Looking around the live-action DC landscape, you can find something for just about everyone. The Arrowverse is sexy young-adult drama with comic-book flair. The Snyderverse is a dark and gritty place full of buff dudes. Doom Patrol borders on art film at times. Aquaman and Wonder Woman are the very definition of PG-13 superhero flicks. Stargirl, the latest live-action show from DC Universe and the CW, hews closer to the tone of Shazam. It’s a weird fit for the CW and for DC Universe alike; a mishmash of tones, settings, and ideas that make it hard to pin down through the three episodes we were given early access to.
Stargirl introduces us to Courtney Whitmore (Brec Bassinger). Courtney’s newly-married mom Barbara (Amy Smart) and stepdad Pat (Luke Wilson) have lifted her from her California home to move to Blue Valley, Nebraska. 10 years (and a few minutes) earlier, though, we land smack dab in the middle of a battle between the Justice Society of America, led by Starman (Joel McHale) as they battle the Injustice Society. Starman’s sidekick, Pat “Stripesy” Dugan manages to haul him out before the Injustice Society can kill him, but he succumbs to injuries soon after and joins his compatriots in death. Before he dies, though, Starman entrusts his cosmic staff to Dugan, asking him to find someone–other than Dugan himself–to wield the staff.
10 years later, Courtney finds the staff in the basement of their new family home. After taking it out for a joyride, we’re off to the races.
What year is it?
The setting is the first part of Stargirl that stands out as weird to me. The show is most definitely set modern-day, but it’s the same sort of weird modern-day setting that Riverdale uses, where 2020 takes place about 10 years after 1950. Her stepdad drives a Chevy convertible in truly mint condition. The members of the Justice Society dressed like silver-age heroes in what would’ve been 2010 for Courtney. But then Courtney has a smartphone and her brother is playing Fortnite on a Nintendo Switch.
The locale is weird, too. It has the classic television problem of wanting to call itself a small town but be as interesting as a big city. They’re ostensibly in this town where everybody knows each other and says ‘Howdy y’all’ every two seconds. But when Courtney walks into her very large high school, she crashes into a sea of students. I can’t help but think of the way Twin Peaks producers added a “1” to the city’s population sign to multiply its fictional population by 10, or the way that Community‘s outdoor sets always looked distinctly like its Californian filming location and not like its Colorado setting.
Amblin by way of the CW
The variety of tones the show takes throughout makes it hard to nail down, too. The overarching tone of the show, established primarily through Courtney’s scenes with her stepdad, is unquestionably a tribute to Stephen Spielberg’s Amblin movies like E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial. It’s Courtney’s Cosmic Staff that really drives this home. The staff is a character in its own right. It doesn’t speak, but it moves with purpose and will. It tugs Courtney toward things it cares about and even pulls her out of her second-story window for a magical night-time joyride.
Pat Dugan isn’t Luke Wilson’s best, though. While he is meant to be Starman’s ex-sidekick and a mentor for Courtney, he’s mostly relegated to hemming and hawing throughout the first three episodes. Wilson and Smart are bigger stars than we generally see on CW shows, but neither is as fully utilized as they could be.
The villains, meanwhile, feel more like Arrowverse villains. They wear leather costumes that aren’t nearly as eye-catching as Courtney’s Stargirl uniform nor those of the JSA members we see briefly during the show’s opening. They’re grim, cruel in a way that doesn’t seem to fit the fun tone of Courtney’s adventure, and not terribly memorable. I think they’re supposed to resemble our current administration, but if that’s true, it’s only hinted at, and not hinted at very well.
And then there’s the other kids of the show. Courtney’s younger brother (Trae Romano) is so bursting with wit and attitude that he feels like a relic from a 90s sitcom despite the actor being born in 2005. He would feel more at home in a Bojack Horseman flashback; the scene where he’s too busy playing video games to feed himself or their bulldog anything but Cheetos feels ripped straight out of a laughtrack sitcom.
Next time on Stargirl
The third and final episode of our preview hints at what the show’s poster tells us: much of the season to follow will be about Courtney assembling three attractive social pariahs from her school to make a superhero team. The first few episodes introduce these kids, but do little to endear us to them or make them memorable.
Much of what works in the show is on Brec Bassinger’s shoulders. The first few episodes have her playing it surly. Considering she’s moving from the cultural center of the nation to the geographical center, it makes sense. But it’s not a great intro. Once she has the Cosmic Staff, though, her boundless enthusiasm takes over. Courtney throws herself into scary situations full of both physical and social danger, without fear. Her and her stuntwoman work together to deliver on the idea that Courtney is a gymnastics wunderkind, giving her a great physicality that superhero shows often lack.
But Bassinger can’t hold up the show on her own; she’s not quite as compelling as say, Stephen Amell or Melissa Benoist. The show needs to step up its villains, to be sure, and the other kid heroes will have to hold their own alongside Stargirl. With how little characterization the show has given the other Justice Society kids so far, the show has a lot of work to do on that front. Bassinger’s character and the expressive Cosmic Staff are both charismatic enough, though, and they have me curious to see where the show goes.