The character of Courtney Whitmore is an intensely personal one to Geoff Johns, who modeled the girl who would become Stargirl on the younger sister who died in the TWA flight 800 disaster of 1996. That’s a downer way to start a review for a show that, I promise you, is a genuine delight, but it’s important to know why this character was created and what she was always supposed to be: A (literal) shining beacon of positivity in the darkest of times. As Johns wrote in a letter sent along with episodes of Stargirl, “It is her spirit and optimistic energy that I wanted to put back in the world.”
True to that word, Stargirl—which Johns developed alongside Arrow-verse architect Greg Berlanti—is one of the most purely joyous things to come from DC in years. Debuting on both DC Universe and the CW, the series soars thanks to both a boundless sense of discovery and a glossy cinematography that wouldn’t feel out of place in the most hopeful Amblin Entertainment romps. Not even plot-wise, just real Back to the Future meets E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial vibes all over the place, the kind you’ll recognize from the most nostalgic part of your brain when you see it. (There’s at least one shot that seems like a direct visual reference to E.T., but I’ll leave that for spoilers.) It’s the CW‘s earnest cheese on a bigger WB budget, cynics need not apply.
Up front in a pitch-perfect bit of casting is Brec Bassinger (47 Meters Down: Uncaged) as Courtney Whitmore, a high-schooler who is whisked away from California to the unbearably small town of Blue Valley, Nebraska. Courtney can’t connect to her mother’s (Amy Smart) new husband Pat Dugan (Luke Wilson), until she discovers Pat was once “Stripesy”, side-kick to the Justice Society of America’s Starman (Joel McHale). One late-night snoop later and Courtney cracks open a crate in the basement containing the Cosmic Staff, a mystical club with a mind of its own. The Staff hasn’t worked for anyone other than Starman until Courtney touches it, and the resulting glow is bright enough to track the surviving members of the Injustice Society of America, a crew of supervillains in desperate need of a better marketing department.
Story-wise, Stargirl isn’t breaking many molds; the villains introduced in the first three episodes are mostly indistinguishable from a lot of the Arrowverse’s rogues gallery, and the drama between a freshly-moved teen and their step-parent is a tale as old as time. But a lot of the charm comes straight from the cast. Luke Wilson was put on this Earth to play a corny step-father who is just Doing His Best, while Bassinger is an inarguable star. She makes the show; it’s a performance where you can track the character’s progression from fish-out-of-water to bonafide hero just from the way Bassinger carries herself.
And, again, there is definitely a Cheese Factor that some might find hard to swallow. Courtney discovers the Cosmic Staff has the ability to float untouched in the air and immediately decides to do a gymnastics routine on it, which isn’t where my mind would go, personally. So it’s strange that, as I watched those first three episodes, the DC property I kept coming back to was Man of Steel, a film that’s about as interested in pure joy as Superman is in buying a Peloton. But amid that slog is a single scene I count among my favorites, the moment Clark Kent shakily discovers he can fly over the Alaskan wilderness and Henry Cavill‘s performance is half-terror, half-wonder, a small-town boy experiencing the impossible.
That feeling is melted into its shiniest form and infused into every scene of Stargirl. It’s not the best DC Universe show, or the weirdest, or the most dramatic. But dang, it made me the happiest, and at a time when things are pretty freaking grim, I appreciate any light bright enough to break through the clouds.
Rating: ★★★ Good
Stargirl debuts on DC Universe on May 18 and The CW on May 19.
(Note: The episodes I watched for review were DC Universe versions. The CW episodes will be “slightly different from DCU’s version as they have been edited to time for broadcast viewing.”)