This part gets tougher every year. More prestige shows drawing top talents, more top talents being discovered on smaller shows… on my spreadsheet (of course I have a spreadsheet, we went over this at the end of Art Vs Commerce, I am absolutely that geek), I used to flag people as green (top performances), yellow (decent but less exceptional), or red (uninspiring), but it’s been ages since I had fewer than six people flagged as green in the most categories. I basically gave up on any other colour, each year has at least one category that’s a game of inches between five to eight amazing performances.
So here’s the results of some tough, sometimes nigh impossible choices.
(Yes, I still have these categories split by gender. When comic book TV has enby, genderqueer, or genderfluid characters other than the sentient teleporting street, I’ll add a category for them as well. For some reason I love adding categories.)
The leading voice in fighting climate change is a Swedish teen girl, furious that inaction by world leaders has jeopardized her chances of having an adulthood. Some of the strongest responses to both COVID and gun violence are coming from New Zealand prime minister Jacinda Ardern. My home province has been steadily collapsing ever since all the right-wing idiots decided to vote out the woman running it and replace her with an inept hillbilly out to privatize health care during the worst health crisis in living memory. And to my left-leaning ears, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez seems to be the only person in Washington talking any sense.
Seems obvious to me, if anyone can save the world, and the world needs some saving… it’s gonna be the ladies.
So it’s fitting that Quarantine Times brought us two teen girls with a mission to save the world: DC’s Stargirl, featuring a character DC wunderkind Geoff Johns created in the 90s as a tribute to his sister who died in a plane crash; and Warrior Nun, based on a manga by Ben Dunn. On the surface, they seem very different, but they have some interesting connections in the ways that they’re completely opposite.
Today I’d like to get into all of that, but before I can, let’s cover…
Stargirl: Teenager Courtney Whitmore finds her life upended, as her mother Barbara (Amy Smart, nice to see her again), her step-father Pat Dugan (Luke Wilson, doing pretty great), and step-brother Mike leave Los Angeles for Barbara’s childhood home of Blue Valley, Nebraska. Nothing seems to be going well… until among Pat’s things Courtney finds a powerful weapon called the Cosmic Staff, which is slightly alive and has chosen her to wield it.
See, ten years ago, on the same night when Courtney and Barbara lost touch with Court’s father, Pat was the sidekick to Starman, leader of the Justice Society of America… but nearly all of the JSA were killed in battle with the incredibly cleverly named villain group the INjustice Society of America… cold and cruel telepath/telekinetic Brainwave, master tactician the Gambler, the musically-powered Fiddler, the magical Wizard, deadly fighters Sportsmaster and Tigress, evil scientist/slightly immortal Japanese war criminal Dragon King, the hulking monster Solomon Grundy, The Shade (who doesn’t really appear as apparently he rage-quit the group a while back), and their ice-powered leader Icicle.
And damn, can we give props to Geoff Johns and the other writers for going to DC leadership, saying “Which villains can we use on this show,” being handed Sportsmaster and Icicle, and still somehow nailing it.
Courtney decides that the staff chose her because Starman is her long-absent father, and the reason he never showed up for Christmas ten years ago (or ever since) is because that’s the night the JSA fell. And so despite constant protests from Pat that this is far too dangerous and Starman is not her father, because despite a resemblance to the blurry photo Court keeps in a locket, her father was not named Sylvester Pemberton*, she takes up the staff and becomes Stargirl, and not a moment too soon, because the ISA have pretty much taken over Blue Valley, and they are up to no good. So Courtney turns to the outcasts among her new classmates to build a new Justice Society to take them on… while Pat breaks out the giant robot armour he’s been working on to begrudgingly help as S.T.R.I.P.E.
