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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Despite its sunny hero, Stargirl goes to some dark places

Illustration for article titled Despite its sunny hero, Stargirl goes to some dark places
Photo: Quantrell Colbert (The CW)

The CW continues to expand its superhero universe, now adding DC’s Stargirl to the lineup. Although the Justice Society Of America-associated character has appeared in other CW like Smallville and DC’s Legends Of Tomorrow, Brec Bassinger (who showed up briefly as Stargirl in “Crisis on Infinite Earths: Part Five”) now plays the young titular hero in her own series. Courtney Whitmore (Bassinger) discovers after her family’s move from California to Blue Valley, Nebraska, that her new stepfather Pat (Luke Wilson) is the unfortunately named Stripesy, former sidekick of Starman, a hero who died along with the rest of the JSA 10 years prior, defeated by the Injustice Society Of America.


That tragic backstory is explained in the pilot’s well-crafted opener, introducing an array of heroes and villains as the JSA and ISA have their final showdown (with impressive special effects that already outshine some veteran CW superhero shows). Joel McHale shows up as Starman, just long enough to die in Stripesy’s arms, reassuring Pat, hilariously, that he should not be the one to pick up the Starman mantle.

That mantle is instead picked up by Bassinger’s Courtney, who finds Starman’s cosmic staff in the basement after the family’s move to Nebraska. Technically, the staff calls out to Courtney, causing her to theorize that her dad was Starman, which would explain his disappearance after that night so many years ago.

The discovery of the staff adds a level of bonding between Courtney and Pat, the stepfather she has been unenthusiastic about until now, even though he obviously makes her mom (Amy Smart, underused here) happy. Luke Wilson is perfect for the slightly bumbling, ultimately protective dad role, his aw-shucks charm belying steadfast integrity. The death of Starman has caused Pat to create a new character of his own, and the chemistry between Stargirl and the newly rechristened S.T.R.I.P.E. is an early highpoint of the series.

Unfortunately, by the third episode, that pairing gets shoved to the side in favor of Courtney’s efforts to rebuild the JSA in order to defeat the Injustice Society, after that insidious group’s leader, Iceman (Neil Jackson), pulls off an act so treacherous, it shifts the whole series into an entirely darker setting. While genuinely disturbing, the episode raises the stakes, as the Injustice Society proves to be an diabolical evil force that places all of Blue Valley in danger. Courtney, faced with few options, decides to recruit various similarly inexperienced classmates to replace JSA heroes like Wildcat, Hourman, and Dr. Mid-nite. Obviously, they’re outmatched, but as the principal of Blue Valley High explains at open house night, placing importance on history and legacy involves “passing our traditions on to the next generation to improve in their own way.”

While she’s talking about academics, it’s an appropriate methodology for this new incarnation of the classic JSA team. And fans of the old comics (or even Watchmen) will be thrilled by the sight of artifacts like the original Green Lantern’s lantern or Dr. Mid-nite’s owl. The somewhat retro setting of modern-day Blue Valley—complete with Pat’s vintage car and a radio station that apparently only plays doo-wop music—helps imbue the series with a throwback feel ideal for a series dealing with the classic JSA, who are considered the very first superhero team. Be on the look out for Easter eggs like the logo of the moving truck that moves Courtney’s family to Nebraska: Action Movers, in the same font as the comic where Superman makes his first appearance.

Keeping with the series’ unexpected dark tinge, the backstories of Courtney’s new friends make her own home life see like a dream sequence. Former star student Yolanda (Yvette Monreal) has been ostracized after some revealing pictures of her were sent to the whole school. Beth’s (Anjelika Washington) best friends are her obviously frustrated parents, while Rick (Cameron Gellman) is an orphan who has to live with his abusive uncle. Like the tragic twist in episode three, these backstories are grimmer than the sunny persona of Stargirl would indicate, but they add depth to the series as well as a sense of urgency: Why else would these kids be so willing to put their lives on the line, unless they were desperate? Plus, the occasional surliness of some of these characters helps balance out the indefatigable pluckiness of Stargirl, who could run the risk of being almost too cheery otherwise.


The recruitment of kids is vital because with the Injustice Society holed up in Blue Valley, almost every authority figure is suspect: doctors, teachers, and especially the execs at the suspicious-sounding American Dream (Courtney’s mom’s employer), the corporation aiming to revitalize the town. Even after five episodes, the new JSA still seems far removed from being able to take on these experienced supervillains. The potential for fun in the series’ future episodes likely lies in viewing their determined efforts to try, watching valuable JSA artifacts like Dr. Mid-nite’s goggles and Hourman’s hourglass come to life, and finding out if the original Flash and Green Lantern will play a part in Stargirl’s new vision for the JSA. Most of all, though, we have to hope that Pat takes a bigger role in mentoring these young heroes: He’s way too effective and enjoyable a character to be stuck on the sidelines for long.

Gwen Ihnat is the Editorial Coordinator for The A.V. Club.