Greg Berlanti is at it again, beavering away behind the scenes on yet another DC Comics TV show for The CW. And who could blame him, given the unprecedented success of his massively popular multiverse?
Back when Stephen Amell was first smearing grease paint over his face, few would've predicted that the universe of Arrow would grow and shift to make room for The Flash, Supergirl, Legends Of Tomorrow and animated series like Vixen and The Ray. What began with hoods and arrows now incorporates parallel universes, alien invasions and musical crossovers. That's one hell of an achievement.
The next show that Berlanti wants to throw into the mix is Black Lightning, starring Cress Williams, which will add another new hero to the universe as well as fresh locales and supporting players. If the series goes ahead, it'll mark the first CW superhero show with an African American hero as its title character.
And now, here's Everything You Need To Know About Black Lightning.
Black Lightning’s real name is Jefferson Pierce, and most of the comic book adventures he appears in take place many years after his superhero origin story. The idea, generally, is that Jefferson retired from vigilanteism some time ago, before being forced to re-enter the fray by circumstances outside of his control.
The TV show Black Lightning will follow this formula from the comics to a tee. When Deadline broke the news of Williams’ casting, they also shared a plot summary. It featured familiar phrases like “He hung up the suit and his secret identity years ago” and “he’ll be pulled back into the fight.”
This is an interesting development for The CW’s shared universe: assuming that the early days of Jefferson’s heroics took place more than five years ago, it would seem that he predates Oliver Queen (and all the rest) in the masked vigilante game.
Could Berlanti and co. establish Black Lightning as a legendary figure among heroes, whom they all thought had left for good? That would be a fun dynamic to explore.
In the comics, Jefferson chose to feature ‘lightning’ in his superhero moniker after a family friend showed him a plaque. Embossed up on it was a quote from fourteenth century Irish archbishop Milo Sweetman: "Justice, like lightning, should ever appear to some men hope, to other men fear."
It turns out that this is actually a misquote. The proper version of Sweetman’s words of wisdom goes like this: "Justice, like lightning, ever should appear to few men's ruin, but to all men's fear. Of mortal justice if thou scorn the rod, believe and tremble, thou art judged of God."
Either way, it’s a cool quotation, and kind of thing you could imagine Samuel L Jackson saying before shooting someone. It’ll be interesting to see if the TV shows goes into much detail about Jefferson’s origin and why he chose the name he did, or whether it will only be alluded to in brief flashbacks. Or they could chose not to show it all, leaving a nice bit of mystery to the imagination.
Why did Jefferson preface ‘lightning’ with ‘black’ in his vigilante codename, though? Well, as he told Mister Terrific years later, Jefferson decided to do that because he “was the only one of us around” at the time. He "wanted to make sure everyone knew who they were dealing with.”
Indeed, upon his introduction in 1977, Black Lightning was one of the first African American superheroes to feature in the DC Comics mythos. Over on the Marvel side of the fence, Luke Cage arrived half a decade earlier in 1972. It’s easy to draw comparisons between the pair, due to their garishly colourful costumes and wonky early dialogue. (See: the cover of Justice League Of America #173, where Jefferson calls the JLA a “jive bunch of turkeys.”)
As with the Luke Cage TV show, we expect Berlanti and co to update Jefferson’s wardrobe and vocabulary here to match the modern day. Salim Akil is writing and directing the pilot episode, so the task of establishing a workable tone will largely fall to him. And in terms of costume, this being The CW, it's wise to expect some leather.
Of course, The CW’s shared universe already has a number of people of colour among its superhero roster. Amaya, the version of Vixen from Legends Of Tomorrow, was the first black superhero to exist in this timeline, as far as we know.
As you might’ve guessed, the majority of Black Lightning’s powers are themed around electricity. He was born a Metahuman, and over time learnt to manipulate and generate electrical energy at his whim. He can use it to blast his enemies, or to create force fields, or even to travel discretely through power lines (like Livewire does on Supergirl sometimes).
Jefferson can also absorb electricity, which comes in handy to save people from overloaded transformers and the like. He can also track electrical energy, in certain comics, allowing him to hunt down his baddies with ease by following their trail of electricity usage.
But Black Lightning’s abilities don’t stop there. He does have other powers outside of the electrical realm. These include superhuman reflexes (he can dodge bullets, even at close range) and the power of flight. Of course, they could simplify his skill-set down to just the electrical stuff in the TV show, but where would be the fun in that?
In The CW’s superhero shared universe, two of its black superheroes have come from athletic pasts. Franz Drameh’s Jefferson Jackson was a star college football player before becoming Firestorm and joining the Waverider crew, and Echo Kellum’s Curtis Holt was a bronze-medal-winning Olympian decathlete (as well as a tech genius) before he joined Team Arrow as Mr. Terrific.
