Sunday, September 12, 2021

Stargirl Season 2, Episode 3: Summer School: Chapter Three

This week on Stargirl we get a damn fine episode, one that may be the best of the entire series! 

Summer School: Chapter Three has everything you could ever want in an episode and more. It's a fun little romp, is extremely humorous at times and yet also features some genuinely heartfelt and emotional scenes. What more could you ask for?

The highlight of the episode is the long-awaited appearance of the Thunderbolt, a character from the Golden Age of comics. He's realized here through some pretty decent CGI, and is ably voiced by comedian Jim Gaffigan. Based on the end of the episode, it's a sure bet we'll be seeing him again at some point this season.

Also this week, Mike finally gets his big chance to join the JSA. His hopes and dreams are ultimately dashed though, first by his father and then by the unpredictable nature of his newfound powers as well.

My favorite part of the episode were the parallels between Dugan and Mike. Both of them were marginalized due to their lack of powers, and relegated to sidekick status on their respective teams.

Dugan apparently forgot the way the JSA treated him though, as he does the exact same thing to Mike. It finally takes an extradimensional genie to make Dugan see the light, and realize he's been neglecting his own son.  It's a subtle bit of writing that I wouldn't normally expect from an Arrowverse show.

Jonathan Cake continues to be a standout as Shade, giving the character the perfect blend of genteel sophistication and deadly menace. Hopefully they'll continue to feature him all through this season.

Lastly, this week's episode was directed by Lea Thompson. Yeah, THAT Lea Thompson, star of the Back To The Future franchise and critically beloved box office hit Howard The Duck (heh). Apparnetly she's decided to try her hand at directing. This isn't her first Stargirl rodeo, as she also directed last season's Shiv Part One.

Thompson does an amazing job here, giving the episode an equal mix of humor, menace and poignancy. Kudos!

SPOILERS!

The Plot:
Eleven Years Ago:
It's Xmas Eve, and Dugan's in the Justice Society's garage working on the Rocket Racer. Johnny Thunder bursts in and says he's tired of constantly being benched by his teammates— especially when the Thunderbolt makes him more powerful than all the other members combined.

Just then Wildcat enters and says the Injustice Society has a Hulk, er, I mean has Solomon Grundy, and tells Johnny they need the Thunderbolt's help. Dugan wants to go as well, but Wildcat says that Starman wants him to stay behind. Dugan looks disappointed, and goes back to tinkering with the car.

Present Day:
Mike's on his paper route, flinging papers into birdbaths and bushes. Suddenly he's confronted by three bullies— Devin, Lutz and Marky— who shake him down for money. When he tells 'em to get lost, they give him an old fashioned ass-whoopin.'

Cut to Dugan making breakfast for his family. Courtney gloats that she was right about yet another ISA villain showing up in Blue Valley. Dugan points out that the Shade is highly dangerous, and they need a plan to deal with him. Barb suggests using STRIPE, but Dugan says a giant robot isn't exactly subtle.

Mike enters, looking disheveled and beaten. Sadly, his family doesn't even notice his condition. He overhears them talking about the Shade and asks about their plan to stop him, clearly wanting to be part of the team. Dugan tells him to leave the superheroics to Courtney and the team. Disappointed, Mike slowly trudges up to his room.

Mike's boss calls and adds a new customer to his route. Mike searches for a pen to write down the address, and spots a pink one in Courtney's room. He grabs it and writes down the address, unaware that this is same pink pen that houses the Thunderbolt.

Cut to Mike back on his paper route. Oddly enough he begins noticing the words "So Cool" everywhere he looks. He hits a rock and falls off his bike, sending newspapers scattering. He picks up one and sees the headline reads "So Cool." He says the words out loud, and suddenly a pink electric genie pops out of the pen. He introduces himself as Thunderbolt, and says he used to work with Johnny Thunder as a member of the JSA.

Thunderbolt explains that he's from Bahdnesia, wherever that is, and the word "sowkewl"— which sounds like "So Cool" in English— frees him from the pen 
and allows him to grant the speaker any wish. Intrigued, Mike says he's thirsty and wishes for a drink. He's instantly doused with water, as Thunderbolt tells him his wishes have to be specific.

