Monday, September 7, 2020

Stargirl Interlude

By the time I'd watched three seasons of the brutal, nihilistic Titans, followed immediately by two seasons of the occasionally sadistic if mostly playful Umbrella Academy, I was more than ready for something lighter, fluffier and, above all, more unironically and unequivocally heroic. There were several more superhero shows waiting in my Netflix watchlist - Defenders, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage - but before I could take a look to see if any of them might fit the bill I got an alert from my alternate streaming service, Amazon Prime.

I've found the prompts from both Prime and Netflix reliably useful so far. Their algorithms seem to be working well for me. This one felt exceptionally well-judged. It came at exactly the right moment, it featured a character whose guest appearances in another show I'd very much enjoyed and best of all I had absolutely no idea the show even existed.

The show in question is Stargirl, which is, I believe, the latest to roll off the DC Universe production line. As a lifelong DC fan I was very slow to pick up on the bleedthrough from comics to small screen. I'm still very much playing catch-up. Now I'm back in the fold, though, I do try to keep up with what's happening and I would have been quite annoyed with myself for missing this one.

Luckily, I didn't. I might not have known anyone was making a Stargirl tv show but thanks to the Prime prompt I still managed to watch the first season at the earleist opportunity. Earliest in the U.K. at least. We get everything good late.

So, was it any good? And did it manage to wash away some of the bitter aftertaste left by the self-serving cynicism of the aforementioned shows?

Well... yes and no. To both questions.

Whether you're likely to think Stargirl is any good or not depends on your tolerance for typical teen angst as served up by any number of previous CW dramas. That's somewhat misleading, since the CW didn't make Stargirl. DC Universe did. Only DC Universe is no more and Stargirl, whose second season has been commissioned, has gone not to HBO Max but to the CW. Which, honestly, does feel like its natural home.

Even with my extremely high tolerance for high school drama, I was hoping the show would keep the school stuff in the background. It does, although whether it will when the production moves across is another matter. But that's a problem for another day, another Season.

The other thing you'll probably need to have if you're going to enjoy Stargirl is an extremely robust suspension of disbelief. Even by the standards of superhero comics there's one heck of a lot of handwaving required if you're going to get past some of the extremely unlikely choices and decisions made by various characters at pretty much every turn.

I inevitably end up comparing almost every ensemble show with a supernormal teenage cast to the lodestone, Buffy. That's patently unfair but it's often revealing. Take a single, pertinent event that occurs in both shows: the discovery by the title character's mother that she has a daughter who spends her evenings climbing out of her bedroom window to do battle with the superpowerful entities who infest the supposedly sleepy small town in which they live.

How long did it take Joyce Summers to come to terms with the knowledge that Buffy was a Slayer? Did she ever, really? It was a long, slow, traumatic process for both of them, one which I sometimes found difficult to watch. Stargirl's mother, Barbara, adjusts to the news within twenty-four hours, mostly by dint of a bit of googling.

Almost every character seems to have a moment like that. Some have several. And even if you're coping well with their apparent emotional flexibility you still need to deal with their astonishing technological prowess. Stargirl's step-dad, Starman's sidekick Stripesy in a former life, somehow manages to construct - out of old car parts, no less -  a "robot" that acts as as a cross between a Transformer and one of Iron Man's suits.

There's a lot of this kind of stuff. I loved it. It was exactly what I was looking for. It could almost have come from the DC comics I grew up with. It has that silly sixties sparkle. Or maybe fifties, because the nineteen-fifties are something of a trope in Stargirl's aesthetics and soundscape, largely via Pat, who gives the impression of having been around back then even though he looks about thirty-eight.

So, all good then? All the blood-smeared scar tissue left by Titans and the Umbrella Academy nicely wiped clean with good, wholesome superheroics? Yeah, not really.

Stargirl herself, along with her once-again sidekicked step-father, now re-branded as S.T.R.I.P.E. are unambiguously honorable, heroic characters. Proper, old-school, duty-driven superheroes. The rest of the teen Justice Society of America, recruited by Stargirl in mid-season, all have significant, well-telegraphed "flaws" (obsessive and self-centered, angry all the time, bitter and betrayed) but they all do a pretty good job of rising above them.

