NICK EICHER, HOST: Today is Friday, June 12th. Thank you for turning to WORLD Radio to help start your day. Good morning. I’m Nick Eicher.
MEGAN BASHAM, HOST: And I’m Megan Basham. Coming next on The World and Everything in It: A new superhero show that’s especially popular with teens.
The CW has won a devoted audience of young viewers in recent years with a series of comic book adaptations like The Flash and Batwoman. Its latest hit, Stargirl, seems, at first glance, your average superhero series.
CLIP: The staff is not supposed to work for anybody but Starman. Starman? Of the justice society of America. It was before your time. I know who they are. A bunch of superheroes from the old days. They quit when I was a kid. Well, they didn’t exactly quit. Starman and the JSA died saving the world.
Our title character has a star-spangled costume and a mild-mannered alter ego. In this case, she’s high school student, Courtney Whitmore, played by former Nickelodeon star, Brec Bassinger. Something in her parentage remains a mystery—here, exactly who her father is and why he disappeared when she was 5 years old. And the setting couldn’t be more of a call back to classic Superman. Only instead of Smallville, Kansas, we’re in Blue Valley, Nebraska.
There are a few modern touches. Courtney lives in a blended family, with a stepbrother who’s fond of mild profanity. Her stepfather, played by Luke Wilson, acts as her sidekick. But beyond that, it’s the sort of family show any network might have aired at any time over the last 50 years.
CLIP: What were you like the Star-Spangled Kid’s assistant? I was his sidekick. I looked after his car. I kept his suit clean. Sounds like an assistant to me. Being a sidekick was an honor. They made me a really important part of the JSA. Why aren’t you in the picture then? Because I took it.
Except, look closer at the first four episodes, and it seems like Stargirl is setting up to become an epic battle over the same thing we’re all debating these days. What constitutes justice in the United States circa 2020.
CLIP: Our country was built on values like yours. It’s just, too bad things have changed.
On one side we have the Justice Society of America. This includes Stargirl and Yolanda “Wildcat” Montez. Yolanda joins when her strict religious parents berate her for “shaming the family” after she sends a topless photo to a boyfriend. This is something we see from the shoulders up.
CLIP: You’ll never be the Yolanda Montez you used to be. You’re a disgrace to this family you disgrace to yourself. Go to your room. But dad. Now.
On the other side is the Injustice Society of America. Old Glory flutters proudly from the homes of these wealthy, white men. Their front business is a town-wide gentrification project called “The American Dream.” Some members wear silk ascots and speak in drawling Kentucky-fried accents despite the fact that the story is set in the Midwest. Their, as yet, unclear aims include “fixing the country,” “rebuilding America,” and “making it safer place to raise [their] children.”
CLIP: I made a promise once. A promise to someone very special to me that I would help make this country a better, safer place to raise our children. I’ve dedicated my life to that. In the past year I have traveled across America, from town to town, and I have seen factories that are abandoned. People in need. In Littleville, Colorado. In Haddon Corner, Indiana. And so many other forgotten communities. And we’re going to help them, just like we helped Blue Valley, we’re going to rebuild America one factory and one town at a time.
Even in an era of exploding screen content, the number of shows and movies families can watch together have become few and far between. Superheroes, on both TVs and in cineplexes, remain one of the last holdouts. It’s also one of the few genres that frequently sets up villains that challenge our modern sacred cows.
As a sort of antifa precursor, Bane in Batman wants to tear down the oppressive systems grounded in capitalism and individual achievement. Ronin from Guardians of the Galaxy seeks ethnic and religious cleansing. Thanos in Avengers takes environmental activism to the extreme. All ask us to make some surprising contrasts to how we see our world portrayed within elite institutions today.
A lot works in Stargirl, including charming characters and strong chemistry between the leads. But from the unforgiving religious parents to the big business bad guys, it runs the risk of boring us with clichés. And if the story continues in the direction it seems to be heading, it may reveal a secret nefarious scheme of its own—indoctrinating young viewers.
CLIP: I understand your concern William. I do. But the work we are doing here in Blue Valley is the perfect test case for Jordan‘s grand plan. It’s far too important to us, to our families, to their future to abandon. Project New America is our purpose. Our legacy. It’s what we’re doing here, isn’t it?
It’s too soon to say the show is staking a claim in the culture wars. But if, as novelists often say, a story is only as good as its villain, Stargirl may need rescuing from another kind of superhero, that I think I’ll call, Captain Nuance!