*I’m probably the only one who was bothered by the fact that there have been at minimum six different heroes who called themselves Starman and Sylvester Pemberton, the Star-Spangled Kid, was not one of them… but I get it. Comics-Courtney initially adopted the legacy of the Star-Spangled Kid, then became Stargirl when Starman #5, Jack Knight, gave her his cosmic staff to carry on in his name. For the TV version, it’s hell of simpler if she takes her inspiration from one person, so sure, make Sylvester Starman, it cleans things up.
Warrior Nun: for centuries, the fighting nuns of the Order of the Cruciform Sword have battled demons on Earth, with weapons made of an unearthly metal called Divinium and under the leadership of the Warrior Nun, who is bonded with an angel’s halo, giving her powers and abilities to fight the demons that possess humans for evil purpose, and with some more difficulty, the hulking Tarask demons that seem to hunt the Warrior Nun.
After an ambush on the Order, led by people who somehow know the Warrior Nun can be killed with Divinium and also have some, the current Warrior Nun dies, but instead of her heir apparent Sister Lilith, the halo ends up inside recently deceased 19-year-old Ava Silva (Alba Baptista), who has spent most of her life a quadriplegic living under the care of an abusive nun. This is not seen as a great result for the Order, as Ava doesn’t have a strong interest in fighting demons for the church that made her life even more miserable than the car accident that crippled her and killed her parents already had. Plus not-quite-nun Shotgun Mary is out to uncover the conspiracy behind the assassination of previous Warrior Nun Sister Shannon (who it’s strongly implied was Mary’s girlfriend); scientist CEO Jillian Salvius thinks she can use Divinium to build a portal to heaven; and papal candidate Cardinal Francisco Duretti thinks the Order needs some restructuring. It’s a hectic time. Sure hope there aren’t any shocking revelations coming about the Order’s history, boy that wouldn’t help anything.
So already we see a few common threads between Stargirl and Warrior Nun. Both have teen girl heroes (although Ava is only barely still a teen); both invest a lot into the ideas of legacy and destiny; both have their heroines inheriting a weapon capable of deciding who is and isn’t worthy to wield it (the halo sometimes rejects an unworthy host, I failed to mention that); and each has a reluctant mentor figure who is convinced she shouldn’t have said weapon but were rejected from wielding it themselves. But once you get past those similarities, it’s a little interesting how these two shows tackle their first seasons in completely opposite ways.
Apparently YouTube videos whose ads donate to BLM charities are a moving target, as YouTube pulled the last one right after I posted it. I’ve replaced it with this one, which hopefully also works, so give it a spin, and while you’re doing that, check out this list of ways you can help fight racism. Find something that works for you, then meet me in the next paragraph.
No, really, I’ll wait, go do that. Done? Okay, let’s get going.
Alright nerds, we’re through the technicals, into the performances. Some of the most brutal, hard to call categories coming at you, ’cause there was some talent this season.
Let’s see if I can do them in a sensible order for once.
The Wentworth Miller Award For Best Guest Star
Putting aside series regulars and major recurring characters, who brought something special to their limited appearances, as Wentworth Miller did on The Flash as Captain Cold?
These people did!
Honourable mentions: Haley Joel Osment as a formerly famous child hero on The Boys was just perfect casting; Neal McDonough made one last appearance as Damien Darhk on Legends of Tomorrow, and was delightful as always; and of all the alumni they brought back for Arrow’s final season (damn near all of them), the one who most reminded us what they brought to the show, and how much they’re missed, was Paul Blackthorne as Quentin Lance. His brief reunion with Oliver and Earth-2’s Laurel Lance was particularly emotional.
Bronze: The Crisis Cameos, Crisis On Infinite Earths
Really all I can do here is present a complete list, except for the dozen and change that were pretty clearly recycled footage from DC Universe streaming shows.