In the comics, Jefferson Pierce was also a star athlete before becoming Black Lightning. He won a gold in an Olympic decathlon at the age of 22, which could make for a fun scene between him and Curtis if they ever meet on screen. Indeed, it does look like the writers are carrying Jefferson’s sporty past into the TV universe.
That Hashtag Show shared some apparently-official character descriptions before Cress Williams was cast, with Jefferson summed up as “Former 3-time gold medal decathlon winner”. Thankfully, since we’ve seen this sports-star-turned-superhero shtick a few times now, there are other elements to Black Lightning’s backstory as well.
The comic book version of Jefferson Pierce grew up in ‘Suicide Slum’, a neglected segment of Superman’s city Metropolis. It was, as the name suggests, a fairly rough neighbourhood. He lost his father to accidental mob gunfight crossfire at a young age, and ended up living with his mother above a shop. The shopkeeper, Peter Gambi, became a surrogate father to Jefferson.
It remains to be seen whether The CW will stick to the name ‘Suicide Slum’, or even if they'll refer to Metropolis in this series, but it seems to be confirmed that the network intends for Black Lightning to exist in its own locale. While all the other superhero shows on the network film in Vancouver, the pilot for Black Lightning is being filmed in Atlanta, according to a report from Deadline. Fingers crossed for a Donald Glover cameo.
In the comics, Jefferson’s rise to Olympian success served as an example that it’s possible to make it out of Suicide Slum. He also fights the battle against crime there on two fronts: as a teacher attempting to push the youth of the area toward greater things, and as a bad-ass vigilante superhero.
“He hung up the suit and his secret identity years ago,” the official plot details shared by Deadline spell out, “but with a daughter hellbent on justice and a star student being recruited by a local gang, [Jefferson will] be pulled back into the fight". It’s the younger generation, then, that will lure him back into the superhero game.
Jefferson has two daughters in the comics, both of whom have been cast for the TV adaptation. Nafessa Williams (who’s also due to appear in Twin Peaks this year) will play Anissa, the elder of the two, described by Deadline as “passionate and quick-witted”. Apparently she “balances the demands of medical school with her job teaching part-time at her father’s school.”
China Anne McClain (seen in House Of Payne) will play Jefferson’s younger daughter, Jennifer, “an independent, outspoken scholar-athlete with a wild streak of her own.”
In the comics, Anissa and Jennifer eventually become superheroes in their own right, branding themselves as Thunder and Lightning respectively. It’s unclear at this stage whether these superhero identities will be seen in the show, but that “hellbent on justice” line suggests Anissa is up to some sort of vigilantism in her spare time.
Despite the similarities in their powers, costumes and branding, one person that Jefferson Pierce isn’t the father of is the electric-themed teen superhero Static. Virgil Hawkins in the secret identity of Static, and he’s no relation to Jefferson. They don’t even come from the same city.
The suggestion of these two being related is apparently a constant source of annoyance for the comic book version of Jefferson. In Justice League Of America Vol. 2 #27, he revealed that people ask him all the time whether he’s Static’s dad. Later on, it’s revealed that Static is a huge fan of Black Lightning, which goes some way to explaining why their style is so similar.
Rumours have persisted for ages that Warner Bros is working on a Static Shock live-action web series with Jaden Smith believed to be taking the title role. If that ever does happen, just remember: its protagonist has nothing to do with Black Lightning.
As he tried with the Supergirl TV show (which had its first season on CBS before transitioning to The CW), Greg Berlanti originally attempted to get Black Lightning off the ground at a different network to the rest of his superhero shows. Fox, the home of Gotham and Lucifer, was his original target. But Berlanti couldn’t get them to pick up his pitch.
Deadline’s Nellie Andreeva wrote this at the time: “I hear Fox brass ultimately decided that the superhero show was not a good fit into its already crowded genre drama space”.
The fact that Berlanti originally envisioned this as a Fox show could suggest that Black Lightning will be a tad darker than the average superhero romp on The CW. Perhaps this show will feel tonally different to the others.
Interestingly, Berlanti also wanted to house Riverdale at Fox. Ultimately, that one ended up at The CW as well. Maybe he should just pitch there first in future?
Jefferson Pierce isn’t a huge fan of team-ups. In Justice League Of America #173-174, Black Lightning turned down an invitation from the Green Arrow to join the Justice League. Jefferson cited the classic reason that he prefers working alone, but he did offer to become a reservist in case of emergencies.
The JLA called him in when the extremely powerful Amazo (whose power is to duplicate the powers of other Metahumans) made a major attack. Black Lightning answered the call, helped save the day, and later became a more regular collaborator with DC’s premier super team. He often sent them information he’d gleaned from the super-villain community.
In the TV world, it’ll be interesting to have a new superhero that isn’t keen on chumming up with everyone else. Stephen Amell’s Oliver Queen had this sort of an edge for a while, but, now that Ollie has approximately 78,000 sidekicks, the Multiverse is lacking a more cynical voice. Jefferson Pierce should be able to fill that role.