Mike then wishes he was taller, and seemingly grows a foot or two. He's disappointed when he looks down and sees Thunderbolt just placed him atop a bench. Thunderbolt then lays out even more rules, saying one can't make the same wish twice, nor wish for someone to die or come back from the dead.

Elsewhere, the JSA meets at the Pit Stop. Dugan tells them the Shade is in Blue Valley, and he used to be a member of the ISA before he quit. He tells them Shade's at least a hundred years old, can manipulate and travel through shadows and is highly dangerous. He says he saw him kill Dr. Mid-Nite right in front of him. This angers Beth, who says they need to avenge "Chuck's" death.

Rick asks how they can fight someone who can disappear into shadows. Dugan says the only thing he ever saw that could stop Shade was the Cosmic Staff. Naturally this makes Courtney confident she can beat him. Yolanda asks what they'll do if they do manage to subdue Shade, and Dugan says they'll figure that out later.

Meanwhile at the American Dream building, Barb goes up to the storage room in the clocktower. There she looks through William Zarrick's stuff, curious as to why Richard Swift (aka the Shade) wanted it. Suddenly Swift comes up behind her, saying they can look through the collection together. Barb points out that he's trespassing and asks him to leave.

She fumbles out her phone but sees it's suddenly dead. Swift finds a wooden box and anxiously opens it. He's disappointed when he sees it's empty. He asks if he can have it anyway, and Barb says she can't let him take it. He tells her that's a shame, as the lights instantly go out. When they finally come back on, Swift— and the box— are gone.

Courtney and Yolanda sit in summer school class, bored out of their minds. Suddenly Yolanda winces in pain with a splitting headache (confirming my suspicions about her and Brainwave). She says she won't kill again, and Courtney assures her it won't come to that with the Shade.

Elsewhere, Mike watches the bullies harass a little girl selling Girl Scout Cookies. They steal several boxes, and Mike wishes Thunderbolt would make them stop. Suddenly several stop signs begin dropping from the sky, surrounding the bullies. Unfortunately the signs just keep on coming, and Mike tells Thunderbolt that's enough. He says he's simply following the wish, and can't stop until the bullies do. The three end up running off in different directions.

Courtney & Yolanda see Mike standing near the numerous stop signs, and he introduces Thunderbolt to them. He then says now that he has "powers," he's looking forward to becoming the newest member of the JSA.

Cut to the Pit Stop, where Dugan meets with the team. He says Thunderbolt's dangerous, as no matter how careful they are, their wishes will inevitably bite them in the ass. He orders Mike to give him back the pen. Mike's upset that Dugan thinks he can't handle it, but hands it over to him. The pen instantly vanishes from Dugan's hand and appears back in Mike's.

Dugan sends the others out so he can talk to Thunderbolt alone. Dugan points out that even with all of Thunderbolt's power, Johnny Thunder still ended up dead— a fate he doesn't want for Mike. Thunderbolt says Johnny's last wish was that he find a friend, and he can only do so with someone who feels all alone. This hits Dugan hard, as he realizes he's been neglecting his son.

The JSA tell Dugan they voted and decided Mike can become a member. Dugan says it's not up for voting, and Courtney reminds him that he didn't want her or the others to become superheroes at first either. Realizing he's outnumbered, Dugan agrees to let Mike help them find the Shade, and that's it.

The team then spends hours coming up with an ironclad, foolproof wish that can't possibly be misinterpreted by Thunderbolt, in order to locate the Shade. Mike makes the incredibly detailed wish, and a pink burst of flame ignites on a nearby map of the city. Dugan checks it out and says Shade's hiding in William Zarick's old house.

The team preps to leave, including Mike. Unfortunately Dugan reminds him of their deal, and tells him to stay behind and guard the garage.

Dugan tells Barb about their plan, saying once they capture Shade they're going to use her old tanning bed to negate his powers and hold him till the authorities arrive. Barb's skeptical, but Dugan tells her it'll be fine. Courtney assures Yolanda again that they're just going to capture Shade, not kill him.

At the garage, Mike sits and stares at the pen. Suddenly he gets up and starts writing out a new wish on the whiteboard.

