I have a tough time reviewing a webseries. They seem to be the rage at the moment, but I feel it’s a medium that hasn’t quite found itself yet. Half the webseries I’ve seen have, running only a few episodes at a few minutes each, ended up feeling like short films that have just been chopped up for no reason. Or have been padded out with filler. When it comes to NIGHTWING: ESCALATION, you have a mammoth that is very tough to tackle. The series follows Gotham City in the wake of Batman leaving on Justice League business and Nightwing taking over to combat the rise of a street drug called Edenspring. Both the mob and several supervillains are out to control Gotham. The aesthetic of the show is heavily inspired by the Nolan films; it is primarily a crime drama grounded in reality with a major emphasis on police-work. What you have here is a show that’s been running for about four years, with a two-and-a-half year hiatus between its two seasons; Season 1 contains three full episodes and three minisodes, with a first episode that doesn’t really relate to the main plot and the show’s creator himself advises to skip, a second episode that isn’t even available on YouTube, plus a spinoff episode focusing on just Catwoman. Making sense of all this at times is like getting through JRR Tolkien‘s posthumous writings. You will appreciate this show much more if you are a fan of DC Comics as there are many references. If you want a review from a hardcore comics fan, an article was previously written about the series by my colleague Greg Hayhurst. It can be read here.
For me though, a much more casual Batman fan, I have to confess I’ve struggled with getting into this series. First off, despite the title, there isn’t much of Dick Grayson/Nightwing. Excluding that Catwoman spinoff, Nightwing has only actually appeared in TWO OUT OF THE FIVE full episodes of the series! If you count those three minisodes, then that ups his appearances to four out of eight episodes. Instead of Nightwing, the large canvas of characters you get ranges from the Gotham law enforcement to its mobsters to a host of heroes and villains. There’s the Huntress, there’s the Birds of Prey, there’s Det. Roland Strife, there’s Oracle, there’s Jane Kulesa, there’s Agent Nelson Brooks, and there’s the Rotelli family. Some of these are original characters, some are from the comics. If you’re a DC fan, you may be in ecstasy at getting so many references and appearances. If you’re a rookie like me, you may need a cheat-sheet at times to remember who’s who (I’ve had to consult this page a few times). By the time Season 1 ended, I felt I had been shown a lot of plotlines, but not a story. I understood that Strife had this plotline and Brooks had this plotline and there was this thing called Edenspring, but I didn’t feel there was a central spine to this saga. And don’t get me wrong: I really like the idea of a superhero story focusing entirely on character development instead of fight scenes and excessive action. The problem was that instead of plot points, what we are given is tons and tons of dialog scenes, mostly in characters’ apartments, offices, and an occasional rooftop. To sum it all up, after 70-minutes or so of material, I felt I was still waiting for something to actually happen.
I bring all this up not to criticize but to drive home my point about how difficult the webseries medium can be. I think NIGHTWING: ESCALATION is quite admirable in its ambitious scope and large cast of characters, all made with no-budget for the sake of a non-profit webseries. To spend four years telling this story certainly takes dedication, and I commend creator/writer/director Alex Valderana for sticking it out, as the production has jumped for shaky low-res footage to HD cinematography. I think that what both my colleague Greg and I want is for this show to really find its legs and stand up. It’s not quite there yet, but Season 2 is a sign of major growth and I would say it was the first time I began to understand the significance of prior plotlines. At long last, some payoff begins. SPOILERS BEGIN HERE! Season 2 immediately starts on the right foot by reintroducing Michael Lane as Glenn Calloway, a supporting character who appeared to have died back in Season 1. I actually had to go back and rewatch that episode just to remember his original significance, and suddenly his earlier scene with Strife takes on a much more tragic and poignant tone. Another payoff comes next with the Kulesa, Rotelli, and Courtney Collins plotlines coming together. Finally, the season ends with a long fight scene and surprise fate for Nightwing. This revelation is so big that it almost feels as if now the series has truly begun. What will happen? I see three possibilities: 1. Dick Grayson/Nightwing is not actually dead, and will be revived in a subsequent episode. I hope the series doesn’t pick that as it’s a bit of a cop-out. I’d hate the next episode to begin by revealing the entire last episode was Alfred having a dream, and he awakes to fin Dick alive, taking a shower. 2. Dick Grayson is in fact dead, and thus there is no more Nightwing. I’d feel a bit cheated for a show entitled NIGHTWING to not have any Nightwing in it, particularly when he has barely been a character thus far. For the show to continue without him, it really should alter its title. 3. Dick Grayson is dead, but someone else assumes the role of Nightwing. Here we go! This would probably be the most satisfying narrative path to take and would bring the story full circle, though I wonder who the new Nightwing would be. I really hope it’s not a new character as the show already has more characters than GAME OF THRONES. Assuming it’s someone from the existing cast, Glenn Calloway is a major contender, since the show seems to be building up to something about him, but we know far too little about him as a character, and the fact he was cheating on his fiancee makes us not fully sympathize with him. It could be Barbara Gordon, but she’s already found her own identity as Oracle. The only one left is Strife. Is he the new Nightwing? Check out the Wikipedia page for Nightwing, listing everyone who has ever assumed the role. SPOILERS END HERE!
Season 2 also delivers strong in the acting department. The three best performance in the entire series, which I would argue even deserve some awards among the fan community, are Katalena Mermelstein, Leer Leary, and Lindsey Zelli. Mermelstein really, truly touches me as Oracle. What a wonderful, fully-realized character, both sad and strong, tragic and humorous. Her relationship with Gordon (Leary is so good that he could swap roles with Gary Oldman any day of the week) feels very real. Their father/daughter dynamic is touching. In some ways she is still his baby and in other ways is more of an adult than he is. A scene in the latest episode where they speak to each other, he unaware of her identity, has some of the most human conflict in the entire saga, and her line “It may not seem like much, but I still believe in you” is very touching. Finally, Zelli grounds her character, Lindsey Drake, as the backbone to the whole drama. She is not a major player, but she has had her finger in different plotlines, as Strife’s girlfriend, as Calloway’s friend, as the officer on Kulesa’s case, etc. I suspect she will have a bigger role to play, but even if not, Drake feels like a very real and vulnerable character caught in a web that’s all around her.
Jon Caballero does well with the far-too-little the script gave him to do as Nightwing, and it is sad to think this may be the last we see of him. Michael Lane has something special as Calloway that makes me wonder who this secret hero is. If I were to list every single actor in the show, this article would go on forever, but special praise should also go to Zack Abramowitz, Joe Cummings, Dina Cataldi, Michelle Wilke, Phillipe Bernardin, Valderana himself, and all 2,468 of the other cast members on the show (actually, that’s probably a low estimate. I suspect Season 3 will introduce another 50). NIGHTWING: ESCALATION has finally “grown the beard.” It has more plot and character development than the vast majority of fan productions, and while it has taken a while to figure out what exactly it is about, it is growing into something with substance. I really hope Season 3 elevates the show to its full potential. And when the series wraps, I hope Valderana will consider turning his epic story into a novel. He certainly has enough characters and scope to fill out about ten volumes complete with 54 appendices. There is so much talent here, some of it in plain view, some of it buried under the scale of the production, but there IS something there. To NIGHTWING, I say what Oracle said to her father: “It may not seem like much, but I still believe in you.” Gabe Rodriguez is a writer, filmmaker, critic, and SAG-Eligible actor. He enjoys Apple Martinis, independent films, good books, and Caribbean & South American history. You may see some of his work here. He is always looking for new friends, so you can be his friend here.