Stargirl – Season 2 Episode 3
“Summer School: Chapter Three”
Stargirl pushes forward by bringing in another potential JSA successor, while also giving some insight into one of its least developed characters.
As well as new villains, the theme of this season is more heroes joining the new JSA, and this time comes the turn of the Thunderbolt, the being residing in the pink pen that was among the artefacts Courtney looted from the old JSA headquarters, and which she summarily dumped in a desk tidy after her ill-advised fiddling with it failed to elicit a reaction.
The prologue this time takes us back to right before the fateful battle that saw the end of the JSA over a decade ago, and the first time we’ve really seen Johnny Thunder (Ethan Embry). In the comics he was a somewhat dimwitted man given possession of the Thunderbolt during a badly dated and somewhat racist origin story involving Melanesian island savages and a mystic prophecy, and his reference to being a “charity case”, along with his statement the Thunderbolt could be a godlike weapon were it not for his blundering nature, certainly ties in with this. Although technically a hero, the only power at his disposal is that of the magical wish-granting being.
Although his contemporary retcon has the genie-like electrical creature (Jim Gaffigan) being a native of the Fifth Dimension (a realm where imagination forms reality and most famously the home of Kryptonian-botherer Mister Mxyzptlk), here he is presented with his original story of being from the fictional nation of Badhnisia, where Johnny spent a kidnapped childhood due to the circumstances of his birth. The choice of how he was brought into proceedings wasn’t expected, but certainly not unwelcome.
As a character, Mike has often seemed surplus to requirements, typically only there to react against developments that he often had little part in, but in this particular outing is given considerably more focus due to the Thunderbolt selecting him as its new master. The revelation that the djinn can only bond with someone who shares his feelings of loneliness provides a shortcut to demonstrate how cut off Mike feels from the events that he perceives everyone else as being a far greater part of, and by extension his very family. However, this isn’t quite as impactful as it could have been due to the boy spending so much of season 1 being an obnoxious little brat, and as such there being little else to contrast his emerging personality against. Thus, while it certainly tracks that he could have been developing these feelings of isolation, because he’s been given so little true presence up until now it feels the presented emotion hasn’t been earned.
The Thunderbolt himself possesses the puckish sense of humour often afforded to wish-granting entities, in that they’ll use loopholes in the ambiguity of a request to technically provide what was asked for, just not what was actually wanted. The moments of Mike dealing with the consequences of such non-specific demands are given a humorous bent, even including Looney Tunes sound effects as though the Thunderbolt’s actions are joyfully cartoonish, serving to partially lighten the darkness into which the season is quickly descending, both figuratively and literally.
The rules of the magic are efficiently established, most notably not being able to make the same wish twice acting as a particularly neat limitation that prevents the trial and error that might otherwise eventually circumvent the Thunderbolt being mischievously obtuse in interpreting his instructions.
The regularity of scenes told from Mike’s perspective affords him an unusual prominence, and since the others are currently preoccupied in their search for the latest villain to darken the streets of their sunny town it comes off as a natural presentation, simply demonstrating events are for once demanding he take central place in them.
His childlike glee at the newfound power at his disposal deliberately evokes the same wonder Courtney felt at the beginning of her own journey, the retread being so apparent that even Courtney herself can pick up on it. After he accepts the castigation at his misuse of the proxy abilities without complaint or snarky comment, you can’t help but wonder if he would have eventually grown into someone responsible enough to direct the reality warping power had he not accidentally ordered the Thunderbolt to find another master. The new introduction will doubtless soon join up with the regulars, but for now the pen’s loss leaves Mike suddenly bereft of the one thing he might have learned to properly control and allowed him to be a part of the team, instead of feeling like someone who must perpetually watch from the sidelines as though his very presence is a handicap.
As well as introducing another Golden Age hero given a modern spin, the Thunderbolt is also able to divine the location of the Shade, albeit after a humorous montage of the entire team workshopping a wish of such intense verbosity and redundant specificity that the Thunderbolt responding by merely spitting out a magenta flame onto a map almost seems like him sulking from their being so careful they spoiled his fun in twisting their words.
The cryptic villain’s presence is swiftly gaining greater import, while his taciturn nature has the potential to be either engagingly mysterious or irritatingly dismissive; it’s a little early to tell. Regardless, his rather odious nature is quickly cemented earlier in the episode by his practically ambushing Barbara in the storage unit in the search for the black diamond, either oblivious to or uncaring of the fact that a man sneaking up on a lone woman in a darkened and enclosed space has decidedly few positive connotations.
