Obviously a lot of people are familiar with The CW’s line of successful comic book television series- a family of DC properties such as Arrow, The Flash, and Legends of Tomorrow as well as Archie Comics’ teenage angst thriller Riverdale – so they know what to expect from the latest entry in the network’s library with the premiere of Black Lightning. Black Lightning is the story of Jefferson Pierce, an embattled high school principal, a caring father, and a former superhero. The characters and powers that we have seen in a lot of the DC television series which are all largely overseen by executive producer Greg Berlanti all have that same flashy, colorful, and glowing feel to it that has audiences hooked on what will happen next week. Even with the classic “teenie bopper” drama that has been a staple for these shows since the days of Smallville has people well invested into the properties well beyond their teenage years.
Black Lightning marks the fifth entry into the growing roster of DC Comics-based shows on The CW, which recently came together for a heavily and unexpectedly successful multi-night crossover event that provided much needed levity, heart, and excitement across the board for all of the shows which have been recently experiencing overly dark, dramatic, and muddled storylines the last few seasons. Legends of Tomorrow, the show that I was most skeptical about upon it’s announcement and having the most bland trailer has managed though to win me over with it’s constant character progression and willingness to embrace the more “out-of-this-world” aspect that makes the DC Universe something worth investing in.
With the overly bleak and dramatic Arrow which has yet to lighten up after several seasons and a melodramatic third season of The Flash, it’s undeniable that fans have been longing for something that’s not so dreary or depressing and I think that that’s something that The CW has acknowledged over time with how uplifting the Crisis on Earth X crossover was. It provided us that escapist feeling that we long for after a tough day at work or school which is what makes Black Lightning a welcome and appreciated treat for people who’ve been rather dissatisfied with the recent DC television offerings. It’s a show that stands on it’s own with a lot of smart and relevant themes that I think we can expect to be carried on over the course of several episodes. It tackles it’s characters and the world it’s set in with gravitas, but it does not take itself too seriously to the point that you’re going to be groaning about it being the typical CW/DC entry. I think the main selling point for this show that had me interested and what I think will benefit it as far as character development and storytelling goes is that it is currently set on a separate Earth, making it separate from Supergirl, The Flash, Arrow, and Legends of Tomorrow, so the show will not become muddled as a result of the uniform expectation of the other shows. It has a chance to branch out and do it’s own thing which it does well at within the first episode.
The series has been developed by screenwriting-producing duo, Mara Brock Akil and Salim Akil, with Salim directing and writing the pilot. Black Lightning focuses on Jefferson Pierce (Cress Williams), a high school principal that he has managed to keep under control in the crime-infested city of Freeland. Jefferson tries his best to use his position as a principal to positively influence and shape the inner-city kids who come through the doors, but it’s never enough when they constantly find themselves tangled up with the One Hundred gang whenever they’re gone. He’s yielded better fruits and been more successful as a father raising his two children, Anissa (Nafessa Williams) and Jennifer. Both who are academically well off and ambitious people, no doubt thanks to the foundation that their father had set for them.
Years prior to becoming a principal and a father, Jefferson had begun a crusade as the vigilante Black Lightning. Using his abilities to harness and control electricity while sporting a tacky glowing suit he took on a campaign against Freeland gangster Tobias Whale (Marvin Jones III) that unfortunately fell short of putting Whale behind bars. This was in large part due to the fact that he was largely pursued and hounded by Henderson (Damon Gupton), a detective with a nasty anti-vigilante stance, and was also coaxed into hanging up the mask by his wife Lynn (Christine Adams).
As with any series which features the classic trope of a superhero coming out of retirement a la Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns or Alan Moore’s Watchmen, a series of events inspire Jefferson to dawn the flashy suit once more with the aid of Gambi (James Remar), a close friend and confidant to Jefferson who serves as a valet and manager for him.
Black Lightning is set in a fictional city much like it’s fellow DC counterparts who reside in Star City and Central City, but it does still provide a feeling that there is an open world that we have yet to fully explore. It may not have the biggest budget or an unlimited amount of time to do it which is typical of a series in it’s first season with an untested character but it makes up for that in other areas. The series makes a point to establish that Freeland is not somewhere you want to move to. It establishes that the local high school that Jefferson oversees is an escape from the impoverished and crime-infested streets, the Seahorse Motel is a shady place that you don’t want to be in, and and the One Hundred Gang have staked their claim all over the city and won’t let anyone tell them any different. There are occasional insinuations and references that Jefferson isn’t the only one attempting to reform the city and protect it. Several politicians, educators, and the media are all attempting to do their part in curving the rot that’s been affecting Freeland and it’s youth.
The show follows similar beats that you’d expect from a comic book, and establishes that the protagonist is waging a war for the heart and soul of their city like in Daredevil or Arrow. There’s also the glaring comparison that it shares with Luke Cage in how it makes use of a predominantly African American cast and an urban setting which makes room for the series to potentially provide the audience with commentary on a lot of sociopolitical issues such as gentrification, police brutality, drugs, and crime and with a stronger grip on their portrayal compared to the tame representation of gun control on Arrow that this series seemingly can do effortlessly. However, that’s not the primary focus of this series as it’s clear the showrunners want us to have fun with this character as well as take a stand with him. It’s driven by some intense and well-directed action scenes, a bass-pumping soundtrack to build the excitement, and a stylish portrayal of Black Lightning’s abilities and his attitude towards things.
Black Lightning is definitely a welcome and new approach that breaks the mold of The CW while still somewhat adhering to it and I cannot wait for more!