Robert Wuhl reprising Knox the reporter from 1989’s Batman; Burt goddamn Ward reprising Adam West’s sidekick Dick Grayson; Wil Wheaton as a doomsayer; The Tick’s Griffin Newman hosting a trivia night; Erica Durance as both Supergirl’s Alura and Smallville’s Lois Lane; Johnathon Schaech reprising Jonah Hex; Tom Welling back as Smallville’s Clark Kent (punching out Lex Luthor, no less); Kevin Conroy from Batman: The Animated Series bringing his iconic Batman voice to live-action for the first time; patron saint of this category, Wentworth Miller, as the voice of Leonard Snart on an alternate-Earth Waverider; Tom Ellis bringing Lucifer Morningstar to the Arrowverse, face to face with John Constantine; Ashley Scott back in costume as the Huntress from the short-lived Birds of Prey series; John Wesley Shipp reprising his 1990 Flash one last time; Black Lightning finally joining the crew; Ezra Miller giving us a brief meeting of the cinematic and television Flashes; and original Crisis author Marv Wolfman hitting Flash and Supergirl up for autographs (he loves the team-ups, you see).
Is that everyone? I think so? And each one delightful.
(If I had to pick one, it’d be Tom Ellis by a nose, but I don’t so I won’t.)
Silver: Thomas Lennon as Mr. Mxyzptlk, Supergirl
A quick lampshade-hang about why they’ve swapped out the original actor for someone less dreamy, and Mr. Mxyzptlk came back to Supergirl, and he came back doing what Mxy does best… being an adorable trickster and screwing with the fourth wall. And Thomas Lennon excelled, always finding the humour in Supergirl’s 100th-episode trip backwards through the past four seasons, as Mxy and Kara tried to find a moment to tell Lena Luthor the truth about Kara that maybe wouldn’t destroy either their relationship or the world. Some of them destroyed the world.
I could really go for an annual Mxyzptlk appearance, if that’s an option.
Gold: Jemaine Clement and Jason Mantzoukis as Oliver Bird and the Big Bad Wolf, Legion
I feel like we discussed this episode and it’s rhythmic climax plenty last time. So for now I’ll just say that it was an immense delight seeing Jemaine Clement back, and the only thing that improved it was having Jason Manzoukis show up as the (symbolic) Big Bad Wolf, shouting to Oliver not to wait before teaching the baby about syphilis.
And then they rap battled. Come on.
Such a great episode, and these two (with help from Jean Smart) really anchored it.
The Tricia Helfer Award for Rookie of the Year
What new characters on an established show really brought something special, like the way Tricia Helfer’s Goddess Charlotte kicked Lucifer up to the next level?
Honourable mentions: Switch on Legion made the entire season three story possible, but she sometimes felt like more of a device than a character; Connor/Superboy was a fun addition to Titans, but he more created his own subplot than added to what had been the main story; Natalie Dreyfuss was great fun as Ralph Dibny’s long-awaited true-love-to-be Sue Dearbon on The Flash, but was only in three episodes, and due to reasons probably won’t be back.
Bronze: Iain Glen as Bruce Wayne, Titans
I’m not a big fan of “middle-aged Batman” in general, and I’m not sure what Glen was going for with that Brooklyn accent… sometimes it seems “neutral American” is too tricky an accent, so actors from, in this case, Scotland, aim for something more regional… but damn having Bruce Wayne around was a good and necessary addition to this show. Given how much of Titans revolves around Dick’s difficult history with his complicated surrogate father, never seeing him throughout season one was kind of awkward. Whether Bruce was there in person, or an illusion created by Raven, or a hallucination brought on by Dick’s guilty conscience*, Bruce added a lot to the season, and if you could roll with the accent, Glen was kinda killing it.
*That last one was actually pretty great, and involved Bruce Wayne doing the Batusi with burlesque dancers, and it was amazing.
Silver: Naomi Ackie as Bonnie, The End of the F***ing World
Series one of The End of the F***ing World was about James and Alyssa running from their traumas; series two was about having to confront the consequences. And so it made sense to have the consequences of their crime-ridden road trip personified in Bonnie.
