By Matt Cabral
May 19, 2020 at 06:46 PM EDT
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DC's latest superhero romp kicks off with a surprising bit of holiday cheer. As Bruce Springsteen's “Santa Clause Is Comin' to Town” blares, an old-timey automobile races through Los Angeles, passing plenty of festive decorations on its way to the Hollywood Hills.

The time period is 10 years ago, when a “Golden Age of Heroes” is about to meet an abrupt end. We get to watch this demise first-hand when the vehicle arrives at an epic hero-versus-villain smack-down.

The car's driver (Luke Wilson), referred to as both “Pat” and “Stripesy” in the opening, enters the sort of action-packed, special effects-spewing scene typically reserved for big-screen blockbusters. A crumbling building, engulfed by green, fiery explosions, threatens to crush the combatants — a cult-favorite line-up of caped and cowled characters DC die-hards will surely appreciate.

As Pat makes his way through the chaos, he finds Starman (Joel McHale) on the receiving end of a telekinetic attack. Armed with a magical staff, the hero puts up a good fight, but he's no match for the evildoer in the menacing, emerald-green costume, who impales Starman with a flying spike.

Pat, who we learn is Starman's sidekick, picks up his downed mentor, puts him in the car, and hits the gas. The bad guys give chase, but the vehicle's equipped with some slick tech allowing it to take flight. With a safe distance between the hero — fading fast in the passenger's seat — and his aggressors, the car crashes in the woods.

A comedic exchange between Starman and his sidekick ensues. The former, moments from death, makes the latter promise to find someone to inherit his staff and continue the legacy of the now-defunct Justice Society of America. Starman repeatedly tells Stripesy he's not the one who should carry this torch, but musters, “You're a good friend.,” with his last breath.

Tina Rowden/The CW

Around the same time, in a living room decked out for the holidays, a little girl named Courtney looks longingly out the window. Grasping a wrapped gift for her father, she tells her mom (Amy Smart) “I just want to see daddy.”

Fast-forward a decade, and Courtney's a teenager. She's packing her room for a move to Nebraska when she discovers the now-dusty, never-delivered present. But it's all good, because Hanson's acoustic take on “MMMBop” is playing, and her new stepdad, Pat Dugan, is pulling up with his classic car in tow. Courtney doesn't like Pat, his son Mike, or the fact that she and her mom Barbara are moving with them to Blue Valley, Neb. She resents Pat for transplanting them, despite her mother, a Blue Valley native, having accepted a job there.

We soon learn the shiny, happy couple met in the quaint little town, prompting Courtney to ask why Pat was there in the first place. He brushes off the query with “I was looking for something,” before changing the subject. Courtney seems similarly suspicious when eyeing the large crates belonging to Pat that are being unpacked into their new home. She likely would have questioned the odd constellation illuminated outside her bedroom window, too, but that's for the audience's eyes only.

Courtney's first day at Blue Valley High School doesn't do much to brighten her mood. The gymnastics program she was hoping to join has been cut and lunchtime sees her relegated to the “losers” table. It's not long before her new, quiet acquaintances are bullied, leading her to defend them, while also landing herself in the principal's office.

Meanwhile, Barbara starts her first day at the new job, where we get a foreshadowing peek at her company's CFO and a coin-flipping councilman. Similar seeds are planted at Pat's job. He's re-opened the shuttered Blue Valley Tires, where he's stowed many of those aforementioned crates. He also meets local gym owner Larry Crock, who likes to be called “Crusher,” and comes off like a top-tier jerk.

With everyone's first day in Blue Valley behind them, they sit down for an awkward family dinner. Mike has taken a real shine to the town, but Courtney hates it and blames her troubles on Pat. After dropping a “Stop pretending to be my dad!” she storms to the basement and takes her frustrations out on his belongings. She finds a picture of Dugan and Starman standing in front of Pat's vintage ride. “To Stripesy, my friend and partner! Starman,” it reads.

She spies another pic — a sort of class photo of the Justice Society of America, including Starman — as well as a very patriotic costume. She reacts with expected surprise, but nothing prepares her for the glowing, vibrating box at her feet. Courtney cautiously opens the rectangular crate and discovers a staff, the same one Starman wielded in the episode's opening. The staff floats and reacts to her touch, ultimately leading her outside.

