Stargirl Season 1 Episode 1 “Pilot”
Director: Glen Winter
Starring: Brec Bassinger, Yvette Monreal, Anjelika Washington, Cameron Gellman, Trae Romano, Jake Austin Walker, Christopher James Baker, Amy Smart, Luke Wilson, Joel McHale
Runtime: 45 minutes
It’s kind of surprising the CW hasn’t debuted a teenage superhero before. The network has always targeted the adolescent demographic more than any other and in the last decade it has become a mecca for DC Comics adaptations. And some of the most popular superheroes from both DC and Marvel Comics are young people who have had to come of age with the added difficulties that come with superpowers (Spider-Man, in his early years, being the prime example). And yet The CW has gone on without a youthful crime-fighting headliner, until now. Stargirl, produced for the DC Universe streaming service, where new episodes will also air on Mondays, a day prior to their broadcast premieres on The CW, fills that empty niche slot, finally giving DC TV its Peter Parker in the form of the titular heroine, also known as Courtney Whitmore, played in a star-making turn (pun intended) by Brec Bassinger.
Stargirl was created by DC Comics guru Geoff Johns who also serves as executive producer and showrunner for the first season. Johns also created Courtney’s comic book equivalent in the pages of Stars and S.T.R.I.P.E., his first comic at DC, and based her appearance and personality on his own late sister, also named Courtney, who was tragically killed in the TWA Flight 800 disaster. Because of this personal connection Johns’ work with the character has always been some of his most passionate and carefully constructed and based on the pilot the television series is no exception. It’s clear Stargirl was a labor of love from everyone involved and the result is a warm, optimistic treat that the whole family can enjoy.
Throughout the pilot, Johns shows an admirable willingness to change the elements of Courtney’s story that must be altered to cater to television storytelling but ultimately it’s the series’ wholehearted embrace of the fun of superheroes, which it depicts in a lighthearted, unironic manner, that makes it such a blast. As in the comics, Courtney’s story is closely tied to the Justice Society of America, comics’ first major superhero group, with whom Johns is also intimately familiar. Just as in the comics Courtney steps onto the path towards heroism after discovering that her step-father Pat Dugan (a perfectly cast Luke Wilson) used to operate as the superhero Stripesey, sidekick to Sylvester Pemberton (Joel McHale), who here graduated from his original role as the Star-Spangled Kid to Starman. Ten years prior, along with the rest of the Justice Society, Sylvester died during a dramatic final battle with their villainous counterparts the Injustice Society of America. Before he died, Pemberton gave Pat the Cosmic Staff, his trademark magical weapon, and instructed him to pass it on to someone “with grace and heroism” who can take up his heroic mantle (as Pemberton insists, this is not Pat). When Courtney discovers the staff, which has its own mischievous personality, she quickly forms a bond with it and despite his concern for her safety Pat can’t deny the fact that the fact the staff works for her is significant. By episode’s end the two have come to a loosely-defined agreement, acknowledging that Courtney is in the superhero world whether they like it (as Courtney does) or not (Pat’s stance).
While strong throughout, the episode definitely peaks early with the opening flashback to the JSA vs ISA battle. As Pat drives up to an unidentified mansion (against Sylvester’s orders) Golden Age heroes including Doctor Mid-Nite (Henry Thomas), Wildcat (Brian Stapf), and Hourman (Lou Ferigno Jr.) war with ISA members Icicle, Brainwave, Sportsmaster, Tigress, The Wizard, and the gargantuan Solomon Grundy. It’s assumed that DC Universe series have higher budgets than their CW-produced cousins but Stargirl‘s is put to the most obvious and impressive use, with the show’s visual elements standing well above those of the rest of the DC TV library. Sharper image quality and a more vibrant color palette are on display throughout the episode and the opening action scene is impressive in scale and in the quality of its visual effects. Stargirl doesn’t shy away from CGI-heavy characters (like Grundy) or sequences (like Pat’s retro car transforming into a hovercraft as he tries to extract Starman) and the array of colorful abilities clashing in the JSA vs ISA battle is striking. The opening is also a treasure trove of Easter Eggs for DC fans, with allusions to the existence of multiple other famous JSA members in addition to those plainly seen. The house in which the fight takes place is littered with green flame which fans will know is the doing of Green Lantern Alan Scott and the famous, bowl-shaped helmet belonging to the Jay Garrick version of The Flash is briefly shown on the floor. The opening is definitely the big attention-grabbing sequence but there is also impressive spectacle throughout the rest of the episode. Courtney rather conveniently is a gymnast who has also practiced martial arts, both of which are skill sets that lend themselves well to the kind of maneuvers made possible by the Cosmic Staff and this sets the series up to feature some unique and fun choreography. Despite her lack of experience with the Staff’s power the two brief action scenes she gets involved in are very entertaining.
