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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Stargirl’s world gets a whole lot bigger in its second episode

Illustration for article titled emStargirl/em’s world gets a whole lot bigger in its second episode
Photo: Quantrell Colbert (The CW)
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Stargirl is part of a long history of shows that use their genre premises to comment on the realities of high school. Buffy The Vampire Slayer is the most famous example and maybe Stargirl’s biggest point of inspiration, but you can also see shades of everything from Smallville to X-Men: Evolution. Yet because Stargirl has pitched itself as a stepdaughter/stepfather two-hander, it’s not just about the experience of being a high schooler, it’s also about the experience of being the parent to a high schooler.

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As Principal Anaya Bowin (Hina Khan) explains to some fellow parents at Blue Valley High’s annual open house event, “History and tradition are undervalued in favor of progress. But passing our ways onto the next generation for them to then improve upon in their own way, that’s what life’s about: Legacy.” As Stargirl sees it, it’s an idea that can easily become twisted. Throughout this episode we see examples of parents trying to force their children to follow in their footsteps—like Principal Bowin pressuring her son to be a musician or gym-rat parents encouraging their daughter to break barriers in the NFL or Henry Sr. testing Henry Jr. (even the name is inherited!) to see if his son has his psychic abilities.

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That’s what makes Pat stand out. He’s one of the few parental figures who prioritizes his stepdaughter’s safety and happiness over the idea of trying to relive his youth through her. He’s not excited that Courtney has picked up his old JSA mantle, he’s terrified. And he’s willing to put his own life on the line to stop her from leaping way out of her depth before she’s ready. While Courtney is still caught up on the idea that Starman is her father and the only way to honor him is to avenge him, Pat is modeling a very different kind of parental bond.

Illustration for article titled emStargirl/em’s world gets a whole lot bigger in its second episode
Photo: Steve Dietl (The CW)
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Of course, by the end of the episode, Pat comes to realize that he can’t stop Courtney from forging her own path either. She’s not just trying to live up to an imagined parental legacy, she’s also trying to protect her family. So Pat once again finds himself as the sidekick to a 15-year-old Star-themed hero. Only this time around, he’s got a giant robot suit and an upgraded name: S.T.R.I.P.E. a.k.a. Subatomic Tactical Robot Internet Pat Enhancer.

While “S.T.R.I.P.E.” is a less flashy episode than the premiere, it provides a much better sense of what kind of show Stargirl is going to be moving forward. In fact, it feels so much like the second half of a two-part pilot that it’s curious DC Universe and The CW didn’t debut these first two episodes together—although I suppose that sort of thing matters less in the era of binge-watching. “S.T.R.I.P.E.” doesn’t have any sequences as cool as the pilot’s big opening battle or the scenes of Courtney learning to use the Cosmic Staff, but it displays a quieter kind of confidence in its worldbuilding.

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In addition to fleshing out the world of Blue Valley and Blue Valley High, the episode also allows Pat to provide more backstory on the Golden Age of Heroes. The JSA’s enemies were called the Injustice Society of America (a name Courtney immediately mocks), and they resettled in Blue Valley after the big battle that wiped out Pat’s friends. While the premiere lightly hinted at this idea, “S.T.R.I.P.E.” makes it more explicit that none of the adults in Blue Valley can be trusted. If Brainwave can pass as a respected neurosurgeon by day, any of the town’s authority figures could be a threat—from the teachers to the politicians to the head honchos at Barbara’s new job, The American Dream, the company that serves as the economic backbone of the community.

Pat also delivers a little more backstory on the JSA itself, including namedropping fallen members like Johnny Thunder, Hawkman, and Hawkgirl. The only other member of the JSA to survive was Rex Tyler a.k.a. Hourman, whose research led Pat to Blue Valley in the first place. (Pat thought the Injustice Society had already passed through the area, which is why he moved his family there.) Though the original JSA may be gone (Rex and his wife were since killed in a car crash) we’ve still got a lot to learn about their era of heroism. For instance, why did the Injustice Society go into hiding after wiping out their enemies? And what was the JSA trying to stop them from doing during that Christmas Eve battle?

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For right now, however, a lot of Stargirl’s comedy stems from juxtaposing the glory of the Golden Age with Courtney and Pat’s makeshift attempts at superheroism. In between exhausting gym session, Pat struggles to iron out the kinks in his robotic armor, while Courtney destroys several sewing machines and a pair of scissors as she modifies Starman’s costume in her school’s home ec room. Yet those struggles only make it more thrilling to watch Courtney don her costume, claim Pat as her sidekick, and officially announce her Stargirl moniker.

Illustration for article titled emStargirl/em’s world gets a whole lot bigger in its second episode
Photo: Jace Downs (The CW)
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While the pilot ended with an anticlimactic ellipsis, “S.T.R.I.P.E.” delivers a more official launch to the new series. Stargirl seems poised to balance the procedural aims of a CW Arrowverse show with the more serialized storytelling of a DC Universe streaming series. (Other live action shows on the platform include Titans and Doom Patrol.) After improvising their way through their first success and neutralizing Brainwave into a coma, Courtney and Pat become an official superhero team with a mission to work their way down the list of Injustice Society baddies.

Unfortunately for them, a photo of Stargirl’s debut seems to awaken the dormant Injustice Society. The episode ends with former team leader Jordan Mahkent a.k.a. Icicle (Neil Jackson) returning to Blue Valley and setting up shop in the Injustice Society’s secret underground lair. Not only is he the one who killed Starman, he also joins the list of generically handsome 40-something blonde men who could potentially be Courtney’s dad. (Kudos to the casting department on finding so many similar looking dudes!) As Courtney and Pat set out to forge a new future by righting the wrongs of the past, it looks like the past is coming back to haunt them too.

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Stray observations

  • This B+ grade is for the two-hour pilot this should’ve been.
  • I was expecting Brainwave to be our Big Bad moving forward, but putting him in a coma is a nice workaround for the fact that he knows Courtney’s identity. Plus he remains a player the show can reactivate whenever it needs to.
  • The special effects in this episode continue to look great, and I love that the S.T.R.I.P.E. robot armor has the same dorky dad personality as Pat.
  • I also love the Cosmic Staff knocking itself against the ground to emphasize Courtney’s point when she first demands answers from Pat.
  • Anjelika Washington’s Beth made a nice impression in the premiere, but the scene of her Skyping her parents into her cafeteria lunch (and having no idea that’s a weird thing to do) is just perfect.
  • Though Stargirl has somewhat reworked the Starman comic book continuity (in the comics, Sylvester Pemberton never actually used that name himself), we get a nice shout-out to the comics when Pat mentions that the Cosmic Staff was originally built by Ted Knight. “But that’s a story for another day,” he adds.
  • I can buy that a town is run by supervillains, but I can’t buy that Courtney would be allowed to wear that midriff-bearing t-shirt at school.
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Contributor, The A.V. Club. Caroline Siede is a pop culture critic in Chicago, where the cold never bothers her anyway. Her interests include superhero movies, feminist theory, and Jane Austen novels.

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