Jace Downs/The CW

Naturally, she follows this illuminated length of otherworldly power, before performing gymnastics tricks on it. She questions if the stick is alive, as it seems somewhat sentient, possibly possessing a playful personality. While she giddily enjoys a flight atop the staff, like Harry Potter hopping on his broom for the first time, Pat discovers it's missing from the basement. “Oh crap.”

Courtney and her new toy tumble to the ground, landing near a drive-in theater that immediately earns the series points for playing The Goonies. She sees the varsity jacket-wearing bullies from the cafeteria harassing some moviegoers. While delicately using the stick to deflate their tires, the staff takes matters into its own hands, beating up the bullies and blowing up their car. Courtney scolds the staff for taking things too far. “Bad stick!”

When she returns home, Pat's waiting for her in the basement. After addressing the many elephants in the room, he tells her the “Cosmic Staff” is temperamental, and is only supposed to work for Starman. He also gives her – and the audience – the Cliff's Notes take on the Justice Society of America/JSA, and its eradication a decade ago. He tells her Starman, a.k.a. Sylvester Pemberton, and his costumed cohorts died saving the world.

Courtney makes the connection to her sad, childhood Christmas Eve, and suggests Starman was her father. Pat claims this isn't possible, prompting his stepdaughter to ask her mom if her real dad was a superhero. Barbara takes the opportunity to blast her ex, sarcastically insinuating he was anything but super.

In another Blue Valley home, a more ominous exchange is taking place following the drive-in incident. Head bully, Henry King Jr., is being interrogated by his dad. Seated in a dimly lit study, fire flickering in the background, Henry King Sr. — who looks like an older, bespectacled version of the villain who sent a spike through Starman's midsection — doesn't care about the destroyed car. He wants to know about the staff and the person controlling it. After sending his son to his room, King opens a secret door — the kind an evil-mastermind would totally have in his study — to reveal an emerald-green costume.

Courtney and Pat pick up their top-secret conversation on the porch. Pat sheds more light on his past, revealing he started as the Pemberton family's driver and mechanic. Sylvester was the Star-Spangled Kid before joining the JSA and becoming Starman. Most of the conversation is spent poking fun at Pat's moniker, Stripesy, a nickname that only sorta makes sense because he apparently dons a Where's Waldo?-like shirt while on sidekick duty. They agree to keep all the superhero stuff from the rest of the family for the time being to ensure their safety.

Quantrell Colbert/The CW

Later that night, the Cosmic Staff pays Courtney a visit. She hastily hides the magic stick under her bed when Barbara comes to check on her. When her mom leaves, the staff heads to the window, and Courtney reluctantly follows. Cut to the drive-in, where King Sr. — now in costume — is searching for whoever messed up his son. Meanwhile, Courtney and the glowing stick are starring in a joyous practice montage that could put Superman's first flight to shame.

The good times are cut short, though, when some flying tires knock Courtney from the sky. The staff saves her, landing her outside Blue Valley Tires. Before she can catch her breath, however, she finds herself on the business end of King's telekinesis powers. Courtney's dragged, choked, and interrogated by the baddie, who creepily speaks through his mind directly into hers. “After I pry the answers I want from your brain, I'll melt it.”

Face to face with her attacker – who's reading her thoughts and asking why she's thinking about her father – Courtney calls on the Cosmic Staff for help. The stick quickly springs into action, whacking King's ugly mug and deflecting his hurled tires. Courtney also holds her own, dodging the projectiles with her athleticism. She's able to avoid a mind-melting fate and make a run for it after the staff fires off an explosive blast.

As she hauls hide outside, a massive, mechanical fist halts her in her tracks. She aims the staff at a metal beast that makes the Iron Giant look like a soup can. From the machine's cockpit, she hears, “Courtney, I told you not to touch the staff,” and we get a quick glimpse of Pat piloting the mech from inside.

If that moment doesn't raise a few goosebumps, the final shot of an astonished Courtney staring up at the towering hardware — which, incidentally, looks like a Transfomer's take on Pat's car — should do the trick.

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