Centered on a high school gymnast with potentially star-powered lineage, Stargirl is the latest DC Comics show to hit The CW. Younger and more cinematic than its Arrowverse counterparts — and happening on a parallel Earth to boot — Stargirl feels more in line with the Shazam film than Batwoman or The Flash. While the pilot episode isn’t quite the hook the show needs, the prospect of a reimagined JSA in future episodes is an exciting one.
Glen Winter (director), Chris Manley (cinematographer), Andi Armaganian (editor), Geoff Johns (writer)
Brec Bassinger, Luke Wilson, Amy Smart, Trae Romano, Joel McHale (cast)
Based on Stargirl by Geoff Johns and Lee Moder
May 18, 2020 (DC Universe)/May 19, 2020 (The CW)
Though The CW has been home to DC Comics legacy characters for a while now, the teen-centric network has yet to feature an Arrowverse show that’s all about, well, teens. Kara Danvers and Barry Allen juggled internships with secret super-heroics in their early seasons, but that’s still far removed from being a kid dealing with school bullies and supervillains. That’s what makes Supergirl so unique; she’s not worried about hiding her identity from her boss, or getting revenge on an old nemesis. She doesn’t even have a driver’s license.
At the center of Stargirl is Courtney Whitmore (Brec Bassinger), a 16-year-old who’s shuttled from Los Angeles to the painfully small town of Blue Valley, Nebraska alongside her mom (Amy Smart), stepdad Pat (Luke Wilson), and stepbrother Mike (Trae Romano). It’s an understandably unwanted move for Courtney. The high school lacks gymnastics, the one activity Courtney cared about, and the kids are stereotypically mean and cliquey. A brief attempt to talk to the other kids at the “losers” table — Yolanda (Yvette Monreal), Beth (Anjelika Washington), and Rick (Cameron Gellman) — goes absolutely nowhere. Worse, at home Mike is annoying and Pat is a giant bore, a far cry from Courtney’s father who seemingly walked out on her ten years ago.
Finding the cosmic staff amongst Pat’s things provides an immediate escape for Courtney. Starman’s old weapon thrums with life in Courtney’s hands. The staff acts similar to MCU Doctor Strange’s cape; while Courtney can wield it and practice her flips and leaps while suspended mid-air, the staff also has a mischievous mind of its own, picking fights with bullies when Courtney herself would’ve exercised caution. Why Starman’s staff only speaks to Courtney is an unexplained mystery, but a grainy photo of Courtney’s father may already give us the answer.
According to Geoff Johns, Stargirl utilizes a technique called previsualization, which renders effects-heavy scenes for film blockbusters. This is why Stargirl looks more cinematic despite Courtney not having boundary-breaking powers like Barry or Kara. It’s maybe a little hard to notice the importance of previsualization in the pilot episode. A magical staff honestly isn’t very visually exciting to watch, and there’s limits to a TV budget. The opening scenes of the premiere hint at how dynamic Stargirl‘s fights can come though, as friends and foes zip in and out of the camera in a brutal mansion brawl.
The innate corniness of seeing Stargirl whip around an animated staff is probably never going away, but the trailer hints that the introduction of a new JSA team will help balance the focus. Stargirl‘s fight scenes also avoid the painfully stilted blocking seen in Marvel’s Runaways, a similarly teen-centric show that also featured a young girl with a staff. The battles here feel like there’s an actual weight to them, no doubt thanks to stunt coordinator and second-unit director Walter Garcia, who also worked on Captain Marvel. Stargirl understands that if you have a character whose powers come from an object, you can’t simply have them planted right in front of the enemy the whole battle, as Runaways unfortunately did time and time again to its own detriment. Here, the cosmic staff zooms and wiggles and drags Courtney all over the field, like a cursed Harry Potter broom.
The episode sags a bit in the middle, and I wonder if more time could’ve been spent on introducing Yolanda, Beth, and Rick, the eventual JSA members according to interviews. Instead the Courtney and Pat relationship is the focus of the pilot episode, which is fair I suppose, considering that’s the core of the Stars and S.T.R.I.P.E comics. The dialogue between them is just a bit clunky, though Bassinger and Wilson elevate the material together. A plucky daughter learning to work with a dorky, cautious stepfather doesn’t feel like the intriguing plotline the show needs to hook the YA demographic, but the relationship is an earnest one that will likely gain significance across the episodes.
Despite the pilot beginning in tragedy, the overall tone of the show is much more youthful and optimistic than the recently debuted Batwoman and recently ended Arrow. The episode begins on a humorous exchange between Wilson and Joel McHale as Starman, and digs at the source material are peppered throughout. (Pat’s alter ego name, Stripesy, is a terrible name, Courtney points out.) Stargirl is almost reminiscent of 1980s films like Back to the Future and The Goonies, and it channels ’90s and early ’00s music like Hanson’s “MMMbop” and The Naked and Famous’ “Young Blood.”
Stargirl essentially feels both retro and modern, and despite all the corniness, it’s ultimately a bright light in an increasingly serious and adult Arrowverse. Though the uneven pilot is a slow start for the character, the eventual introduction of the new JSA can maybe, just maybe, fill the YA superhero gap that Runaways left behind.