The coming of age elements of the show is less refined so far. Like the Stars and S.T.R.I.P.E. comics the series begins with the rather cliché premise of Courtney having to leave a charmed life (in California) when her family moves to the quiet town of Blue Valley, Nebraska. From there the pilot continues to hit most of the familiar beats one expects from a high school-set story from Courtney’s telling first encounter with mean girl Cindy Burman (Meg DeLacy) to her having to sit at the losers table at lunch, where she meets future JSA teammates Beth Chapel (Anjelika Washington), Yolanda Montez (Yvette Monreal), and Rick Tyler (Cameron Gellman) before getting into a fight with school bully Henry King Jr. (Jake Austin Walker). I understand this episode has a lot to do so I’m giving the show a pass on this for now but given how the coming of age themes are important to the show’s appeal it needs to work on addressing them in more nuanced and creative manners going forward so that the teenage issues are as engaging as the Courtney/Pat partnership and the superhero mythology.
After coasting through the school scenes on a kind of bland autopilot the premiere picks back up once Courtney discovers the staff. After a brief argument/explanation from Pat she takes it out for a joy ride, putting on a makeshift disguise and slicing Henry’s tires, which leads to her, or really the staff, getting into a fight with him and his friends before the staff blows up Henry’s car and Courtney gets away. Upon hearing of his son’s strange encounter Henry Sr. (Christopher James Baker), who is really Brainwave in his civilian guise, is concerned that Starman has returned and contacts Icicle, also known as Jordan Mahkent (Neil Jackson), who assures him that he killed the hero, which only makes Brainwave concerned that someone new has taken on the hero’s mantle. He hunts Courtney down and attacks her. She narrowly escapes thanks to the staff but then finds herself face to face with Pat in the S.T.R.I.P.E. armor, a robotic battle-suit of his own design. One of the fans’ big questions, since a Stargirl series was announced, was would it be able to include the S.T.R.I.P.E. suit so ending the episode with its debut is a perfect choice, underlining the series’ admirable ambition to stay faithful to even the most outlandish elements of the comics, even if the amount of screen time the armor can receive is probably limited.
Acting-wise, the premiere is pretty much a two-person show, which is the right choice as it gives both Bassinger and Wilson the time necessary to settle into their roles individually and to establish a strong rapport, both of which they accomplish splendidly. Bassinger was born to play Courtney Whitmore. She manages to keep the character sympathetic and likable even in the more angsty moments and is downright captivating in the more joyous scenes when Courtney discovers and toys with her connection to the staff. Wilson is an inspired choice for Pat, bringing a somewhat goofy, classically “Dad” charm to the role. Pat’s clearly going to have a lot on his plate going forward as he simultaneously mentors Courtney in superheroics while also trying to develop a more genuine bond with her and undertaking whatever mysterious mission drew him to Blue Valley in the first place. Most of the rest of the cast has yet to be given the chance to make strong impressions as their characters are mostly presented as archetypes (either of the superhero or coming of age genres) but they all seem to have potential to give more nuanced performances if the material allows them to. Amy Smart is the lone standout in the supporting cast so far as Courtney’s mom Barbara, especially in dialogue with Courtney about her missing father, in which Smart shows a considerable dramatic range.
Like any new show Stargirl has a few considerable kinks to iron out. But overall it’s an impressive optimistic treat for the whole family, the perfect show to help get through these dark times.
- Some of the DC Universe versions of episodes are going to be a bit longer as they are not constrained by network time limits. That was the version of the pilot I watched so if I reference scenes you don’t recognize from the broadcast version, that’s why.
- Despite neither being household names both Courtney and the JSA actually have appeared on TV before in Smallville and Legends of Tomorrow. Both of those depictions were serviceable but it’s nice to have the characters finally explored in more depth.
- Courtney and Pat briefly consider the possibility that Sylvester may have been Courtney’s father (despite the latter going by a different name) because the JSA died on Christmas Eve the same year Courtney was expecting her dad to visit her when he was a no-show and never heard from again. But Courtney at least seems to dismiss the idea after the aforementioned talk with Barbara, who explains how careless her father really was.
- The episode’s one big tonal mistake is having Sylvester constantly break from his dramatic death speech to remind Pat that he’s not the one to take up the Starman mantle. It’s pretty clearly a choice meant to play to Joel McHale’s comedic strengths but it robs the scene of a lot of pathos and actually makes the Sylvester character less likable.
- I’m not sure if I’m supposed to be amused or annoyed by Courtney’s step-brother Mike (Trae Romano) and I don’t think the show really knows yet either. I do appreciate that there’s not much animosity between the step-siblings (at least not yet). That’s one coming of age cliché the pilot avoids at least.
- In addition to Brainwave and Icicle’s, Sportsmaster and Tigress’ alter egos are also briefly introduced in the present-day scenes though I won’t say who they are for those unfamiliar with the comics who don’t want to be spoiled.
- There’s likely disappointment among some of the fans who had been following the series’ production that Walker is playing Henry King Jr. as it was speculated he may have been cast as Wally West, the fan-favorite third Flash.
- In addition to the aforementioned JSA members the body of Wesley Dodds/The Sandman can be seen during the opening battle.
Stargirl Season 1 Episode 1
Boasting impressive visuals and lead performances Stargirl stands out in a crowded superhero TV landscape thanks to its optimism, coming of age themes, and depiction of the Justice Society of America.