When the team burst in on him in his new lair of Wizard’s former home, the tableau of Sophisticated Gentleman at Tea is so ludicrously artificial you can’t help but wonder if he somehow knew they were coming, or perhaps he presumed the encounter was inevitable and was merely waiting so posed in order to make the necessary condescending impression.
Even when directly asked, he of course can’t just state what he wants, since that would require him first deigning to acknowledge anybody else as being worth his interacting with. With origins as an upper class Victorian man – someone situated at the top of society during a time when England’s jingoistic campaign of megalomaniacal imperialism was at its height – it’s possible his attitude of aristocratic pomposity has never left him even around two centuries later.
The team’s fight with him is embarrassingly one-sided, and tacitly suggests that had he still been around when the ISA were taken on then things might have gone quite differently. It’s not clear what might have happened had the Cosmic Staff not lit up in defiance, but it’s clear something about the weapon negates his power, what with the previous declaration that Starman was able to incapacitate the villain and his shadowy tendrils now unable to maintain a grasp as it glows. The precise nature of the polarisation isn’t clear, but there’s a non-zero chance it’ll become significant later on.
Also, this is absolutely the last time the heroes can go off half-cocked against a much stronger foe only to be swiftly overpowered without there being any permanent repercussions before it seems like the narrative is giving them implausibly preferential treatment.
Outwith the two main plot strands, the episode surprisingly also acknowledges one of the few points of detraction of the last season’s finale, namely Mike being the one to actually destroy Icicle in a misfiring moment that was played for laughs. Bringing up the subject draws a parallel between Mike and Yolanda, their being the two heroic characters to have killed someone (well, someone other than Dragon King’s lobotomised minions, which it seems like we shouldn’t), and shows the strange places in which otherwise disparate people can find connection. It’s the first time the two characters have directly interacted, and could have been the start of Yolanda being properly helped to move beyond her confliction over what she did. Unfortunately, Mike stating that his own actions were an accident had the opposite of the desired effect. It seems like he’s only just realising the truth of what happened as he’s saying the words, possibly because for all his flippant nature he hasn’t been too keen to revisit the memory of ending someone’s life, regardless of it not being intentional while also potentially saving the lives of his family. This seems to make Yolanda feel even worse, since the one person who might have some understanding of what she’s feeling is in a different mental place to her, leaving her once again unsure of how she is to deal with her self-reproach.
The topic still leaves the lingering issue of whether Yolanda’s intense headaches are a result of the guilt devouring her or due to the influence of some outside force, possibly even a psychic remnant of Brainwave’s power that was inadvertently passed to her as he died, but that will no doubt be addressed later, and neatly acknowledges that characters have issues in their lives that go beyond the problems right in front of them needing immediately addressed. Similarly, Beth manages to admit to Rick her fears over her parents’ imminent divorce, the moment only overshadowed by the pointed identification of Eclipso. Now naming him as the entity imprisoned within the black diamond we can expect much more specifics regarding his history and the destructive malevolence of his nature to be revealed very soon.
With such an invocation you might expect the episode to once again cut back to Cindy as it closes, possibly observing the domain over which she seeks to rule, but it instead shows the Shade dramatically posing on top of the clock tower. His words suggest that while there’s no doubt he’s seeking control of the black diamond, it might not be for the malicious intentions initially assumed. Certainly, his lamenting that Eclipso will likely kill the youngsters who may come up against it was genuine, and it might be that he merely wants to take possession of the dark jewel to keep it out of the hands of those who would use it for their own destructive ends and in the process inadvertently release the pure evil imprisoned within. Y’know, like the aforementioned manicured ones it has currently fallen into.
“Summer School: Chapter Three” manages exactly what the previous episode didn’t, demonstrating that it’s perfectly straightforward to introduce new characters and concepts without requiring ongoing developments to be shunted to one side. Mike’s unusual prominence is a welcome variation on the typical episode setup, as are his comedic interactions with the Thunderbolt. The Shade’s ambiguity is a compelling mystery and introduces a grey area to the morality that thusfar has been largely black and white, setting up the plot to go places other than what might have been expected.
- Mike developing into a proper character
- The comedy of the Thunderbolt’s antics
- Balancing the plot action with character beats
- The compelling ambiguity over the Shade’s motives
- Mike’s loneliness not being adequately established prior to becoming significant
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