Dugan and the JSA arrive at Zarick's house. Courtney uses the staff to pick the lock, and they burst in. They enter the dining room, where they see the Shade calmly waiting for them. Rather than attack, he unexpectedly invites them to sit down and enjoy some tea. Dugan asks what he's doing in Blue Valley, and Shade dismissively says it's best if they don't know.

Beth accuses Shade of killing the original Dr. Mid-Nite, and he assures her she doesn't know what she's talking about. Once again he asks them to join him, and Dugan tells the others to sit. Stargirl says she won't let Shade hurt the town the way Icicle did. Shade says Jordan was a lunatic, and the two of them were always at odds.

Just then Mike runs in and recites his wish for Thunderbolt to zap Shade. The Thunderbolt appears, but Shade conjures up a series of shadowy tentacles and grabs him, along with all the others. Shade easily knocks them all on their asses and subdues them. One of the tentacles tries to grab Stargirl's Cosmic Staff, but it begins glowing brightly. This causes the tentacles to recoil, and Shade angrily tells them to stay out of his way as he vanishes.

A bit later Mike's pouting on the Zarick home's porch. Yolanda comes out and asks if he's OK. He says he just wanted to help, but ended up blowing it. She asks if he feels bad about killing Icicle, and he says not really, as it was an accident.

That night Dugan and Barb lecture Mike. He tells them he's sorry, and wishes the pen was in better hands. Right on cue, it disappears.

Cut to the home of Mike's friend Jakeem. He's playing video games as his sister comes in and calls him a loser. He sighs and says she's right. Suddenly the pen appears on the desk in front of him.

Elsewhere, Dugan tells Barb what Thunderbolt said— that it chose Mike because he felt all alone. 
They both admit they've been neglecting Mike lately. Barb mentions that Shade took an empty wooden box from Zarick's collection, and asks Dugan if he knows anything about it. He says yes— it housed the Black Diamond, and it's bad news.

Beth's at the Pit Stop tinkering with her goggles. Rick enters and asks if she's OK, and she says she thinks her parents are getting divorced. Just then the goggles activate, and Chuck says, "You're in danger. Eclipso!" Beth asks Chuck what he means, but the goggles shut down.

Elsewhere, Shade stands atop the clock tower of The American Dream building. He opens the wooden box and stares into it as he says, "He's going to kill those children."

Thoughts: 
• Just a quick note here— some readers may find it odd that I gushed like crazy over this episode in the intro, and then wrote 50,000 words tearing it apart. Despite how it may appear, I really did like the episode quite a bit! 
In fact it may be my favorite of the entire series so far! As I like to point out, it's entirely possible to enjoy something and acknowledge its imperfections at the same time.

• As with most episodes of Stargirl, this one starts with a flashback, this time to eleven years ago (circa 2010).

• I've mentioned it before, but this show has a bizarre interesting timeline. It features characters from the Justice Society Of America, most of which made their comic book debut way back in the 1930s and 1940s. As a result of that, their costumes all look like they came straight out of that era.

But because the show's taking place in the present day, the producers had to bump the characters forward in time by seventy or eighty years. So we end up with characters who look— and in some cases even act— like they're from the 1940s, but are alive and well in the 2010s! 

I don't necessarily see this as a problem, but I gotta admit it's an oddity. You just have to accept it and move on.

• Looks like they still use old school incandescent Xmas tree lights over on Earth-2. Here on Earth Prime, we started using LED Xmas decorations in the late 1990s. 

I guess it's possible the Justice Society just hasn't bought new lights in a long time.

 • If nothing else, I continue to be impressed by Stargirl's fidelity to its source material. Golden Age hero Johnny Thunder makes a brief appearance in this episode, complete with his trademark bright green suit and nerdy bowtie. He looks like he stepped right off the comic page!

In the comics, Johnny Thunder was the seventh son of a seventh son, born at 7am on the seventh day of the seventh month of the year. Due to this special birthdate, he was kidnapped by natives of Badhnesia and taken to their island nation. There they gave him the Thunderbolt, and intended to rule the world through him.

Those plans changed when Badhnesia was invaded by a neighboring country and Johnny escaped back to America. There he lived a normal life until the day he casually said the words "Say You" and summoned the Thunderbolt. After learning to control it (sort of), he eventually became a member of the JSA.

• It was great to see the original Wildcat again, if only for a few seconds.