Until one crucial moment in the season finale, that is. When one of them kills someone.

I won't say who kills who because spoilers but it's a genuinely a shocking moment. Not in the stlye of Titans or the Umbrella Academy, where the shock comes from how vicious or violent or psychopathic the supposed heroes are being, but because of how unexpected it is.

And that's good. But it's still a teenage superhero killing someone in a supposedly fluffy show. The rules have changed, after all.

It's tempting to make excuses. After all, while the good guys are, by and large, genuinely good here, the bad guys are really, really bad. Sadistic, brutal, terrifying. There are a lot of them and all of them are completely horrible. I'd struggle to say which one I detested the most.

Which is probably how it should be. Once again, standards have changed. In the sixties the villains would have been buffoons or caricatures. The Injustice Society seem more suited to the eighties and nineties, when sociopaths were very much in vogue.

It's an odd dichotomy, the fifties/sixties heroes up against the eighties/nineties villains. It works, but not comfortably. And heroes still shouldn't kill. Not those heroes.

If what you're after is fundementally decent heroes and existentially evil villains butting heads under comic-book rules, then Stargirl serves it up consistently, even if the premise itself feels far from consistent. It helps that the action is well choreographed, the writing solid and the acting better than decent.

Brec Bassinger as Courtney "Stargirl" Whitmore is close to perfect in the lead and there are some stand-out supporting performances, particularly Luke Wilson as Pat, Stargirl's long-suffering stepdad and Meg De Lacey as Cindy Berman, our hero's ineffably entitled nemesis. Trae Romano, Courtney's "little brother" Mike, steals just about every scene he's in. I could live without the bulldog but at least he doesn't get any lines.

I thoroughly enjoyed every episode and the two-part season finale is one of the better series climaxes I've seen. Except for the slightly bathetic "after the crisis" Christmas cooldown, that is. I'd have left that out.

Of course, as Wilhelm was bemoaning, now we have to wait. That's the problem with watching things when they're new. Plus there's the added frisson of the change of ownership. As I found recently with Lucifer, that can be a bit of a wildcard. I don't find Geoff Johns' promise that Season 2 will be "different" terribly reassuring, either.

Then again, by the time I get to watch it, maybe I won't remember what Season One was like, anyway.


  1. I feel like, honestly, the biggest suspension-of-disbelief hurdle for me was "These barely-practiced teen superheroes can legitimately pose a threat to this organization of villains who have killed full-grown heroes before."

    Aside from that, given that I'm familiar with Geoff Johns I was not only expecting someone to die, I was expecting multiple deaths and had a little running personal tally. (I assumed her mother would be on the fatality list and was very surprised when she wasn't, but I did correctly guess 2 out of 5 deaths in the finale episodes.)

    Looking forward to season 2.

    1. Completely agree. If you start with the premise that an entire team of experienced, adult superheroes (a couple of whom have powers on the demi-god level) can be summarily defeated and killed by a specific group of villaions, and then you ask the audience to believe half as many completely intrained teenagers, all of whom have only had their powers for a matter of days, can go up against those same villains and have the ghost of a prayer of chance...

      Yeah, if you can get over that hurdle you're really not going to quibble at things like the supposedly responsible adults facilitating their kids in this madness or car mechanics building super-robots out of car parts in their spare time. Took me about three shows to go "oh what, y'know, the hell with it - Go JSA!"

  2. Thanks for the write up. I was wondering if I should check this show out. I have been a fan of Arrow since it started. Last year, I started watching the rest of the Arrowverse shows trying to catch up. But that is a lot of seasons and shows. Was not sure if I should add another show to that list. I will have to check it out now.

    1. No-one from any of the other Arrowverse shows turns up in the first Season of Stargirl but that may have as much to do with contracts as continuity. I first saw Stargirl and the JSA in Supergirl, which is theoretically part of the Arrowverse, but I'm pretty sure it was a different JSA and possibly a different Stargirl. Then again, we've had the Crisis on Infinite Earths crossover since then, so I have no real idea who lives where now. Which, of course, is par for the course with DC metareality.


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