changes can add more depth to a show that's always tried to aim higher than the typical superhero stories. I'm Eric Deggans.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.