Naomi rewrites a DC Comics series for a world without Superman

Naomi rewrites a DC Comics series for a world without Superman

Photo: Fernando Decillis/The CW

And without any Arrowverse connections — so far

The CW’s Arrowverse has been on the wane over the past few years, with Arrow, Black Lightning, Constantine, and Supergirl wrapping, and viewership for the remaining shows mostly trending downward. At the same time, superhero shows and franchises in general seem to be increasingly aimed at generational themes and passing-the-torch stories, with younger, hipper, more diverse heroes like Miles Morales in Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, Kate Bishop on Hawkeye, and Kamala Khan in the upcoming Ms. Marvel seizing the spotlight from legacy heroes.

Those two trends together may explain the new CW show Naomi, about a high-school girl obsessed with Superman, and how she discovers her own superpowers and super-legacy. The show is another DC Comics adaptation, but it’s also a continuation of a thread running through superhero media in general, as showrunners and filmmakers experiment with reenvisioning older characters and archetypes in ways that make them relevant to younger audiences. It’s also a careful step away from the Arrowverse — a series that’s leaving its tie-in options open, but not yet committing to being part of a bigger continuity outside its own superhero story.

What is Naomi?

Photo: Danny Delgado/The CW

In DC Comics continuity, Naomi McDuffie is a superhero introduced in the 2019 miniseries Naomi, written by Brian Michael Bendis and David F. Walker, and drawn by Jamal Campbell. In the six-issue introductory arc, Naomi becomes aware of irregularities around her adoption, and confronts her parents and a few other figures in her small community until she gets some startling answers about where she came from, and what that implies for her future. Naomi continued her comics career, adopting the hero name Powerhouse, through arcs in Action Comics, Justice League, and Young Justice, among other titles. The Naomi comic is scheduled to continue with a new arc on March 8.

Naomi the CW series starts in the same place as that first arc, but diverges significantly from Bendis and Walker’s comic in the setup. In particular, it starts the lead character off in a more mundane world where superheroes apparently don’t exist. In its first season, at least, Naomi won’t take place in the same continuity as the other Arrowverse shows — though given The CW’s history of DC Universe crossovers in all its superhero series, it remains to be seen whether that’ll hold true over time.

Who’s behind Naomi the show?

Naomi is a project from Array Filmworks, the distribution company founded by Selma and When They See Us director Ava DuVernay. DuVernay and showrunner Jill Blankenship (a writer and executive producer on Arrow) are credited as the screenwriters and executive producers. Bendis and Walker gave the show their blessing, but aren’t involved in its production.

What’s the Naomi pilot about?

Naomi McDuffie (Kaci Walfall) is a 16-year-old girl who’s so universally popular, virtually everyone in her small Pacific Northwest town enthusiastically greets her on sight, whether she’s cruising into a weekend party, skateboarding to school past an array of wholesomely beaming local shop-owners, or interviewing people for her Superman fan site, the third-most-popular Superman site in the world. The only people who never seem happy to see her are Zumbado (Cranston Johnson), the glowering owner of a used-car lot, and Dee (Alexander Wraith), a tattoo artist who seems more wary than resentful around her.

Naomi also has a lot of romantic attachments to juggle — she’s still hanging out with her hopeful ex Nathan (Daniel Puig), while also flirting with comics-shop employee Lourdes (Camila Moreno) and trying to decide how she feels about longtime friend Anthony (Will Meyers). Still, when her military father Greg (Barry Watson) tells her pointedly that she needs to choose between them because making choices is very important, it sounds like he’s talking about a lot more than who she might take to junior prom.

Superman is fictional in Naomi’s world, so when the Big Blue Boy Scout himself briefly shows up in town for a blurry fight sequence, most of the locals assume the event was a particularly well-orchestrated viral publicity stunt of some kind. But Naomi, who’s abruptly experiencing a lot of weird, unexplained phenomena, starts obsessively digging into what other people saw and experienced, what it means about her own identity and adoption, and what the town’s two big weirdos are hiding from her.

What’s it really about?

Photo: Danny Delgado/The CW

“Don’t believe everything you think,” one character tells Naomi in a particularly ominous moment. That wording sounds odd — “Question your beliefs” would be more direct and less confusing. But DuVernay has called out that phrase as a tagline and theme of the show, highlighting how people can live with longtime assumptions that aren’t necessarily true. “What you thought last year, do you still think this year?” she asks. “Because it’s all a growing process, and really to interrogate our beliefs, our thoughts, and to constantly be growing — that’s what’s happening to Naomi. […] I think that’s beautiful, and I think that’s what that age is all about. We all need to take the curiosity and exploration that we experience as young people, and take that into the rest of our lives.”

That’s a pretty heady (and given the state of the country, openly political) theme for a show about a universally beloved and highly successful teenager learning she also has superpowers. But open-mindedness and embracing chance are the kinds of values DuVernay regularly includes in her work. Apart from that messaging, though, Naomi’s pilot also sets up a journey of self-discovery and an empowerment fantasy, as Naomi figures out what makes her different, and decides whether she can emulate her hero Superman in a world where he doesn’t already exist to be her mentor, as he is in the comics.

Is Naomi good?

The pilot is a little rocky. It’s refreshing to see a high-schooler who’s a smart, driven academic success and is also universally liked, and who’s popular but not a queen bee or mean-girl type. Naomi is mighty wholesome, with its pansexual flirtations and warmly supportive, non-competitive central female friendship.

But that also makes Naomi feel a bit too perfect to be real. She has a great relationship with her parents, with her ex (who would like more of her attention, but isn’t pushy or entitled about it), even seemingly with the fandom tuning into her fan site. She has time to be an ace student, learn several languages, run a hugely successful website by herself, and also take the lead role on the school debate team. If a job interviewer asked her for her biggest flaws, she’s the kind of person who’d have to answer, “Oh, some people think I’m just just too driven and dedicated!” In spite of Naomi’s big questions about the Superman phenomenon and some eventual drama with the two oddballs in town, Naomi’s pilot is light on any kind of character friction or internal conflict, the kind of hooks that let people identify with a protagonist.

The Naomi pilot also doesn’t do much to establish her community as anything other than a support system and booster squad. She has a large group of friends who are eager to throw themselves without question into her Scooby-Doo investigative adventures, but almost none of them get any personal development. Every major thing we know about them points back to how they feel about Naomi, or what they do to help or encourage her.

In such a Naomi-centric world, a used-car dealer acting kinda hinky doesn’t seem like enough drama to ground the series. The pilot moves quickly, and it wraps on a point that will immediately give comics fans a lure into some other aspects of the DC Universe. But it doesn’t initially feel like it’s aiming at the same audience as other Arrowverse shows. Its bright, cheerful teen story seems to be skewed a lot younger, toward tweens who are still excited by the social promise of high school.

It’s worth seeing how the show develops — DuVernay said at a TCA panel in 2021 that it’s headed in a radically different direction than the comics. And with the Arrowverse struggling, shows like this may be consciously aimed at veering away from those shows’ now-traditional formula and audience. But like all the newer, younger superheroes being developed for the screen over the past few years, Naomi is entering a crowded field with a lot of competition, and the show will need to be a lot more distinctive than this opening pilot if it’s going to stand out.

How can we watch Naomi?

New episodes of Naomi air on The CW on Tuesdays at 9 p.m. ET. The pilot is streaming free online on CWTV.com.