After Batman died (temporarily, of course) in the 2008 Final Crisis storyline, a posthumous request from Gotham’s Dark Knight was sent to Alfred Pennyworth. The Wayne family butler was charged with assembling a new team under the name Outsiders, who would live off the grid and complete black ops missions that Bats could no longer see to.
Black Lightning accepted the offer and quit his partnership with the Justice League to do Batman’s beyond-the-grave bidding. His team-members included Katana and The Creeper, and they all went into hiding – not even speaking to their families – for some time, as part of the deal.
Maybe, eventually, a darker super-team like this will emerge in The CW’s shared universe. The idea of Jefferson teaming up with the biggest loner from each show for some morally murky, hugging-free missions is a tantalising prospect. You could have Heat Wave from Legends, Wild Dog from Arrow, Guardian from Supergirl and, um, someone from The Flash... Killer Frost perhaps?
The exact limits of Black Lightning’s powers have never been fully tested. He can easily stun or kill a man with his electrical output, but every now and then he does something bigger and more bad-ass than anyone knew he was capable of. One time, when Superman’s heart stopped after some serious exposure to Kryptonite, Jefferson provided a huge display of power: he created a massive blast of energy, and restarted the Man Of Steel’s heart when nothing else could.
Also, on rare occasions, Jefferson has shown off some sort of healing powers. By using electricity to stimulate molecules, he can renew damaged cells and undo injuries. This might be too handy a power to give a TV show protagonist, so it won't be surprising if it doesn’t get mentioned on The CW.
The idea of Black Lightning saving the day by restarting a powerful hero’s heart sounds like a lot of fun, though. Like that moment where the Hulk resuscitates Tony Stark by yelling at him in The Avengers, Jefferson reviving someone at the end of a big battle could be a cool closing scene for a crossover episode. If Tyler Hoechlin’s Superman isn’t available, how about Melissa Benoist’s Supergirl?
Every superhero loses their powers at some point. It’s practically a rite of passage to be de-powered and suffer a crisis of confidence. Black Lightning has been through this wringer, and it was a fairly heart-wrenching story.
Jefferson lost his powers after a tragic incident: an innocent bystander was accidentally killed while Black Lightning was fighting some gun-toting thugs. The similarities between this stranger’s sad demise and the death of Jefferson’s biological father were all too clear.
The psychosomatic trauma of this tragedy caused Jefferson’s powers to suppress themselves so deep down that he could no longer summon them when he wanted to. Eventually, of course, he got them back. Batman helped with that.
This story definitely has small screen potential. Realizing that, despite his heroics, Jefferson can’t always save people from the same fate as his father, could push him into some really dark places.
In his role as an educator, the comic book version of Jefferson Pierce had a brilliant reputation, so much so that Lex Luthor – upon becoming President of the United States – appointed him as the Secretary of Education. Surmising that he could do some good within the system, and keep an eye on Luthor, Jefferson accepted the role.
This decision got some kickback from prominent superheroes and some villains, but Jefferson used his access to Luthor for the greater good. He would report evil goings on to the Justice League ahead of time, for example. Ultimately, Jefferson’s political career ended when that news that he had un-retired as a superhero got out.
This isn’t the sort of story they could approach on TV straightaway, since the basics need to be set up first. Also, it remains to be seen which Earth Black Lightning will be set on, too. Perhaps Jefferson won’t exist in the same universe as Lex Luthor.
But still, a superhero working with a super-villain in The White House is a very fun idea. Perhaps they could try something like that a couple of years down the line.
According to a report from Variety, if Black Lightning is green-lit for a full season, it could lead to a restructuring of The CW’s superhero universe. Instead of having Arrow, The Flash, Supergirl, Legends Of Tomorrow and Black Lightning all airing in the usual October-May slot, the shows might be “staggered throughout the year”.
It’s unclear at this stage exactly how network heads would chose to split the shows up. It makes sense to keep Arrow and The Flash close to one another, since their continuities are knotted together tightly at points, but with Supergirl on a different Earth, the Legends visiting a different time period every week, and Black Lightning set to introduce its own characters and places, you could feasibly separate those shows from the fall schedule without causing much trouble.
Maybe they’ll want to move one or more of the shows to the summer, to shorten the gap between new content like Fear The Walking Dead does for fans of The Walking Dead. It might make crossovers logistically easier, too, if all the shows weren’t being produced at the same time.
Black Lightning is an interesting prospect in a lot of ways, then. It’ll be the first CW superhero show with an African American character as its title hero, and it’ll offer up something completely new, with an older (and potentially very powerful) hero coming out of retirement for the sake of protecting youngsters. Also, it could completely change the way this shared universe is produced and consumed. Exciting times.