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How Luke Wilson became Stargirl's stealth MVP
There's a lot to love about DC's Stargirl, the sunny, hopeful mix of heartfelt emotion and deep-cut fan service that has quietly emerged as one of the best superhero series on television.
The DC TV universe's first teen-focused drama, Stargirl follows a young girl named Courtney Whitmore who moves to the town of Blue Valley, Nebraska. There, she discovers a glowing, semi-sentient staff among her stepfather's belongings, ultimately using it to fight supervillains in a midriff-baring rip-off Captain America suit. On paper, Stargirl honestly sounds ridiculous. In actuality, it's incredible, a show that's willing to push boundaries, take risks, and tackle complex storytelling topics alongside more typical teen plots like school bullies and football games.
Part of the reason for the show's success is its multifaceted characters, who run the gamut from good to evil and everything in between. From Courtney and the friends who help her recreate the Justice Society of America, to the children of the Injustice Society supervillains who have messy legacies of their own to live up to, Stargirl is full of unexpectedly complex figures. But one of the show's most surprisingly compelling characters is one of the few who just happens to be a regular guy.
Luke Wilson plays Pat Dugan, Courtney's new stepfather and the former sidekick of original Starman and JSA member, Sylvester Pemberton. From the series' opening sequence, we learn that Pat hasn't ever been much of a hero, and even the members of the organization he previously supported viewed him as someone to poke fun at. He doesn't have any superpowers to speak of and isn't a particularly useful fighter in his own right — even if he did build a giant robot out of antique car parts in the years since the original JSA disbanded. Mostly, Pat's just a normal guy, but Stargirl repeatedly uses his character to show us all that, sometimes, that's all you need to be a hero.
Technically, Stargirl's first season is meant to serve as Courtney's superhero origin story, but it's also Pat's, and Wilson underlines this fact in every aspect of his performance, portraying the quiet steel that runs through his character as easily as he plays his jokey trips to the gym for laughs. Pat may not have superpowers, strictly speaking, but he's something even rarer: a good man.
As an actor, Wilson's intensely relatable awkward dad energy helps Pat feel like a regular guy even as the character happens to be the linchpin around which both a family drama and a superhero story turn simultaneously. He leans into the more sensitive aspects of Pat's personality, crafting a character who listens before speaking, openly supports the women in his life, and is willing to (repeatedly) put himself in harm's way to help protect the people he loves.
A former superhero sidekick — and the general butt of the JSA's jokes — Pat understands better than anyone how difficult the costumed crimefighter lifestyle can be, yet he still dedicates himself to being there for Courtney and the rest of the new JSA members. His presence not only offers access to plenty of old school DC nostalgia for fans to freak out about — Ted Grant! Doctor Fate! Another version of The Flash! — but give us, as viewers, a window into the pain Pat still carries around with him.
Those legendary heroes were his real-life friends, after all, and he has to live with the fact that they're all dead now, even as he trains the next generation to take on the same mantles they all once wore. (And Wilson's simultaneously wistful and pained expression whenever he talks about any of them never lets us forget that fact.)
When Stargirl begins, Pat really doesn't know how to relate to the moody teenage stepdaughter who generally resents his presence. But he never stops trying, and it's that resilience that helps convince Courtney that he's not only someone who can be counted upon but someone that's worthy of her trust and love. His pure, unfettered belief in her — most especially during times when Courtney doesn't necessarily believe in herself — is both sweet and motivational, proving that he may not be her biological dad, but he's certainly the father figure she deserves.
The evolution of Wilson's onscreen relationship with his costar Brec Bassinger is a highlight of the series, and Courtney and Pat's bond is the emotional center of the story. By the time Courtney refers to herself as Pat's daughter in the Season 1 finale, the moment feels more than earned. In fact, watching the choked-up way Pat acknowledges her words after they manage to break through his Brainwave-induced mind control — just go with it, this is still a comic book show at the end of the day — ultimately feels more earned and exciting than any potential superhero team-up we could have witnessed.
Pat Dugan doesn't look much like the typical male hero on a superhero show. He throws maybe two punches over the course of Stargirl's first season and gets saved by his kids as often as he himself rides to the rescue. He values communication and honesty over physical ability, and though he supports Courtney's desire to fight for what's right, he stresses the very real danger she and her friends are putting themselves in by doing so, while constantly looking for ways to keep them safe. Plus, he's out here arguing for his wife Barbara's right to know what her daughter and husband are up to, rather than encouraging Courtney to keep lying to her face out of simple convenience. (What's good, literally every other man in the Arrowverse?)
We so rarely see men like Pat — or Wilson, as an actor for that matter — in comic book adaptations. He's not especially tough or physically imposing and is generally more comfortable taking a back seat and playing sidekick instead of pushing to be a team leader. But he's still a superhero anyway, and that's because of his heart. He believes that Courtney is someone worth following before anyone else does, and it's that support that makes all the difference in her journey. We need more men in this television universe like him. Best dad ever, indeed.