Naomi review: Ava DuVernay's CW show is an intriguing origin story with an uncertain future
Our pop culture is flooded with superheroes these days, and so we also find ourselves inundated with origin stories. The two go hand in hand. Beginnings are central to the superhero myth, because the whole attraction is the idea that any of us normal people could become someone special if we just happened to be in the right place at the right time.
Most of the time, when we watch such origins, we already know exactly where the journey is headed. We know that the baby in the crash-landed rocketship will grow into Superman, we know that the nerdy boy bitten by the arachnid will become Spider-Man, and we know that Martha Wayne's falling pearls will inspire her son to become the most popular superhero of all time. Naomi is different. Developed by Ava DuVernay and based on the 2019 comic series of the same name by Brian Michael Bendis, David F. Walker, and Jamal Campbell, the new CW show Naomi is the origin story of a superhero who doesn't exist yet.
The titular Naomi (Kaci Walfall) is a nerd, but not in the awkward, anti-social sense associated with that word when Stan Lee and Steve Ditko were first creating Peter Parker. We first meet Naomi in the middle of… a party, where her classmates are taking brief breaks from dancing to congratulate her on her well-performing Superman fansite. This leads into the inciting incident of the story, which is a rare Superman appearance in the fictional Pacific Northwest small town of Port Oswego. But Naomi, an energetic student awash in extracurricular activities, misses it.
This is where the plot engine of the show starts kicking in, as Naomi wonders why Superman would spend even a second in her middle-of-nowhere town. Eventually, she reveals to a friend the reason she's so invested in the Man of Steel: They're both adopted. In Naomi's case, she was adopted by the sharply-dressed linguist Jennifer (Mouzam Makkar) and military man Greg (Barry Watson). They seem as kind and nurturing as the Kents ever were, but now Naomi is wondering whether Superman's appearance has anything to do with her own adoption in 2004. On top of that, Naomi has also started hearing a ringing sound in her ears that no one else seems to sense — rather like Tilda Swinton in Memoria, or (perhaps more relevant) the kind of thing a young Clark Kent is seen experiencing in Superman origin stories that depict his super-hearing power manifesting for the first time.
But here's where the show's world-building starts to get confusing. Naomi and her friends apparently view Superman as a comic book character, much like we viewers do; the incident is chalked up to a creative cosplayer with some kind of mechanism for hoisting themselves in the air. But the obvious difference is that Superman clearly exists in their universe (for crying out loud, Superman & Lois even airs the same night on the same channel). So if everyone in Naomi thinks Superman is fictional, then who is always saving the day over in Metropolis? The disconnect is reminiscent of Christmas movies where parental characters talk about how they don't believe in Santa Claus even though Santa is a character in the movie… so who's bringing the presents every year? Perhaps later episodes will have an answer to this (Naomi's source material certainly provides at least one possible explanation) but for now it's disorienting.
Another area where Naomi and her viewers can relate is in not knowing who or what Naomi is supposed to be. The DC comics character has been around for a couple years now, and even recently joined the Justice League, but hasn't exactly acquired mainstream name recognition yet. Most viewers will come into this show wondering what the big deal is, and will find Naomi herself asking "who am I?" The show tries to knit a colorful cast of supporting characters around her — from Annabelle (Mary-Charles Jones), whose chatty and supportive nature recalls Beanie Feldstein in Lady Bird, to dueling love interests Nathan (Daniel Puig) and Anthony (Will Meyers) — but Naomi often ignores them in favor of chasing down questions about who she is and where she comes from. Tattoo artist Dee (Alexander Wraith) and local car dealer Zumbado (Cranston Johnson) might have answers, but they aren't eager to share.
Naomi is a character with lots of potential. In the comics, Campbell drew her wide-eyed and full of wonder. Walfall presents a slightly different visual and a little more depth: Her face always radiates kindness towards her friends and family, but she's also determined to find her answers — yet not gullible enough to fall for the first explanation presented to her. She could make a great superhero, but the show will have to make the journey worthwhile. The exciting thing about an uncertain future is that it's full of possibilities. B-
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A comic-loving teenager sets off on a journey that will take her to the heights of the DC Comics multiverse.