• We get a brief glimpse of Mike's room this week, and see that he's apparently a fan of Rock 'Em Sock 'Em Robots (just under the window)! Cool!

• After Mike finds the pink Thunderbolt pen, he returns to his paper route. Suddenly he begins noticing the words "So Cool" everywhere he looks. Eventually he says the words out loud, which releases the Thunderbolt from the pen.

This is a major change from the original comics. See, back in the 1940s, Johnny Thunder controlled Thunderbolt by uttering the words "Cei-U," which sounded like "Say You." As in, "Say you, what's the big idea?" This made perfect sense eighty years ago, when people actually talked like that.

Nowadays, not so much. When Jakeem replaced Johnny Thunder in the comics, the magic words were changed to a more modern "sowkewl"— pronounced as "So Cool." It appears the show's following this change as well.

Not complaining, mind you, as the change was logical in context. After all, no modern kid's gonna go around hollering, "Say you!"

• Mike asks the Thunderbolt about the magic words that summon him:

Thunderbolt: "It's pronounced sowkewl in my native homeland of Bahdnesia."
Mike: "Bahd-what?"
Thunderbolt: "It's not on the map anymore. Thanks for bringing it up. Sowkewl means 'Set Free The All-Powerful Force Upon The Earth Of The Magical And Awe-Inspiring Thunderbolt!' It's also a synonym for the sound on the chalkboard that drives everyone crazy, but I like that sound."

Looks like the writers did their homework! As I mentioned earlier, in the comics the Thunderbolt was indeed from the fictional island of Bahdnesia. 

There Thunderbolt was a djinn named Yz from the 5th Dimension— a realm with electrical based lifeforms. He has the power to do almost anything, as long as his master makes an exactly-worded wish. It's unclear how he ended up on Earth-2.

• As with Jonny Thunder, the producers did an amazing job of translating the Thunderbolt into live action. The character's instantly recognizable, and looks exactly like he did in the comics. Well done!

If I had one complaint about his live action design (and you knew I would), it'd be with the three jagged bolts of energy jutting from the top of his head. I always assumed it was supposed to look like he had lightning sparking from his noggin.

Apparently the FX team didn't understand that, as they decided to go another way. Instead of cracking energy bolts, it now looks like he has three floppy rabbit ears on top of his head. They even squash & stretch as he moves around, like they're made out of something soft & rubbery! What the hell, guys?

• When I first heard the Thunderbolt speak, I thought he sounded like Patton Oswalt. Eventually I figured out he was voiced by comedian Jim Gaffigan. He did an amazing job, too!

• When Mike finds out he now controls a genie who'll grant him any wish, he immediately asks it to make him taller. This is ironic, as actor Trae Romano has shot up like a weed in the past year, and is visibly taller than he was in Season 1. Puberty ahoy!

• Mike's excitement is dimmed somewhat when he finds out the Thunderbolt's powers are governed by all sorts of rules, and that he interprets wishes literally— to often disastrous effect.

This is how it worked in the comics as well. I get it— the whole literal thing is for maximum comedic yuks. But it makes Thunderbolt seem like... well, an asshole. When someone says, "I wish for a million bucks," he clearly understands they mean money, and don't want to be buried under a huge pile of male deer. As written it seems like he's deliberately looking for loopholes in order to be a dick.

• In the comics, Thunderbolt always came out of his magic pen to grant wishes. Here on the show there are several scenes in which he uses his magic while still INSIDE the pen. I will bet anything that was done to save money on costly CGI. By staying safe & sound in the pen, the FX team only had to add a couple pink sparks, instead of a fully animated humanoid.

To be fair, in the early comics the Thunderbolt would often exit his pen but become invisible, to prevent Johnny Thunder from seeing him.

• Last week when Rick was leaving food in the woods for Grundy, I asked if he was trying to make a pet of the behemoth. This week Dugan scolds Rick for being late to their JSA briefing, and asks what kept him. Rick says he was "feeding his dog." Looks like I called it!

As I mentioned before, there's a precedent for this in the comics, as Infinity, Inc. (which Stargirl borrows heavily from) actually included a "Grundy Becomes An Honorary Member Of The Team" storyline.

