After watching DC Universe work so hard to court a “mature” DC audience (successfully so, in fact), it is refreshing to see something so classic.
Then again, that feeling of a more innocent, classical DC Comics is baked into into the new series Stargirl (which also airs Tuesday nights on the CW) from its source material: the short-lived comic book series Stars and S.T.R.I.P.E. by Geoff Johns and Lee Moder. Despite his reputation for darkening the DC Universe and ripping arms off in crossovers like Infinite Crisis, Johns came to DC with a love of its late Silver Age — the time when the characters were becoming more complex, but their troubles were still in the orbit of a simpler Comics Code approved reality. He also arrived at a time when James Robinson was breathing new life into Golden Age characters via his Golden Age and Starman series. Both managed to honor the four-color heroics of those 1940s mystery men while updating their looks, creating legacy with more modern takes on the characters, and offering those dusty old elements of the DC Universe a new life.
Johns did the same with his book, which introduced teenager Courtney Whitmore into the world of the Justice League, Starman Jack Knight, and a burgeoning freshman class of heroes who, sadly, get little play these days. And as the creator of the television series, and the writer of its pilot, Johns maintained a lot of the original Stars and S.T.R.I.P.E. charm.
In both the comic and the series, Courtney (played on the TV show by Brec Bassinger) moves with her mother, Barbara (Amy Smart), stepfather Pat Dugan (Luke Wilson) and stepbrother Mike (Trae Romano) from California to Blue Valley, Nebraska. It’s Barbara’s home town, but Courtney immediately has trouble fitting in. Soon, though, she discovers a piece of tech which allows her the gift of flight — in the comics, it’s an antigrav belt, on the show, it’s the iconic Cosmic Staff. And, being a kid in the DC multiverse, she starts righting wrongs and picking fights with bullies.
In translating the comic to television, the show simplifies things a bit by merging Golden Age characters Starman and the Star-Spangled Kid into one. It’s a fine revision thanks to an appearance by Joel McHale as the older Starman and an incredible revision to the Staff: it has a mind of its own. That new idea, and Courtney’s struggle with the Staff, gives the series something fresh even as it honors so much of Johns’ original premise.
And, as it happens,Johns maintains a lot of the original comics. Pat is a well-meaning goober, Mike is a bratty kid, and Courtney is, well, a teenager. Also, the cartoonishness of the villains and the surprisingly faithful JSA costumes reveal this world is closer to the comics in spirit and aesthetics than just about anything we’ve seen in the TV multiverse.
As for the episode itself, we appreciate that it spent so much time with Courtney learning to use the Staff. It made her fight with Brainwave (Christopher Baker) all the more exciting and, honestly, we never get to see heroes enjoy their abilities enough on these shows. The joy she felt at working with the Staff — when it wanted to cooperate anyway — is something sorely missing from a lot of live action superhero films and television. We’re delighted to see it here.
That said, it will be interesting to see how this show develops over the next few months. A new, teen-aged Justice Society is in the cards and it will be interesting to see if the show maintains that sense of joy as these characters begin to face familiar superhero challenges. Until then, though, we can appreciate that this episode is quick, breezy and the lighthearted sort of thing more shows should strive to be. Well, from time to time at least.
Stargirl streams Mondays on DC Universe and airs Tuesdays on The CW.