Sunday 14 February 2021

Stargirl shines bright in dark times

Last summer, I discovered DC's Stargirl, streaming exclusively on Amazon Prime (affiliate link) in the UK, and became enthralled by a superhero series that harkened back to director Richard Donner's Superman: The Movie.

I'd fallen out of love with DCTV due to becoming overwhelmed by all The CW spin-offs. However, Stargirl's production values mirrored those of HBO's Game of Thrones and His Dark Materials. The cinematography was worthy of the big screen.

Over the holiday season, I pestered, I mean enthusiastically encouraged Nick Smith to find out if it was just wishful thinking (on my part) during a global pandemic or did we have a superhero Scooby Gang for troubled times? Having cleaned himself up after Swamp Thing...

Guest post by Nick Smith

Judging by its first episode, Stargirl is a cute family show aimed at mid-teen girls and Disney channel devotees. For the second episode on, though, it gets dark and surprising and, at times, wonderful.

Courtney Whitmore (Brec Bassinger) becomes a newbie at Blue Valley High School when her mom Barbara (Amy Smart) and stepdad Pat (Luke Wilson) move to a small Nebraskan town. When she discovers a staff with cosmic powers in the basement, Pat admits to her that he used to be Starman’s sidekick Stripesy. Courtney is inspired to become Stargirl, a high-flying superhero who is aided by Pat, leading to some heart-warming father-daughter moments.

Unfortunately, the little town is a hotbed of villainy. Disguised as respectable citizens and sensible parents, the Injustice Society of America wants to make the country great again. Stargirl needs help to stop them, so she enlists the help of misfit school friends to rebuild the Justice League. Her parents are justifiably concerned, especially when she gets the stuffing knocked out of her by the daughter of one of the bad guys. To complicate matters, Barbara could be working for the ISA’s head psychopath too. Did I mention that Solomon Grundy’s locked up in a cell, ready to clobber the kids?

Stargirl feels like a Shazam-style movie, taking the 1940s style and all-American values of the original JSA and transplanting them into the modern day. In this alternate version of DC lore, the Justice Society was destroyed by its evil counterpart 10 years ago; anachronistic names like The Star-Spangled Kid fit with the ‘parents are quaint’ mentality of this show’s primary target audience.

Geoff Johns, who created Courtney and this show, co-developed The Flash and Titans and has been involved in the Arrowverse for years. Stars and S.T.R.I.P.E., which set up Courtney’s character, was the first DC comic he wrote for back in 1999, so he must be pleased as punch to see a televised version.

In the 22-year interim, TV and comics have popularized the trope of villainous parents (Heroes, Runaways). But there are enough twists in Stargirl to keep the series interesting. Johns packs in a multitude of characters and challenges, building an arc plot worthy of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Two of Stargirl’s friends hit the books like Buffy’s Scooby Gang; Courtney has to navigate the pitfalls of high school friendships and keeping secrets from her mom. Pat is the Rupert Giles-type mentor, training the team, knowledgeable about the past. If not Giles, then Pat is like a DC Forrest Gump, goofy and long-suffering, playing gooseberry to the Seven Soldiers of Victory and chauffeur to the JSA. As Pat, Luke Wilson adds Hollywood charm and confidence to the production, which focuses on newcomers like the sprightly Brec Bassinger (Stargirl).

All of the cast are entertaining; standouts include Anjelika Washington as Beth, who revels in playing a nerd, and Cameron Gellman who makes his sulky James Dean-type character of Rick Tyler likeable. The themes explored - bullying, forgiveness, believing in yourself, relationships with siblings, broken families - all have consequences and have satisfying resolutions.

Stargirl plays like a 13-hour feel-good movie with lots of death and destruction and just enough hints dropped for a second season, scrambled up with Easter Eggs like movie posters for Prez and The Unknown Soldier.

With little references like those and a long-earned understanding of what makes entertaining television, Geoff Johns has taken Stargirl’s simple premise and created a love letter to the comics of his youth that works as an adventure for all ages.

Have you watched Stargirl and are you looking forward to the second season? Let me know in the comments below.

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