The End of the F***ing World has always been about broken people finding inadvisable ways to face their traumas, and series two brought a new style of trauma to the mix in angry, confused, vengeful Bonnie. “I learned about punishment from a young age,” she tells us. Bonnie was raised with abuse and discipline instead of love, and now she has them mixed up in her head. Led astray by what she thought was love, she was personally wronged by the events of series one, and has come to deliver punishment to James and Alyssa. Poorly thought-out, at times hilariously inept punishment. Bonnie makes our road-tripping duo into a trio, and was a welcome addition.
Gold: Shayan Sobhian as Behrad Tarazi, Legends of Tomorrow
In the third season finale, hacker and freedom fighter from the future Zari Tomaz finally altered her past/our present enough that her dystopia never happens… which means that her family was never hunted by a government that hated metahumans and also Muslims (I think we know any fascist American regime, fictional or currently-in-progress, is gonna come at Muslims), so her brother Behrad was never killed by ARGUS agents, so she never inherited the Zambesi air totem from him… and never joined the Legends. And also her last name is Tarazi now? Don’t fully get that last bit. But anyway, the last moments of the previous finale saw Zari erased from the team’s history… and replaced by Behrad.
So that left Shayan Sobhian with a bit of a trick to pull off… make this new character feel like a long term part of the team, make his relationships with the other Legends feel lived-in, and make us like him enough that we’d be invested in him sticking around instead of checking our watches wondering when “Internet Celebrity Zari” was going to blow over and things would go back to the way they were last season.
And damned if he didn’t nail it.
Behrad instantly felt like an old friend. Whether he was being best bros with Nate and Ray, or revealing that he’d had a secret tryst with Charlie the shapeshifter (which they probably kept on the DL since her primary form looks exactly like Nate’s ex), or dealing with his vain, shallow older sister Zari finding out he’s a time traveller, Behrad was a welcome addition from episode one, and I was quickly frightened something bad was gonna happen to him since he was only credited as a guest star.
And his presence let them do something fun and new with Zari, which was neat.
This season, because I love nerd stuff more than I apparently like myself, I decided to binge my way through two shows that I had very little reason to suspect I’d enjoy. Very little. But so determined am I to keep up on any and all comic book TV series… based on comics I’ve heard of… that don’t rhyme with “Smocking Smed…” that I dove in anyway.
On the one hand, we have the Runaways.
Their second season hit back in December. Their first season was… okay… (ranked 15th of 22 last year) but sluggishly paced, and didn’t really get anywhere. I described it as a ten-hour pilot, because I can’t really remember any storylines that weren’t just gradually getting pieces in place for the origins of the runaways or storylines from season two. Sure Preacher’s first season (5th of 13, 2017) did kind of the same thing, ending the season at the end-point of the first story arc, but it felt like Preacher had a lot more going on than Runaways did (hint: Preacher almost always has more going on, it’s great). Runaways isn’t the first show I’d name when describing how a slow burn can go wrong, but it’s on the list.
Titans, the first entry from the DC Universe streaming service (available here through Netflix), didn’t have a predecessor to compare to, favourably or otherwise, but it did have a super dark and very baffling trailer that made it look like an impending train wreck.
So we have two shows, based around younger heroes, that I had every expectation of not being good… and both surprised me. Runaways seemed to take my criticisms to heart… which, yes, heavily implies that I wasn’t the only one making them… and Titans managed to be the season’s biggest surprise so far. I came in expecting to make another “Let’s laugh at how bad Iron Fist was” post, and instead it’s… legitimately interesting?
That’s nearly all they have in common. One’s a YA series with occasional mild profanity that’s as grounded as a show with aliens and magic and a dinosaur can rationally be; the other is a hard-R, curse-filled, graphically violent tale of four damaged youths trying to learn to be a team. So I guess they both have “found family is sometimes better than blood family” going on as well, and that’s all I need to justify the joint post. And along the way, I bet we find more. Rock it.