Netflix’s Original's fantasy series Warrior Nun starts with a bang. The first episode shows a team of women wearing stealth suits and chainmail, crashing into a church screaming about being attacked by soldiers wielding “Divinium shrapnel.” They pull an angel’s halo out of their mortally injured leader. A nun dies to defend this artifact from a demon-possessed soldier. The rush of jargon and mythology seems like John Wick mixed with the literal interpretation of Christian cosmology seen in John Constantine's stories.
But then the action grinds to a stop, as the scene shifts to Ava (Alba Baptista), a dead orphan resurrected by having the halo implanted in her back. After she died under mysterious conditions and was taken to the church for burial, her body was used as a hiding place for the sacred artifact of the Order of the Cruciform Sword — a mysterious society of women warriors dating back to the First Crusade. What had the potential to be an entertaining, schlocky scene turns into a litany of the worst YA Chosen One and Reluctant Messiah tropes, as Ava refuses her destiny as the new divinely empowered Warrior Nun, then ultimately accepts her place fighting demons so the action can pick back up again.
Loosely based on Ben Dunn’s comic series Warrior Nun Areala, Netflix’s version of the show suffers from irregular writing, a lack of originality, poor pacing, and creator Simon Barry’s wish to hold too much back for future seasons. Season 1’s 10 episodes zip around between a huge number of characters who all have mysterious, painful backstories, but they’re mostly thin archetypes. Most time is spent on Ava, who shows the least meriting of both the halo and the show’s attention.
The halo, a gift from an angel to the first Warrior Nun, Areala, becomes all of the bearer’s natural skills and gives her superpowers, including mysterious healing and the ability to phase through walls. The Warrior Nun works with a group of Sister Warriors who could be called upon to be the next Halo Bearer, like the Slayerettes from Buffy: The Vampire Slayer if they were a competent tactical team. Sister Lillith (Lorena Andrea) was expected to be next in line for the halo, and she desires to rip it out of Ava to claim her destiny. But Father Vincent (Tristan Ulloa), who plays the role of a Watcher from Buffy, claims the halo picked up Ava and states she deserves the opportunity to prove herself.
Ava wound up in the care of a Catholic orphanage in Spain after a car accident killed her mother and left her a quadriplegic. Through a mix of blurred flashbacks and completely unnecessary voiceover narration, she shares how happy she is to no longer be “a freak” and to have a new lease on life, as she leaves with the halo to dance, run along the beach, and get protected by JC (Emilio Sakraya), the world’s hunkiest squatter.
“The system is rigged against people like us. They say if you work hard, you can get anything, but that’s a lie,” JC tells, explaining to Ava how he and his friends travel around Europe borrowing rich people’s homes. What could be a slightly compelling monologue is disrupted by Ava’s voiceover: “Just keep talking, pretty boy. I don’t care what you’re talking about. I just see lips I want to kiss.” She’s this shallow for more than half the series, regularly talking about how she doesn’t owe anyone anything, shrugging off work, and cooing about her reflection.
Even though Ava spent the past 11 years bedridden in an old-fashioned facility run by a controlling, abusive nun, she’s sassy, pop-culture savvy, and weirdly skilled. Asked how she knows how to set a broken leg, she answers, “I watched a lot of TV.” She is alternately hunted by nuns from the Order of the Cruciform Sword, who want their holy relic back; the Tarasque, a creature with biblical origins that has since become originally known as one of the most powerful monsters in Dungeons & Dragons and the tech mogul Jillian Salvius (Thekla Reuten). Jillian heads ArqTech, a company making magical portals out of a material kept secret by the Vatican for a millennium. The T in the company’s name seems like a pitchfork, to tip-off anyone who somehow can’t tell they’re bad guys.
Warrior Nun episodes are stuffed with heavy-handed monologues about the clash between religion and faith, which would have more bite if the debates weren’t happening between characters who are aware that divine power really exists. There are some smart points about the difference between knowledge and faith in the final episode, but viewers have to get through a lot of grandstanding to come there.
Both Ava and Jillian regularly make pointed comments about the patriarchal power of the Catholic Church, and the particular unfairness of an order in which women fight and die at the command of men. But these arguments tend to be dropped nearly as soon as they start, and they don’t say much that wasn’t already explored in Buffy. The writers also lose much of their credibility when it comes to watching the church’s legacy when they describe how the Order was founded by Areala (Guiomar Alonso), a mythical warrior they tell fought in the First Crusade against the “barbarians,” even though that conflict really consisted of attacks on Muslim states and the massacre of Jews.
The concept of the Vatican keeping incredible secrets has been famously done before in the Assassin’s Creed franchise and The Da Vinci Code. Warrior Nun disappoints to live up to either, thanks to slow pacing and a lack of self-awareness. When Jillian acquires footage of a nun breaking into her facility and shares it at a press conference where she also declares her intention to open a portal to heaven, there’s no sign about how the public at large receives either claim. When one warrior nun wanders a beach asking random witnesses if they’ve seen Ava, no one comments about the sword on her back.
There are easy steps to explain that this is a world like the ones in John Wick or Buffy: The Vampire Slayer, where everyone is used to absurd fights breaking out at a moment’s notice. Even a line or two of acknowledgment about what this show’s society assumes would go a long way toward bridging the disconnect. Preferably, we get JC expressing shock that Ava keeps showing up covered in blood. Then they sneak off to have sex, scored by triumphant ritual music.
Warrior Nun is a probably entertaining show. The fights are rare but sensational, featuring vibrant, silly scenes like a hyper-competent nun wearing a chainmail veil parrying gun blasts so the smoke forms a cross, or Ava battling a possessed man in a butcher shop by using a chicken and a rack of ribs as weapons. There are humor and creativity in the combat choreography that’s sadly lacking anywhere else.
And the design shows a comparable level of attention. The costumes are extremely stylish and the setting is gorgeous, especially the spectacularly magnificent ancient churches that Ava and the other sisters visit.
Unfortunately, the CGI for the demons is pretty dull. That would be excusable if they had any personality. Alternatively, the Tarasque is just a snarling fiery monster with a penchant for impaling people, and the rest of the demons are wraiths that swirl around as red mist and basically turn people into angry zombies. Their only role is to push Ava along on her journey by forcing her to master her powers and showing her the consequences of neglecting the evil around her.
Warrior Nun attempts to end with a bang too, with a finale filled with plot twists leading up to a big cliffhanger. While few surprises actually work and might be interesting to see developed, the biggest one falls flat because it’s so unoriginal. The whole show feels stretched too thin, the action and character reveal doled out sparingly, presumably so Barry and the writers can extend the show’s mysteries. Unfortunately, Warrior Nun’s some explosions of vibrant action can’t make up for how many of its episodes are duds.