A new generation of champions emerge in “Stargirl,” the CW’s latest entry into the superhero genre.
The TV series stars several DC Comics heroes led by Stargirl, who is based on the comics character created by Geoff Johns. She is a teenager named Courtney Whitmore (Brec Bassinger), who teams with her seemingly not-so-cool new stepfather, Pat Dugan (Luke Wilson), to hunt down the villains who wiped out an earlier group of heroes, the Justice Society of America.
But her motive is not purely altruistic: Courtney believes her father, who disappeared the day the team died, may have secretly been one of the crime fighters. Along the way, she finds new heroes to inherit the Society’s capes and cowls.
“The idea of legacy is front and center,” said Johns, who wrote the pilot and serves as showrunner, his first time overseeing a series. “Stargirl” premieres Monday on DC Universe and Tuesday on the CW.
Johns created Stargirl in his first comic book series, Stars and S.T.R.I.P.E., from 1999. The character was informed partly by Star Spangled Comics from 1941, which featured a child hero and adult sidekick. “I’ve always been a fan of finding these old, kind of forgotten or overlooked ideas from DC’s history and polishing them up,” he said.
The other inspiration was more personal: The character is named after Johns’s sister Courtney, who died in the explosion of TWA flight 800 in 1996.
“I took my love for my sister and DC Comics and combined the two,” he said.
In a recent telephone interview, Johns talked about his sister, his stint as an assistant to the film director Richard Donner and his love of comic book lore. These are edited excerpts from the conversation.
What aspects of your sister Courtney did you put into Stargirl?
My sister was a ball of energy and so optimistic and unafraid. I wanted to try to capture some of that in a character that would be around forever.
Is giving the character flaws difficult since she is based on your sister?
No, my sister had plenty of flaws, but also the character, once you start to write her, takes on a life of her own. I find Courtney to be one of the easiest characters to write because she’s always going to try; to me, that is a really inspiring trait. She sees the potential in this old sidekick Pat Dugan where others haven’t. She sees potential in the high school kids who have been overlooked that she recruits into the Justice Society. She finds value in people that others have dismissed.
You wrote the part of Pat Dugan, the stepfather, for Luke Wilson. Why did you have him in mind?
When I first came to L.A., I saw “Bottle Rocket” and I just fell in love with him as an actor. He brings this real grounded earnestness and likability and humbleness. And he’s funny! So when I was writing Pat Dugan, I always envisioned him. When I wrote the pilot, I sent him the script. We ended up having lunch together and he came with all these hilarious ideas about one of the other characters in the series, Pat Dugan’s son, Mike [Trey Romano], who’s like this 45-year-old man in a 14-year-old body. He even picked the Johnny Cash song in Episode 2.
A version of Stargirl appeared in a 2010 episode of “Smallville” that you wrote. What is different about how Brec Bassinger embodies the character?
It was fun to see Stargirl onscreen for the first time, but it was very different because she was a supporting character. Thematically, this is a very different experience. We’re lucky to have found Brec — she came in and delivered the emotion, the warmth, the drama, the comedy and the strength that Stargirl and Courtney needed.
The cast of “Stargirl” is notably diverse. Was that a priority?
Our lead is Stargirl, so, you know, I do not have to wave a flag to say, “Look, we have a female lead!” But it was important to have a diverse set of characters around her, and I wanted to take characters from the comics that I loved and some I never had a chance to write. Yolanda Montez/Wildcat [played by Yvette Monreal] was killed off early in the comics and was forgotten about, as was Beth Chapel, the new Doctor Midnight [Anjelika Washington]. Both characters had a lot of untapped potential. The other thing about Yolanda and Beth and even Rick Tyler [Cameron Gellman] is that they’re not super defined in the lore, so it gave us the latitude to make the best versions for this show.
This is your first time as a showrunner. What was that like?
It was an incredible learning process. I moved to Atlanta for production because I wanted to make sure that our tone was proper, that we were protecting the scenes we needed to and that the directors and everyone understood what we’re trying to accomplish. We tried to raise the bar on production, too — I wanted to bring a cinematic look and feel to the show. I hope we can do many more seasons of it.
Did your time as Richard Donner’s assistant influence how you approached this production?
I was his assistant on “Conspiracy Theory” and “Lethal Weapon 4” and I was on set, and his attitude was amazing. I learned from some of the best people: from Dick to Patty Jenkins to Greg Berlanti and so many others. I co-wrote “WW1984” with Patty and Dave Callaham, and it was one of the most intense and fun experiences I’ve had writing. I’ve worked with Greg on TV since he was developing “Arrow.” We developed “The Flash” together and “Titans” with Akiva Goldsman and we’ve worked on several other DC shows. Greg’s passion and experience were invaluable during “Stargirl.”
Does your approach to writing change when you’re doing a comic or a TV show?
With comic books, you have a finite number of pages and a finite number of panels. There is no budget, but there are limitations to what you can do in terms of the format. You can’t do silent moments as much because it eats up so many pages. With TV, you definitely have budget constraints. Once you figure out how to write within the budget, it gets easier.
What’s the geekiest thing that you’ve included in the series?
There’s a lot of stuff in the J.S.A. headquarters that digs really deep. Our goal was to embrace the material, from the opening scene, with our version of the swamp creature Solomon Grundy, to the pink pen carrying the magical Thunderbolt. When we get into the Seven Soldiers, that digs deep. But we try to do it in a way that is emotionally relevant. It wasn’t just throwing in Easter eggs; everything is a story to be told.