There’s nothing like a kid on a bike befriending an otherworldly creature to conjure up the nostalgic magic of classic Amblin films like E.T. and Gremlins “Summer School: Chapter Three” puts Mike front and center for Stargirl’s goofiest, giddiest episode yet as the show finally pays off that long-teased Thunderbolt pen. The Jim Gaffigan-voiced genie brings a new level of PG-rated chaos to the show’s world. And while the Thunderbolt VFX aren’t exactly cinema quality, the sheer ambition of what Stargirl is trying to do in this episode goes a long way towards selling the effect. Plus it helps that—as in many an Amblin adventure—there’s a surprising amount of emotional heft to this sunny suburban story too.
Fittingly, this episode was directed by Lea Thompson, who knows a thing or two about the tone that “Chapter Three” is aiming for, having starred in the Amblin-produced Back To The Future trilogy. On the one hand, this episode is a goofy romp in which the Thunderbolt helps Mike best his bullies with stop signs and we learn that all JSA-missions now need to be mom-approved (a perfect, hilarious touch). But it’s also the story of a young boy who feels increasingly isolated from his friends and family now that he’s in on the secret of the JSA but not officially part of the team. “That’s on all of us,” Barbara notes when Pat tells her about what Mike has been struggling with. After all, Barbara knows a thing or two about the difficulties of being on the outside looking in—and so, too, does perpetual sidekick Pat.
A good chunk of “Chapter Three” is dedicated to introducing the Thunderbolt and explaining the way his partner-centric wish-granting powers work. Back in the original JSA, he was teamed up with mild-manner Johnny Thunder (Ethan Embry), who self-deprecatingly refers to himself as the “charity case” of the team. Johnny died alongside with the rest of the JSA during that 2010 Christmas battle and used his last wish to ensure the Thunderbolt would find a new friend. And since the Thunderbolt can only partner up with people who share his feeling of being “completely and utterly alone,” he reactivates for Mike as soon as he gets the tween to say the magic word “so cool” (or “cei-u” in his native language).
Like most of fiction’s most famous genies, Thunderbolt has a few provisos and a couple of quid pro quos: He can’t kill someone or bring anyone back from the dead (although apparently he tried it once), and he won’t let people wish for the same thing twice. Plus he’ll interpret wishes in whatever way he sees fit, even if it’s clearly not what the wisher intended. It’s familiar stuff, but if there’s one thing Stargirl knows how to do, it’s subvert genre tropes. So after deciding to use Thunderbolt’s abilities to locate Shade, the JSA spend a whole Peter Gabriel-scored montage writing out the perfect, foolproof wish.
It’s a great “that’s what I would do!” solution that lets Stargirl’s characters be as genre savvy as its audience, which is a refreshing choice. Elsewhere, “Chapter Three” introduces some unexpected new wrinkles into the Shade storyline too. While this episode confirms that Richard Swift is in Blue Valley to try to collect the Eclipso diamond, he might not actually be as nefarious as he seems. When the JSA show up to try to restrain and imprison him, the Shade meets them with a polite counteroffer: So long as the JSA stay out of his way, he’s happy to stay out of theirs. He promises he has no dark designs on Blue Valley—in fact he loathed Jordan Mahkent’s whole Project New America—but he refuses to reveal what his larger mission actually is either.
Jonathan Cake is proving to be a fantastic addition to the season. His take on Richard Swift toes the line between charming and terrifying in a different way than Neil Jackson’s Jordan did last year. Richard presents much more coldly than Jordan did, what with his refined, semi-condescending British attitude. (The Shade doesn’t age and has apparently been around since at least the 1800s.) But in the end, his aims might be far less villainous. In fact, he seems downright concerned in that final scene on the clocktower, where he ominously observes of Eclipso, “He’s going to kill those children.”
Across the board, the script by new season two writers Turi Meyer & Alfredo Septien is bursting with fantastic character moments, from Courtney getting her history teacher’s Aztec question right because she actually did the reading to Yolanda reaching out to Mike as someone else who killed an ISA member. (Mike reveals that shattering Icicle was much more of an accident than Yolanda killing Brainwave.) And the episode gets into some great sibling dynamics for Courtney and Mike too. While Pat and Barbara are understandably concerned about Mike becoming a superhero, Courtney stands up for her brother’s right to join the JSA—and to have space to make the same kind of mistakes that she did when she was first starting out. It’s a wonderful moment of big sister solidarity, and a much more interesting character dynamic than if Courtney were territorial or judgmental.
In the end, though, it’s Mike who realizes he isn’t quite ready to be a hero yet, at least not with a genie by his side. He winds up (semi-unintentionally) wishing the Thunderbolt onto “better hands,” which leads the impish pen to Mike’s much-discussed but hitherto unseen friend Jakeem (Alkoya Brunson), another young boy who’s struggling with feelings of isolation. Between Jennie’s introduction last week and the Thunderbolt’s debut this week, Stargirl’s second season is wasting no time expanding its world and dramatically ramping up its heroes’ power levels. (Johnny Thunder points out that in the right hands, Thunderbolt has the potential to be more powerful than Green Lantern, Flash, and the rest of the JSA combined.) But even as Stargirl’s stakes get higher, the show smartly keeps its focus on the family and friend dynamics that have always been the greatest strength of the series.
That’s a solid foundation for wherever the season goes from here. While last week’s episode couldn’t quite blend Stargirl’s episodic aims with the show’s serialized storytelling, “Chapter Three” strikes a much better balance. The main focus is on this particular adventure and what it means for Mike and his family. But there are a ton of intriguing teases for the rest of the season too—from Shade’s mysterious motivations to Jakeem’s future involvement with the JSA to the insecurities that Cindy might exploit in Mike in hopes of recruiting him to her team. With its confident balance of tones and storylines, “Chapter Three” is, indeed, so cool.
- The scene with Rick reaching out to Beth was fantastic (“pretend I’m Chuck”) and further proof that I was absolutely right to start shipping those two last season. I love a bad boy/nerdy girl combo!
- I was hoping this season might introduce a redesign of Yolanda’s weirdly puffy Wildcat face mask, but, alas, no such luck yet.
- Speaking of Wildcat, we also get to see Ted Grant in the opening flashback.
- Was Mike saying “My man!” a Jason Momoa reference?
- Lots of great Pat stuff this week, but I particularly enjoyed his adamant need to clarify to the Shade that he got a car year wrong on purpose, not because he actually didn’t know.
- “What does that even mean?” “I don’t know, I’m amped!”