Much, much better than you think it’ll be, Warrior Nun proves a fun action-adventure but also a surprisingly complex examination of religious institutions, dogma, and blind faith.
This review of Warrior Nun (Netflix) is spoiler-free. We also recapped all ten episodes in minute detail — you can check out all of those by clicking these words. (They’ll all go live on the air date.)
I must confess that I rolled my eyes a bit at the title Warrior Nun. You don’t do this gig for as long as I have without getting a sense of what Netflix is like, and a teen-focused supernatural action-adventure series with that title seems like just the kind of schlocky nonsense that the streaming giant peddles every week. But wait! It doesn’t take long – like, not even a full episode – to realize that this series, based on the Warrior Nun Areala graphic novels by Ben Dunn, is a bit different. Well, maybe even a lot different.
It’s the tone, I think, that you pick up on early. The opening episode races through a thoroughly ridiculous setup in such a straight-faced way that you can’t help but take it a little bit seriously, and the show knows when to drop in a gag or an incredulous double-take whenever things are getting too much. So it never gets dour, even as it tackles surprisingly weighty and complex themes, but it also never descends into soapiness or slapstick. It’s a just-right balance that lets you swallow the idea of a quadriplegic orphan being brought back from the dead by an angel’s halo that also imbues her with holy superpowers.
That orphan is Ava, played with wide-eyed relish by Alba Baptista, who’s juggling both a charming, awkward naïveté and an edgy, cynical attitude. She has a good reason for both. In the time she spent confined to an orphanage bed, she was abused under the auspices of a Catholic church whose secret warrior sect she now belongs to through sheer happenstance – or perhaps something more resembling divine mandate. Her complex position is representative of the show’s overall attitude to Catholicism and religious institutions in general; it challenges dogma and blind devotion head-on.
But the philosophical underpinnings of Warrior Nun aren’t its only selling point. Its narrative setup of a war between beautiful kick-ass nuns and demons is familiar enough and endlessly appealing in that Buffy the Vampire Slayer kind of way, and its adherence to the classic Hero’s Journey story structure – with some twists and turns along the way – gives it the same simplistic pleasure as other “chosen one” narratives. In this, the show is unashamedly blending coming-of-age elements with fanciful, otherworldly action-adventure, and it pays equal attention to both. Ava is a compelling protagonist because she’s not just discovering a world of secret societies, magic, and monsters, but the real one she had previously only been able to glimpse through the bars of a physical and psychological prison. Early on, she falls in with a handsome young grifter, J.C. (Emilio Sakraya), who introduces her to the pleasures of young-adulthood just as her importance in a burgeoning supernatural conflict is beginning to become clear.
Warrior Nun will most likely make for a springboard to stardom for its Portuguese lead, but it’s a treat for the audience, too. Those who grew up within institutionalized religion, or those who didn’t but have an interest in how it shapes the world we live in, will find a surprisingly challenging examination of such here. But even those with no interest in such things will get to enjoy a pacey, action-packed supernatural adventure with strong characters, compelling performances, and confident world-building. The silliness never really goes away, and the show knows when to really embrace it, but that’s fine – Warrior Nun succeeds by telling a story of demons, literal and figurative, that always puts its human characters first.