Netflix’s Warrior Nun features a likeable and accomplished cast as well as a real sense of fun, but is hampered by some poor writing
Netflix’s latest action show comes with a title that is going to get it noticed. Very loosely based on the Canadian manga-style comic Warrior Nun Areala, the series follows Ava Silva, a teenage girl who finds herself to be the latest in a long line of warrior women with the power to battle demons. Suddenly she is being pressured by a shady organisation to fulfil her duties, when she just wants to party and meet boys. So far, so Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
The details are a little different of course, even if the broad strokes are the same. We’re introduced to Ava (Alba Baptista) as a corpse in a morgue. Enter a group of warrior nuns, one of whom is dying. She carries an Angel’s halo under the skin of her back, which due to the interruption of armed attackers, is unexpectedly transferred to Ava. She awakens from death, additionally cured of her previous paralysis and equipped with some superpowers to boot. The nuns need her to help fight demons, but having spent most of her life bed-ridden and cared for in an unpleasant convent, Ava is not quick to trust the Catholic Church. Instead she falls in with a bunch of youths who are fighting the system by squatting in wealthy people’s empty houses, and conning their way into swanky parties.
The show is clearly mining the “unlikely and reluctant hero learns that with great power comes great responsibility” trope for all its worth, and it rarely does anything out of the ordinary from that standpoint. There is some ambiguity in the motivations of both the Church and scientist Jillian Salvias (Thekla Reuten), but this largely goes the way you expect it to. The show saves its two biggest twists for the final episode, one of which you see coming a mile off and one I found genuinely surprising.
Its derivative nature does not mean, however, that elements of it are not well put-together and entertaining in their own right. The word I keep coming back to is fun, and the series certainly displays a joyful abandon as it romps along. Tonally it is spot on, striking the perfect balance between serious and silly.
The cast, on the whole, is strong. Baptista does a great job anchoring the series as Ava, even if her transformation from reluctant rebel to badass demon fighter is a little rushed. She’s on screen for 90% of the show, and it would be dead on arrival if she wasn’t up to the task. Like the series, her performance is one of balance; and she manages to convey all of the fragility, vibrancy, charisma, and strength required from the character. Yes she can be annoying at times, but what do you expect from a teenager? It’s Baptista’s first English-language role, and I imagine we will be seeing a lot more of her.
Elsewhere the cast of younger and largely unknown actors acquit themselves well, in particular Toya Turner as Sister ‘Shotgun’ Mary, who gets a lot of the best lines and most of the attitude. The older actors are similarly unlikely to be household names to most English-speaking audiences, but are similarly strong across the board. Tristan Ulloa was a real highlight for me, performing a wonderfully subtle role as Father Vincent, the nuns’ mentor with a hidden past. I do worry that for many his understated performance will be overshadowed by some of the other larger than life characters such as Reuten’s driven scientist, Sylvia De Fanti’s cold Mother Superion, and Joaquim de Almeida’s scenery-chewing cardinal.
The series loves pairing off various different characters (usually with Ava) and it’s in these smaller duologues where the chemistry between the actors really comes out. On the downside, there are occasionally some really odd acting choices that are completely unnatural, from both the younger actors and the more experienced ones who ought to know better. Since it occurs with different characters relatively infrequently, I’m guessing this is a directing issue rather than an acting one, but either way it sticks in the mind and spoils what are generally good performances.
This leads to the show’s main problem: it’s really let down by the writing. There is a significant pacing issue for a start. We’re thrown straight into the action at breakneck speed, before slowing to a crawl, then picking up again towards the end, and finally coming to an abrupt stop seemingly in the middle of a scene. The mid-season lull is a common problem with these 8-10 episode miniseries, but one that Netflix really ought to be getting right by now.
Another issue with the writing is that the show is filled to the brim with exposition, whether it be the background to religious orders, people’s own life experiences, or some pseudo-science. Occasionally we see the exposition play out, such as some infrequent flashbacks to the crusades and the original warrior nun, but often they are just described. Despite this, the season ends with so many unanswered questions that you wonder whether they lost an episode. Even when it’s not doing exposition, the dialogue can be on the nose and a little childish; there is nothing the show seemingly enjoys more than having a nun drop an f-bomb.
The old maxim of “show, don’t tell” is a bit of a cliche, but it’s a lesson the writers really ought to have taken to heart. Nowhere is it demonstrated more than by the decision to convey Ava’s thoughts through voice-over. I found this somewhat jarring, if only because it’s very unusual for an action series. Whilst it seemed to become less intrusive towards the end of the season, or perhaps I just became numb to it, it sadly removed a lot of the nuance from the performance. Baptista is a good enough actress that we don’t need to be told what she is thinking and feeling all the time.
One thing that is very impressive about the series are the special effects, which are far superior to many supernatural TV shows. The demon-like Tarask are particularly striking, reminiscent of the Balrog in The Lord of the Rings. Likely because of the expense of putting it on screen, the full demon appears only sparingly. Instead the series relies on human versus human action, and this is handled equally well. There is nothing in it to rival the likes of Daredevil, but the fight scenes are competently choreographed, shot, and performed.
Warrior Nun is a series with a lot of potential, and it’s a shame that some dodgy writing has hampered what could have been a really great first season. But, let’s be honest, how many shows of this sort ever hit their stride at the first time of asking? There is definitely enough here to warrant a second season, if only to answer some of the questions left frustratingly hanging. Despite the criticisms, a likeable and accomplished cast and a real sense of fun make these first ten episodes definitely worth watching.
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