Viewers of the CW’s Arrowverse may be a bit blue this week, after the COVID-19 pandemic forced production on Supergirl, The Flash, and Batwoman to end early depriving them of several more weeks of episodes and a true conclusion to their seasons’ arcs. Fear not superfans! The CW, in partnership with DCUniverse (the digital streaming service of DC original content), has you covered with a brand new superhero show to help tide you over during what could be a very long hiatus.
Last week, both networks debuted the premiere episode of Stargirl, created by Greg Berlanti and Geoff Johns for DCUniverse and based off of the comic of the same name created by Johns. The comic and the series follow Courtney Whitmore (Brec Bassinger, All Night), a character Johns based off his own sister who died tragically in the TWA Flight 800 Crash in 1996, as she balances life as a teen superhero in her new home of Nebraska.
The series kicks off with a bang as Pat Dugan (Luke Wilson, Legally Blonde) rushes into a mansion in Los Angeles, California, to try to help the Justice Society of America as they are slaughtered by a group of evildoers, led by Brainwave (Christopher James Baker, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.). The action immediately impresses, with f/x work and cinematography that feels far more cinematic than the typical CW fare, and violence, while not exactly as brutal as Marvel’s Daredevil, is far more impactful than you might expect from a show about a teen hero. Before we can catch our breath, most of the JSA has been killed on screen, while Starman (Joel McHale, Community) seems poised to save the day before being impaled through the torso.
Poor Pat, who we later come to understand was the JSA’s very non-super powered sidekick, is powerless to watch as his trusted friend helps him escape the carnage. The sequence ends with Starman giving a truly memorable deathbed monologue where he thanks his friend for his loyalty and urges him to help ensure the JSA and the Starman mantle live on, just without Pat taking it on himself. McHale plays this scene with a mixture of Captain America wholesomeness and Jeff Winger snark that suggests a more interesting tone than we see for the rest of the episode.
With that, we flash 10 years into the future where a teenaged Courtney, who has been pining over her father since he vanished the same Christmas night that the JSA were killed, and is struggling with her present circumstances. We quickly learn that her mother, Barbara (Amy Smart, Road Trip), has recently married a blandly middle-aged Pat and they all are packing up to leave their Los Angeles home to return to Barbara’s hometown of Blue Valley, Nebraska, at Pat’s urging.
Courtney is having the typical teen angsty feelings one might expect given the circumstance, and her frustrations are not helped by the straight-off-the-set-of-a-Disney-sitcom antics of her new step brother Mike (Trae Romano, Robbie). In this opening vignette, it becomes clear that Courtney has some misplaced anger at her missing father which she takes out on Pat, but their home life is otherwise pleasant enough, as she appears to have a very loving relationship with her mother and possesses a good, if wounded heart.
Life in Nebraska is pretty different for Courtney, who quickly feels frustrated by the retrograde jock/cheerleader culture of her high school and its lack of a gymnastics team. Unable to immediately make new friends, she snaps at her dopey stepdad’s suggestion for a night out before ending up in the basement where she discovers that dopey stepdad has a lot more to him than she realized. As she half-accidentally rummages through some boxes downstairs, she finds a picture of the defunct JSA signed to Pat. Before she has time to really contemplate this revelation, she makes a far more shocking discovery: Starman’s Cosmic Staff.
The staff activates at her touch and quickly displays unexpected characteristics. She plays around with it like the world’s most magical high bars set before it suddenly takes flight, forcing her to tag along. From this point on, the Cosmic Staff begins to operate more like Aladdin’s magic carpet or Doctor Strange’s magical cape. It seeks out injustice and helps Courtney vanquish it, choreographing her fight sequences and launching energy blasts in self defense all with a whimsical anthropomorphic quality that suggests it may be a sentient being. In Blue Valley, Nebraska, however, “vanquishing injustice” means disrupting some bullies as they harass their fellow teens at a local drive-in. The Cosmic Staff takes its duties a bit too far, torching the jocks’ car before fleeing the scene with Courtney.
Interestingly, Stargirl makes the choice for Pat to find out that Courtney has uncovered his superhero adjacent past immediately after she returns home, instead of letting that thread play out over a few episodes like you might expect. They have a chat where Courtney isn’t fully ready to let her guard down, given she feels like Pat keeping this past from her mother all these years is its own kind of betrayal. Pat is so afraid of Courtney using the Cosmic Staff that he doesn’t exactly handle the confrontation as well as he could have.
They reconcile almost immediately, however, and Courtney agrees to keep the past to herself and not touch the Cosmic Staff again, apologizing for being so hard on Pat. The relationship dynamics here feel especially rushed, like the show wanted to get past this stage of their relationship in order to establish a new status quo to such a degree that they didn’t worry if it made emotional sense. However, it’s a small gripe given that Courtney quickly goes back on her word, at the Staff’s urging, and sneaks out to train.
The training sequence is a typical “superhero discovers their new powers” scene, but Bassinger plays the enthusiasm, joy, and determination of Courtney trying to master this magical new challenge so effectively that it’s easy to forgive the show indulging in this origin story trope. One gets the sense that this is the first time in a long time Courtney has felt stimulated and engaged, both physically and intellectually, in a moment that truly allows her to get outside her head and away from her troubles.
The sequence is cut short when one of the bullies’ fathers shows up to teach Courtney a lesson about using super powers without a license. It turns out, said father is Brainwave! That’s right, the man who killed the JSA just happens to live in Blue Valley, Nebraska, and is the father of the main jock who has been causing problems for Courtney all episode.
A fight ensues between Brainwave and Courtney in a mechanic garage during which Courtney is truly terrified but, eventually, holds her own. Again, the fight choreography, f/x, and cinematography is elevated from what you might expect from TV superheroics, and Bassinger shows how she won the role of Earth-2’s newly minted teen defender. The episode ends with Courtney barely getting away before being confronted by a giant patriotic robot … piloted by a very upset stepdad who believed Courtney when she promised she wouldn’t touch the Cosmic Staff again.
For a series premiere, Stargirl packs quite a bit into just 45 minutes. Furthermore, if you are watching it on the CW or their free app, you may notice how awkwardly the commercial breaks have been placed, breaking up fight sequences several times (likely a byproduct of the series streaming origins). Despite this, the series has an impressively cinematic look and feel and a winning star in Brec Bassinger around whom one could effectively build a world.
The tone seems torn somewhere between dark and gritty and buoyantly optimistic, ending up halfway between early Arrow and early The Flash, and Luke Wilson is maybe a bit too lackadaisical in the role of Pat Dugan for my taste. It also has a villain problem, with Baker’s Brainwave working about as well as his chronicon bounty hunter villain last season on Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D (which is to say, not very well). However, the series overall really exceeded my expectations and I look forward to seeing what comes next. If you are looking for a super-show to fill the void the Arrowverse has left, you could do much worse.
New episodes of Stargirl premiere Mondays on DCUniverse and Tuesdays at 8 pm ET on the CW, and Wednesday on the CW’s ad-supported, subscription-free app.