• I'm glad the writers are including Barb more this season. It's far more interesting to see her become an active member of the team rather than the worried yet understanding wife and mother.

Last week Richard Swift met with Barb at The American Dream and expressed interest in buying the William Zarick Collection. In this episode we see her rooting around in the building's attic, curious as to why swift was so interested in Zarick's stuff. A couple things here:

First of all, as Barb searches the collection we see numerous magical stage props, including giant oversized playing cards that are three feet tall. This makes perfect sense, as when Zarick wasn't busy trying to take over the world as The Wizard, he was a talented stage magician as well.

We also see one of his campaign posters in the collection. If you'll recall, last season he ran for City Councilman
— right before he was brutally murdered by Jordan Mahkent, aka Icicle.

Secondly, I wondered how and more importantly why the Zarick Collection ended up at The American Dream. They're ostensibly an urban renewal organization, not an auction house or legal trust.

As I thought about it though it actually made sense. The American Dream was Jordan's foundation after all. Once he killed Zarick, he likely boxed up all his magic paraphernalia (both stage and real!) and stashed it in The American Dream's storage space. This had the added advantage of preventing the authorities from getting their hands on it, so they didn't discover Zarick's secret identity or start messing with dangerous magical artifacts.

Also, later in the episode Beth mentions the Zarick house was made an historic home by the city, so that could also explain how The American Dream got ahold of the collection.

• Back in Summer School: Chapter One I predicted that Yolanda would end up "possessed" by Brainwave, as he likely projected his consciousness into her mind as he died (just like Spock did to McCoy in Star Trek II: The Wrath Of Khan).

Welp, it's looking more and more like that's what's happening. This week Yolanda's sitting in class when she practically passes out due to a splitting headache. I'm betting Brainwave's ratting around somewhere in her head, and she'll be completely taken over by him in the season finale.

• At one point Mike makes an errant wish and causes the Thunderbolt to surround a trio of bullies with dozens of stop signs that fall from the sky.

So... just how does Thunderbolt's magic work? Do the objects he conjures vanish after a time, or are they permanent? Let's hope they eventually disappear, otherwise Blue Valley's gonna have a plague of randomly-placed traffic signs!

Also in this scene, Thunderbolt continues to be a dick as he drops a stop sign through the windshield of a random, innocent person's car— long after the bullies had cleared the area! 

• Courtney suggests using Thunderbolt to locate the Shade. Dugan reluctantly agrees, but says they'll need to come up with a "bulletproof" wish. 

We then get a fun montage of the JSA carefully brainstorming a ridiculously specific ironclad wish that the Thunderbolt can't possibly twist or misinterpret.

Mike recites the incredibly lengthy wish, which ends with, "So In conclusion, show us the location of 'The Shade,' not to be confused with a lamp or window shade, but the last known member of the Injustice Society of America, hiding somewhere in Blue Valley, Nebraska, 68060, USA."

I was excited when I heard that zip, as I thought it'd give us a good idea just where Blue Valley's located inside Nebraska. I looked it up, and unfortunately there's no such zip code anywhere in Nebraska or even in America. Whoops!

Technically this might not be a mistake though, as Stargirl takes place on Earth-2, so maybe there they have a 68060 zip in Nebraska!

• The writers reeeally need to resolve Beth's "Broken Goggles" storyline, and fast. She's always been the weakest member of the team, even with the Chuck AI. Without him, she's even worse— a normal, non-superpowered teenaged girl wearing a bulky costume. 

No offense to the character, as I like Beth quite a bit— but at this point she's a liability to the team. Any run-of-the-mill villain could easily capture her, hold her for ransom or even kill her, and there's little or nothing she could do to stop them.

• As I mentioned last week, it appears the show's going with the modern version of the Shade. The one who's morally ambiguous, yet cultured and refined.

Oddly enough it seems he's only in Blue Valley to find the Black Diamond, and has absolutely zero interest in opposing or defeating the JSA. In fact when he's forced to fight them, he uses his powers in a purely defensive manner, as he clearly doesn't want to kill a bunch of teens. This makes for a MUCH more nuanced and interesting character, and I'm enjoying his scenes quite a bit.

