More so than any other live action superhero series I’ve ever seen, the opening of “Stars & S.T.R.I.P.E. Part One” makes the case for why superhero secret identities are so important. The way Sportsmaster and Tigress suddenly and violently invade the once safe spaces of the Whitmore-Dugan family is genuinely terrifying, especially because Courtney and co. were in the middle of doing the sensible thing and fleeing town. But with their identities known by the Injustice Society, nowhere is safe anymore. And that massively ups the stakes heading into the finale.
After last week’s episode took a break from the action for a character-centric detour, “Stars & S.T.R.I.P.E. Part One” doesn’t waste any time reminding us that this is a superhero series. It’s really impressive that Stargirl has managed to embrace the camp value of Tigress and Sportsmaster while still making them feel like actual threats too. Sportsmaster’s casually athletic fighting style is particularly cool to watch—which isn’t something I ever expected to be saying about such a cornily themed supervillain. Meanwhile, the Barbara/Courtney/Tigress fight incorporates the Cosmic Staff in all sorts of clever and creative ways.
While the twin action sequences are engaging in their own right (I always love when superheroes have to fight in their civilian clothes), even better is the way Stargirl uses them to advance character relationships. Barbara is blown away by watching her daughter in action, which helps her get onboard with the whole superhero thing. Meanwhile, defeating Sportsmaster becomes an unexpected bonding moment for Pat and Mike, who turns out to be fearless with a power drill. That seamless blend of action, character, and humor is the hallmark of great superhero storytelling.
After its exhilarating opening, the rest of “Stars & S.T.R.I.P.E. Part One” is mostly about laying the groundwork for the finale. The JSA and friends take refuge at the Whitmore-Dugans’ (gorgeous!) cabin to make a plan for how to take down the Injustice Society. The biggest weakness of this episode is that reveals just how little character development Yolanda, Beth, and Rick have gotten lately. Rick’s ability to crack codes and read maps isn’t a particularly natural extension of his brooding hothead personality, while Beth and especially Yolanda are barely even characters here. But with so much going on elsewhere and the promise of more to come from them next week, it’s an easy enough flaw to forgive for now.
At the heart of this episode is the question of when and how you let your teenagers start to take on adult responsibilities. And in a fun subversion, it’s the Injustice Society who are the more overprotective parents. Jordan doesn’t want to tell Cameron about Project: New America, Principal Bowin (sort of) tries to keep her sensitive son out of the fray, and Tigress straight-up murders Bowin when she questions her parenting skills. (RIP Fiddler II.) Pat and Barbara, on the other hand, are more willing to let the teenage JSA take the lead, even if Barbara at least insists on serving as Beth’s chaperone.
In fact, “Stars & S.T.R.I.P.E. Part One” is full of good guy/bad guy subversions, the biggest of which is the reveal of what Project: New America actually is. In a fantastic and hilarious twist, it turns out the Injustice Society want to “make America great” in a real sense, not a Trumpian one. Brainwave’s brainwashing will combat global warming, end racism and discrimination, and establish universal healthcare. “That sounds good,” Courtney notes in confusion. “Is that not good?”
While there could be a fascinating moral dilemma in the question of whether it’s worth sacrificing free will to achieve humanitarian goals, Stargirl gives the JSA an easier out. The Injustice Society’s brutal “ends justify the means” philosophy means they’re willing to let 25 million people die in the reprogramming so that the remaining 75 million can live in a utopia. It’s hard to argue the pros outweigh that particular con. Still, for a show that’s spent so much time fleshing out its villains, it’s nice that their ultimate goal is one that tracks with both the good and bad of how they’ve been portrayed.
Before the JSA can figure out how to move forward, the Gambler hacks Beth’s hack of his hack to pull a page from the Watchmen playbook: The brainwashing has already begun and there’s only 30 minutes until it becomes permanent. Which brings us back to the issue of teenage responsibility. Since the reprogramming only works on adult minds, Courtney, Yolanda, Beth, and Rick will have to go it alone while their chaperones turn on them. It’s the faith their adult mentors have placed in them that will now determine the fate of 25 million lives.
On the flipside, I suspect it’s going to be the Injustice Society’s lack of faith in their kids that’s ultimately going to be their undoing. Earlier in the episode, Brainwave and Cindy share a fascinating scene in which he cruelly belittles her attempts to join the Injustice Society—going so far as to blame her for the fact that he murdered his own son. While Barbara and Pat want to empower the next generation, Brainwave and Dr. Ito want to suppress it. Brainwave tells Cindy that her father sees her as nothing more than a “failed experiment.” But if there’s one thing we’ve learned from this season, it’s not to underestimate Cindy Burman.
As with a lot of two-parters, the success of “Stars & S.T.R.I.P.E. Part One” will hinge on how well “Part Two” sticks the landing. Minor issues could become bigger frustrations if they aren’t course corrected next week. But if Stargirl has perhaps bitten off more than it can chew with this ambitious, expansive first season, the upside is that it now feels like anything can happen. It’s a testament to just how unexpected Stargirl’s storytelling has been that I was actually briefly fooled by Brainwave’s fake-out death during his first test of Dr. Ito’s machine.
Unlike with Arrowverse shows like Supergirl and The Flash, where you usually have a rough sense of how everything is going to shake out in the finale, I genuinely have no idea what’s going to happen next week. While I doubt the season will end on a JSA loss, it’ll be interesting to see how many storylines are wrapped up and how many are left open for future seasons. Will Stargirl actually be able to juggle all the many balls it’s tossed into the air? That’s a question worth tuning in for next week.
- Wasn’t Justin staying at Courtney’s house? Did Pat and Barbara just forget about him?
- Dr. Ito’s mammoth machine looks very cool, but I suspect Professor X would probably like a word about Cerebro copyright infringement.
- Barbara and Pat’s face injuries subtly increase the sense of stakes in the scene where they discuss Pat’s superhero secrets and the future of their marriage.
- I get that killing an unconscious Sportsmaster and Tigress might cross an ethical line, but it seems like a mistake to just leave them free to come after you a second time.
- The key to unlocking Rick’s journal mystery is that all dads love cars.
- It’s not an idea that’s explored as much as it could’ve been, but I like that Barbara’s knowledge of The American Dream helps the team figure out the Injustice Society’s plan. It makes her early storyline feel less pointless.
- I hope that sweet Mike/Courtney scene is foreshadowing him becoming a superhero and not him dying in the finale. #ProtectMikeAtAllCosts
- Seriously, though, can I rent that cabin? Truly the ideal place to self-isolate.