Warrior Nun Review (Spoiler-Free): Sisters Doing it for Themselves

Warrior Nun is a dynamic take on the “chosen one” that follows a recently revived teen as she discovers her newfound divine powers and the responsibility that comes with them.

Warrior Nun Netflix
Photo: Netflix

This Warrior Nun review contains no spoilers.

Netflix’s Warrior Nun is a loose adaptation of the American manga Warrior Nun Areala. The comic follows the titular Warrior Nun, Sister Shannon Masters, and her friends in The Order of the Cruciform Sword, as they fight the forces of evil. The show is something of a spiritual successor to the comic, which was first published in 1994. It takes the broad premise, a religious sect of nuns and priests that fight evil under the leadership of a superpowered Warrior Nun, and reimagines it for the modern audience. Some characters transition directly from the text, like Shotgun Mary (Toya Turner), while others, like comic lead Sister Shannon, are left behind in favor of new characters created for the show.

On paper, Warrior Nun is ‘Extremely My Shit’. Badass women warriors, magic, demons, lore… And for the most part, the show lives up to its premise, with a few caveats that keep it from crossing over into must-watch territory.

The Netflix series begins with The Order having just returned from a failed operation during which their leader, Sister Shannon (Melina Matthews), was fatally wounded. They remove the power-imbuing holy artifact from Shannon’s back, but before it can be placed inside the next bearer, the church is attacked. A sister places the artifact inside the corpse of 19-year-old Ava (Alba Baptista) to keep it protected. The holy relic resurrects Ava, giving the girl (who formerly lived with quadriplegia) the ability to walk, phase through solid objects, and wield super strength… among other things. Ava must decide what to do with her newfound power, before someone else makes the decision for her.

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The story follows Ava’s journey as she discovers the outside world and begins to establish her place in it. She meets a cute boy, J.C. (Emilio Sakraya) and his group of nomadic friends, and together they explore their city and make trouble, including crashing the party of tech genius Jillian Salvius (Thekla Reuten) who happens to be revealing a potentially world-altering scientific breakthrough, much to the dismay of Cardinal Duretti (Joaquim de Almeida). 

Ava is able to run on the beach and dance at discotheques due to the freedom of movement the artifact grants her. But that freedom comes at a cost. The artifact belongs to the Order of the Cruciform Sword (OCS), and is sought after by the OCS, demons, and other interested parties who want to use its immense power toward their own ends. Ava has a choice: Does she help the sisters in a war she’s conscripted into against her will, or does she take advantage of the second chance she’s been given to live her life without constraints, leaving the OCS effectively powerless in their fight against evil?

Ava is perhaps the least interesting character in Warrior Nun. Which is not to say she’s a bad character, rather that spending time with some of the other sisters may have been more rewarding. Especially in lieu of time spent with Ava and her potential love interest. That said, the world building is compelling, and the OCS, through Ava’s eyes. Everything she’s experiencing is new to her, and going on the journey with her as opposed to someone more world-weary, is refreshing.

Shotgun Mary is a badass, gun-toting sister who doesn’t wait for permission, and barely asks for forgiveness. We don’t know much about her, though inferences can be made, but we know she’s an outlier among those in her sect—she keeps them thangs on her, for one. Mary is tough, but softer than she appears. When Ava refuses to enter the fold, Mary opts to change her mind rather than deny Ava the ability to make the decision for herself.

Lilith (Lorena Andrea), on the other hand, is the sister who is next in line to inherit the artifact. Bearer is the role she’s prepared for and has been anticipating. She doesn’t care to follow the whims of a random non-believer, and certainly is not concerned about what’ll happen to Ava —who was revived by the artifact— should they remove it from her. Lilith is in fierce pursuit of her perceived birthright, and Ava is just a random sinner who is in her way.

Mother Superion (Sylvia De Fanti), like Lilith and Cardinal Duretti, doesn’t believe Ava is worthy, and resents the idea of training or mentoring her. But Father Vincent (Tristán Ulloa) believes that the artifact chose her for a reason. He urges Ava to become a part of the OCS, and encourages the others to embrace her. Other members of the OCS, Sister Beatrice (Kristina Tonteri-Young) and Camile (Olivia Delcán) are content to follow their superiors, but when it becomes less clear who can be trusted, they have to decide whether or not to put their faith in Ava.

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The conflict over what to do with Ava, and what to do about the artifact, drives the narrative this first season. Everyone Ava interacts with has a different idea of who she is and who she should be. And everyone wants to tell her how she should behave, and what she should do, especially those who want her to give up the artifact—and presumably her life. More than just never having the chance to explore the world outside of the orphanage, Ava was living with quadriplegia . Now, Ava is exploring her place in the world, and firmly deciding those things for herself. Other sisters are forced to examine their place in the OCS, and in the larger fight against evil. Power is critiqued, and where the comic treats the Christian church as a definitive force for Good, the show leaves some ambiguity for the characters, and the audience to explore.

The show employs voice-over narration for Ava, heavily in the first half of the season, and less so as the season progresses. This makes sense for a character who, until she revives, has spent the bulk of her life in a forced introspective state due to the isolated nature of her upbringing and the fact that her caretakers were abusive and treated her disability like a death sentence. But a choice that makes sense doesn’t equate to it being necessary, or good. The narration was distracting at times. The audience learns nothing that couldn’t be gleaned from the actor’s performance. The narration does serve a function, we get to know Ava’s personality and gain insight on her decision making process, but the inner monologue gets in the way more often than not. It feels like the producers don’t trust the actor or the audience, which is a shame, because Baptista is an expressive performer.

Warrior Nun feels like a queer story, but it’s surprisingly heteronormative, which is… disappointing. There are queer characters, but that is not a part of their characterizations, though that seems likely to change in the potential second season. Alluding to a character’s orientation isn’t enough, and with a show focused so heavily on women and subversion of expectations (they’re nuns who fight!) keeping queer stories in the background is a disservice to the audience and the characters.

This season is somewhat light on action. Part of the appeal of this show is watching warrior women do warrior things, and there’s not quite enough fighting happening over the course of these ten episodes. Ava, by design, is not much of a fighter and mostly just reacts, which is apt—she just regained mobility. But Mary, Lilith, and the rest of the sect have been training for years, so hand-to-hand is in their repertoire and could be on display more frequently. That said, the conservative action feels deliberate. The OCS isn’t up against demons, it’s up against Ava, in essence. Their fight is one of wills.

Warrior Nun wants to talk about strong women, and sisterhood, and it succeeds at doing both. Women are at the center of this show, and even when they work in service of a larger purpose, or toward the same goals, they are not the same. Each sister has her own history and reason for being a part of the OCS, and every woman, in or out of the order, is independently realized. The OCS is at odds with Ava, but it also offers the potential for family and sisterhood she never had. The divine powers and supernatural enemies are fun, but ultimately it’s these characters and their relationships that ground this show and give us something to invest in.

Warrior Nun season 1 is now streaming on Netflix in the US.

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4 out of 5