• There's a fun little exchange at the Zarick house between Dugan and Swift, that's also a callback to their previous meeting. Last week Dugan "subtly" checked out Swift in the diner:

Dugan: "Actually noticed a, uh, '65 Jaguar out on the curb. It's a real beauty."
Swift: (condescendingly) "It's a '67."
Dugan: "'67, huh?"

The implication here is that Dugan knew the Shade had a 1967 Jag, and was testing Swift to make sure it was really him.

When they meet again this week, Dugan says:

Dugan: "By the way, I knew that was a 1967 Jag, right? You know that?
Swift: "Well of course I do, Stripesy."

Ha! Dugan couldn't stand the idea of anyone— even a supervillain— thinking he didn't know his cars. Put away your male ego, Dugan! This is no time for a pissing contest between you and Shade!

• At one point Mike rushes in and wishes for Thunderbolt to capture Shade. Surprisingly Shade's able to easily overpower the genie. The JSA then attacks Shade as we get a brief but cool setpiece battle.

Note that Shade uses his shadowy powers to form grabby little hands that try and yank Stargirl's staff away from her. Fortunately they're apparently susceptible to light, and can't get a good grip on the luminous staff. It's a pretty cool effect. Kudos to the FX Team!

• Still reeling with guilt after killing Brainwave, Yolanda sees a potential kindred spirit in Mike— who murdered Icicle in the Season 1 finale. She asks him how he deals with the constant feelings of remorse, hoping to find an answer that'll help. Unfortunately for her, Mike says Icicle's death was just an accident, and he doesn't have any feelings of regret over it. D'oh! 

Maybe Yolanda should stop asking fourteen year olds for psychiatric advice and go see an actual therapist!

• At the end of Chapter One, we saw Cindy staring at photos of potential recruits for her new ISA. Among them was a snapshot of Mike. I then made the following prediction:

At some point Mike's gonna find the pen, become the Thunderbolt's new master and demand to become a member of the new JSA. But something will happen to give control of Thunderbolt to his friend Jakeem, which would align with the comics.

I'm betting this will send Mike into a spiral of anger and resentment, and make him vulnerable to Cindy's recruitment drive— especially if she's got the Eclipso diamond to help manipulate his emotions. Again, stay tuned to see if I'm right.

Wow! I got the first part of that prediction exactly right! Mike did indeed find and control the Thunderbolt for a little while, before it was handed over to Jakeem.

As for the second half of my prediction, eh, I dunno. Mike was most definitely disappointed when he lost the Thunderbolt and his place on the team. But he didn't seem upset enough about it to turn evil and join a supervillain group bent on his former teammates' destruction.

Plus as I said in Chapter One, there's no way Cindy could possibly know about Mike's feelings of abandonment and his failed attempt to join the JSA, so she'd have no reason to believe he'd want to join her merry band. I think she's simply gonna use the Black Diamond to cloud his judgement and recruit him.

Lastly, why does Cindy want Mike at all? He doesn't have ANY powers whatsoever that she could exploit. Does she want him as the team's plucky comic relief?

I have to assume she's most likely trying to enlist him in order to get back at Courtney.

• After almost getting the JSA killed, Mike wishes he'd never found the pen, which inadvertently gifts it to his friend Jakeem.

He's only onscreen for a minute or so, but the Jakeem seen here is quite different from the comic version. TV Jakeem is a timid, self-described loser, while his comic counterpart was confident and wisecracking.

In the comics, Jakeem was from Keystone City (home of the Golden Age Flash) and lived with his mother. After she died be was taken in by an aunt, and became a tough, foul-mouthed street kid. 

When the now elderly Johnny Thunder developed Alzheimer's (comics are fun, kids!), he absentmindedly stored Thunderbolt inside an ink pen. The pen was eventually passed to Jakeem, who learned to control the genie inside it. He ended up working with the JSA, and even cured Johnny's condition.

• At the end of the episode, Beth opens up to Rick and tells him she found her parents' divorce papers. He gently consoles her and says she should talk to them about the situation.

Based on their interaction here, it looks like they're setting up a romance between Rick & Beth.

• Thanks to Beth's semi-functioning goggles, we now know that Rick's 5' 10", weighs 186 pounds and has a heart rate of 82 beats per minute! Oh, and the goggles somehow know Dugan's propane tank is 23% full.

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