For better or worse, the CW’s Arrow and Flash have codified the language of superheroes on TV. They’ve set the format, the way the origin story is told and the tone these shows use. In a lot of ways, that is a tone that appeals to an audience in its late teens and up, half soap opera, half action show, with all that entails. These are shows with sex and sex appeal, brutal violence and frequent drug use and other questionable actions. As such, there’s naturally going to be some growing pains in adapting that format to an animated series, ostensibly written and created for a younger audience.
So how does Vixen, the animated series on CW Seed, handle that? It really doesn’t. Vixen is shamelessly obscene, violent, and disturbing. For fans of Arrow and Flash, it’s going to be a familiar tone but for someone more accustomed to DC and Marvel’s other animated programming, it’s going to be a bit of a culture shock. Vixen has an oral sex joke in the first 4 minutes and the word “bitch” is sprinkled liberally through the proceedings, several characters are brutally gunned down in a disturbing mass shooting and there’s a scene with a large tarantula that will bother most arachnophobes and other easily-frightened people like me. Still, there’s a heroic, aspirational heart beating throughout the pilot.
Fashionista Mari McCabe is busted out of jail by her foster father, Chuck. She’s torn between her identity, her portfolio rejected by a designer and feeling at odds with her past and family. Mari’s complicated relationship with her past mostly revolves around a necklace, a relic of her birth parents whom she’s never known. That relic takes on more meaning when she and her father are attacked in an alley and she suddenly calls on powers of the animal kingdom to defend herself.
Those powers bring Mari to the attention of Ollie and Barry as well as the sinister Kuasa, her birth sister, who wants to possess the necklace for herself. After encounters with the Flash and Green Arrow, Mari is eventually caught by her sister and taken to Africa where she’s forced to battle for the necklace. There she learns the true origin of her power and her necklace, that her mother tried to protect her from her sister and took her to the US to escape warlords in Africa. Much like the origin stories in Arrow and Flash, tragedy and guilt are baked right into Vixen’s origin. It’s a story focusing on the people she couldn’t save and, much like both Barry and Ollie, Mari is forced to kill in order to be reborn as a hero at the pilot’s end.
Mari’s a compelling character from the beginning, a little unsure of herself, a little self-loathing, a little angry and very relatable. She has a recognizable sense of self-deprecating humor and the scenes where she’s experimenting with what exactly her powers make her capable of are some of the most fun parts of the show. It’s the memorable, charming bits that could make the character a breakout star in a more expanded series.
Vixen represents a bold first step for the CW, their first superhero show to highlight a black woman character as well as their first venture in adapting what’s made their superhero shows successful and applying it to a different medium. As far as changes that could be made, modifications really depend on how the network decides to move forward with the character.
If the CW continues with Vixen as an animated character, I would hope the show could become a little more kid-friendly while keeping what makes Mari such a fun character to spend time with. If, instead, Vixen is rolled into playing a role in the network’s current slate of live action programming, I would hope she could keep what makes her unique without becoming just a token character.