Netflix’s modern-day fantasy series Warrior Nun starts with a bang. The first episode shows a squad of women wearing stealth suits and chainmail, crashing into a church shouting about being ambushed by mercenaries wielding “Divinium shrapnel.” They pull an angel’s halo out of their mortally wounded leader. A nun dies to protect this artifact from a demon-possessed soldier. The rush of jargon and mythology feels like John Wick mixed with the literal interpretation of Christian cosmology found in John Constantine stories.
But then the action grinds to a halt, as the perspective shifts to Ava (Alba Baptista), a dead orphan resurrected by having the halo implanted in her back. After she died under mysterious circumstances and was brought to the church for burial, her corpse was used as a hiding place for the sacred relic of the Order of the Cruciform Sword — a secret society of women warriors dating back to the First Crusade. What had the potential to be an entertaining, schlocky spectacle turns into a litany of the worst YA Chosen One and Reluctant Messiah tropes, as Ava denies her destiny as the new divinely empowered Warrior Nun, then eventually 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 inconsistent writing, poor pacing, a lack of originality, and creator Simon Barry’s desire to hold too much back for future seasons. Season 1’s 10 episodes zip around between a huge number of characters who each have mysterious, painful backstories, but they’re mostly thin archetypes. The most time is spent on Ava, who seems the least deserving of both the halo and the show’s attention.
The halo, a gift from an angel to the first Warrior Nun, Areala, enhances all of the bearer’s natural abilities and gives her superpowers, including miraculous healing and the ability to phase through walls. The Warrior Nun works with a group of Sister Warriors who could potentially be called upon to be the next Halo Bearer, like the Slayerettes from Buffy: The Vampire Slayer if they were actually a competent tactical team. Sister Lillith (Lorena Andrea) was meant to be next in line for the halo, and she wants to rip it out of Ava to claim her destiny. But Father Vincent (Tristan Ulloa), who basically plays the role of a Watcher from Buffy, claims the halo chose Ava, and says she deserves the chance 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 quadrapelegic. Through a mix of blurred flashbacks and absolutely 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 flees with the halo to dance, run along the beach, and get rescued 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 says, explaining to Ava how he and his friends cruise around Europe borrowing rich people’s homes. What could be a somewhat compelling monologue is interrupted 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, constantly talking about how she doesn’t owe anyone anything, shrugging off work, and cooing about her own reflection.
Even though Ava spent the past 11 years bedridden in an antiquated 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 primarily known as one of the most powerful monsters in Dungeons & Dragons; and the tech mogul Jillian Salvius (Thekla Reuten). Jillian heads ArqTech, a company building magical portals out of a material kept secret by the Vatican for a millennium. The T in the company’s name looks like a pitchfork, to tip off anyone who somehow can’t tell they’re bad guys.
Warrior Nun episodes are packed 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 clever points about the difference between knowledge and faith in the final episode, but viewers have to get through a lot of grandstanding to arrive there.
Both Ava and Jillian periodically make barbed 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 almost 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 scrutinizing the church’s legacy when they describe how the Order was founded by Areala (Guiomar Alonso), a legendary warrior they say fought in the First Crusade against the “barbarians,” even though that conflict actually consisted of attacks on Muslim states and the massacre of Jews.
The idea of the Vatican keeping incredible secrets has been famously done before in the Assassin’s Creed franchise and The Da Vinci Code. Warrior Nun fails 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 announces her intention to open a portal to heaven, there’s no indication about how the public at large receives either claim. When one warrior nun wanders a beach asking random bystanders if they’ve seen Ava, no one comments about the sword on her back.
There are easy ways 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 acknowledgement about what this show’s society expects would go a long way toward bridging the disconnect. Instead, we get JC expressing shock that Ava keeps showing up covered in blood. Then they sneak off to have sex, scored by triumphant liturgical music.
Warrior Nun is a potentially entertaining show. The fights are rare but spectacular, featuring dynamic, 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 wielding a chicken and a rack of ribs as weapons. There’s humor and creativity in the combat choreography that’s sorely lacking anywhere else.
And the design shows a similar level of attention. The costumes are extremely stylish and the setting is gorgeous, especially the spectacularly ornate ancient churches that Ava and the other sisters visit. Unfortunately, the CGI for the demons is pretty lackluster. That would be forgivable if they had any personality. Instead, 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 ignoring the evil around her.
Warrior Nun tries to end with a bang too, with a finale filled with plot twists leading up to a big cliffhanger. While some of the surprises actually work, and might be intriguing to see developed, the biggest one falls flat because it’s so unoriginal. The whole show feels stretched too thin, the action and character reveals doled out sparingly, presumably so Barry and the writers can extend the show’s mysteries. Unfortunately Warrior Nun’s few explosions of vibrant action can’t make up for how many of its episodes are duds.
All 10 episodes of Warrior Nun are now streaming on Netflix.