Buffy the Vampire Slayer was a seminal series in the history of supernatural television. Not only did the show mark the transition from the episodic adventure series of past decades toward the serialized storytelling of today, with the requisite end-of-season battle with the “Big Bad,” it also redefined what a female hero could be in a genre better known for “final girls” and victims than for female empowerment. The massive influence of Buffy can still be felt today, and rarely more directly than in the new Netflix series Warrior Nun, which comes closer to ripping off Buffy wholesale than nearly any series before it, but somehow fails at the task of plagiarism so badly that it instantly seems more dated than its predecessor, which debuted in 1997.
Warrior Nun is putatively based on a series of comic books by Ben Dunn, unread by me, but the adaptation by Simon Barry (from Van Helsing—but of course) dumps most of the comics’ elements in favor of trying to rebuilt Buffy with a cast of mostly European actors struggling mightily to speak fluidly in English. The series is fronted by Portuguese actress Alba Baptista, whose thudding delivery can’t keep up with the script. Here’s a hint: If you think your show is going to involve a lot of quippy, humorous dialogue, try using actors who can speak English quickly and clearly enough to keep the jokes from sinking like lead balloons. The series even squanders its Spanish shooting locations, taking what should be a beautiful and rich setting and trying its best to make it look like a generic backlot that could be anywhere from southern California to southern Italy. Compare the cinematography to the Spanish locations in fellow Spanish series on Netflix like Elite and Toy Boy, and you will see how much potential Warrior Nun purposely abdicated.
Baptista plays Ava Silva, a dead paralyzed orphan who is resurrected when a mysterious order of Catholic warrior nuns implant an angel’s halo in her back to keep it safe during a demon attack. Just like Buffy Summers before her, Ava is a Chosen One™, empowered by supernatural forces to defeat monsters and evil, possessed of the superior physical gifts of a slayer (err, warrior nun), and beholden to a mysterious ancient secret society embodied by a seemingly bookish older father figure with a dark past. She, too, has a Scooby Gang of sidekick nuns and a crush on a handsome boy whose masculine efforts to rescue her simultaneously charm her and rankle her feminist bona fides. You win no points for guessing the real motives of the mysterious older man everyone calls (an) angel.
But every part of the story of Warrior Nun is a bad copy of Buffy, right down to the evil technology company trying to combine magic and science to open a gate to hell. If you’re going to copy Buffy, maybe copying the weakest of its seasons, the Initiative from season 4 to a riff on the ending of season 5 (with a twist of the First Evil from season 7), isn’t the smartest place to start. There’s even an Anointed One, a little child who will open the gate to hell. There’s nothing to say about him because he has no personality, and that’s true of all of the nuns and their enemies. They mouth words about supernatural evil and tell “jokes” that I was surprised to learn were not translated from Spanish, but they never really click as people. Joss Whedon, for all his many faults, was always good about using a combination of archetypes and specific character traits to make his characters seem fully human from their first scenes. Here, they’re all faded Xerox copies, defined only as regressive stereotypes: book-smart Asian nun, street-smart Black nun, generically evil nun.
Worse, though, is the show’s complete misunderstanding of which parts of its story are interesting. Ava is not interesting. She could be if she actually had some kind of reaction to being resurrected and granted supernatural powers other than to be kind of mopey and to crush on the first cute boy who crosses her path. The bureaucracy of the various Catholic groups involved isn’t interesting either. I wish I could drum this into every screenwriter’s mind: Nobody cares about bureaucratic infighting. The process isn’t interesting or important, only the outcome. Even the demons are boring since, for all their technicolor and silly names, they are just loud screamy things that don’t do much.
What was interesting was the group of misfit squatters Ava fell in with when she tried to escape her status as Chosen One. They were colorful, had different views, and seemed poised to serve as a makeshift team to help Ava oppose the Order. Until they weren’t. Barry systematically eliminated anyone interesting until only the most boring characters remained. That purge included May Simón Lifschitz, the Argentine transgender actress whose character Chanel was the most compelling among the gang, despite appearing for only a few minutes, and German actor Emilio Sakraya, who easily outshone Baptista at delivering lines in English. His character, JC, was an odd one for a show like this—smarter, kinder, more capable, and more likeable than the hero. Sure, he keeps trying to rescue Ava, who is supposed to be nearly invincible, but she keeps managing to need saving. He accomplished more than her for the first half of the series, and then was written out with untidy haste. Personally, I find “weirdly competent, kind-hearted Euro-mutt grifter” a more interesting set of character traits than “depressed, befuddled, angst-ridden Chosen One™.” Maybe “warrior nun” was the wrong concept for this show—especially since Ava is not a nun. I think I’d have rather watched the one about the makeshift family of colorful squatters who travel Europe living in rich people’s empty houses.
But you get the show they made, not the one you want. Hey, Netflix—since Barry wrote all the good actors out of Warrior Nun, can we have the house-squatting show anyway?
By the end of the series, we’re deep into Catholic conspiracy territory, in the company of the most boring array of Stereotype Nuns. I’d try to hint at the cliffhanger ending, but if you’ve ever watched Buffy, you already know what the villains want. The show’s Spanish locations, perhaps surprisingly, make a poor double for the Vatican, and the climax never achieves the sense of place, space, and grandeur that its storytelling seemed to be aiming for.
After the first two episodes, I was ready to never watch the show again because they were slow, boring, and dull. By the end of the series, my estimation had risen, and I thought of it as merely uninspired and pointless. It fills the time if there is nothing better to watch, but it never makes the case that this was a story that needed to be told. Or, rather, it made the case that this story has already been told, and better, when it was called Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Esquire, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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