With the quipping flair of Veronica Mars, the sisterhood-as-power vibe of Buffy The Vampire Slayer, and plenty of philosophical musings about faith versus doubt, Netflix’s Warrior Nun is undoubtedly familiar. The methods that showrunner Simon Barry uses to adapt a series of manga novels have clear links to the works of Rob Thomas, Joss Whedon, and Alex Garland—some snark, some ass-kicking, and some God-bashing. But when the show’s impressive ensemble and commitment to thoughtfully exploring questions of individual purpose really click, they transform Warrior Nun into its own distinct experience rather than simply a derivative facsimile of those inspirations.
The Warrior Nun comic books that ran from the mid-1990s to the early 2000s provide some of the backstory for this Netflix series, which takes on medical science, the Catholic Church, and everyday patriarchy in its 10 episodes. Fans of the manga will certainly notice Barry’s significant deviations from the source material: Certain characters are diminished, various relationships are modified, and a major element of what makes the Warrior Nuns who they are is reimagined. By doing so, Barry leans into villainizing the Church and condemning how they wield power, a narrative through-line that starts out incendiary but unfortunately becomes increasingly convoluted as the season unfolds.
The premiere episode, “Psalm 46:5,” wastes no time thrusting us into a fantastical world shaped by religious ideology: As 19-year-old Ava (Alba Baptista) lies dead inside a church in present-day Spain, she informs us, through first-person narration that will continue throughout the series, “Life has a really fucked-up way of making your dreams come true.”
An orphan with quadriplegia, Ava died after growing up in a bed in a Catholic orphanage. While her body awaits the rituals necessary for burial, in another part of the church, a group of young women in tactical gear, strapped with weapons and armored with chain mail, return from a sabotaged mission. Words like “Divinium” and “bearer” are thrown around, and with the women still under attack, a glowing, metal halo is removed from the back of the group’s dying leader—and then, for safekeeping, inserted into Ava. With the halo embedded in her back, the only hint of its presence a circular-shaped scar, Ava becomes the next Warrior Nun, upsetting the line of succession for this secret position.
Now brought back to life by the energy of that artifact, Ava flees the church. Not only is Ava able to walk again after her paralysis at 12 years old, but she also has superpowers: super strength, to push away a guy bothering her at a bar, sending him crashing through a wooden table; super healing abilities, which patch her back together after she’s hit by a car; the ability to phase through solid matter, and to see things that others can’t—like skeletal figures, made out of plumes of red smoke, who prey on the weak and compromised and encourage them to do bad things. Little does Ava know that the glowing disk in her back is actually a holy object imperative to the Catholic Church’s fight against an array of CGI demons teleporting to Earth from hell, and that the young women of the Order of the Cruciform Sword (those nuns with guns) are now hunting her to get it back.
The first half of the season focuses on that pursuit and on Ava’s growth from a nonbeliever (“That shit was a bad trip, and it can’t be real” is how she dismisses the memory of her death and subsequent rebirth) to someone willing to stand with the Order of the Cruciform Sword against darkness. When Warrior Nun focuses on Ava and her relationships with the Order, the show is at its best. Although Ava is the lead—and Baptista does a charming job putting her own self-effacing spin on the archetype of a pop culture-referencing, retort-ready heroine—other characters with varying perspectives and motivations are well-developed. Toya Turner is a standout as Mary, a Black American woman affiliated with the Order who is in mourning for her friend, the preceding Warrior Nun who dies in the premiere. Turner plays the character with an initial no-nonsense intensity that is given more nuance as the season progresses, and she gets some of the liveliest dialogue. When Ava is amazed that Mary is an excellent cook, her “I have a life, you know. It’s not all exorcisms and prayer,” makes clear the way these young women make space in their lives for more than just their holy responsibility.
Equally good is Kristina Tonteri-Young as Sister Beatrice, who chose her life in service to God after her family rejected her; the show’s most enthralling hand-to-hand action sequence, à la John Wick, belongs to her. And actor Lorena Andrea adds depth to Sister Lilith, the next in line to wield the halo, who is superseded by Ava’s presence; Andrea communicates well how Lilith vacillates between disdainful smugness toward the other nuns because of her position and panicked insecurity at the possibility of her unworthiness.
When the nuns interact with each other, Warrior Nun feels focused in its world-building. The script can sometimes lean too much on mythological and religious exposition as the nuns explain their mission to Ava, but the actors have such good chemistry that their various pairings—Mary and Ava, Ava and Beatrice, Mary and Lilith—work, and the smartly choreographed fight scenes are well-placed. The time the series spends on various subplots, though, dilutes that decisiveness. Much screen time is given to the battle between the Church’s Cardinal Duretti (Joaquim de Almeida) and a genius scientist, Dr. Jillian Salvius (Thekla Reuten), who is attempting to build a pathway to another parallel world. (Yes, this brings to mind author Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials series and its accompanying BBC/HBO show.) This side narrative is a way for Warrior Nun to shine a light on the Church’s documented stance of disapproval toward scientific curiosity and discovery. But the series can’t quite find a balance for the arguments between the cardinal and Dr. Salvius, Ava’s hero journey, and the shifting alliances within the Order itself; certain episodes drag when featuring Salvius’ company, Arq-Tech. By the end of the first season, the religion versus science conflict in particular feels unfulfilled, and a cliffhanger that is meant to be emotional lands with a thud.
To whom or what do we owe our lives? Are our decisions truly our own? What if God got free will and destiny wrong? Warrior Nun is built around the tension of the masculine versus the feminine, and the show devotes itself to portraying the Catholic Church as a patriarchal institution meant to subjugate women and discourage them from wondering about the answers to such questions. It’s disappointing, then, how often the show relies on male characters, even ones outside of the Church, to validate Ava’s actions or provide her with guidance. For as effectively as Warrior Nun builds female togetherness, it fails at developing mentorship. And by the final two episodes, “2 Corinthians 10:4” and “Revelations 2:10,” the plot has indulged in so many last-minute twists and turns that the narrative feels dangerously close to being overwhelmed. But before then, the binge-ability of Warrior Nun comes from strongly coordinated action sequences, Baptista’s energetic performance of the scripts’ snappiest dialogue (her “Are you there, God? It’s me, Ava,” is a particular highlight), and a layered perspective that works to pinpoint the difference between respectful devotion and unthinking obedience.