Black Lightning Review: The CW Brings Social Relevance to Superhero Dramas

Cress Williams in Black Lightning

Much has been made about how different Black Lightning is from the other DCTV series populating The CW. It’s the first DC Comics-based series on the network to feature an African American as the main character, with television veteran Cress Williams finally getting the lead role he deserves. But in addition to making a welcome change in terms of on- and off-screen diversity, the superhero story about a man with the power to control electricity makes a number of other significant changes that, ultimately, construct a foundation for future storytelling with an emphasis on more purposeful and socially relevant narratives that is free to make use of and sometimes eschew the superhero tropes seen in its network siblings like Arrow, The Flash, Supergirl, and Legends of Tomorrow.

The result, then, is a series that begins at a dramatically different starting point from the typical comic book narrative. Black Lightning swears off the usual origin story and instead begins its adventure with the hero having already hung up his tights and given himself over to being a father and a high school principal, as well as a man who desperately wants his semi-estranged wife Lynn (Christine Adams) back. It’s unusual for anything inspired by comics typically filled with capes and cowls and extraordinary powers to begin so far past the starting line that that point is no longer relevant, and it is perhaps even more unusual for that risky plan to work so well.

Related: Black Lightning Is a ‘Rebirth Story Rooted in Real-Life Issues’

From early on, Black Lightning showrunners Mara Brock Akil and Salim Akil demonstrate an understanding of what makes the Arrowverse shows produced by Greg Berlanti (which, for the time being anyway, exist in a totally separate and unrelated universe) not only work, but also what makes them distinct. That understanding allows the story of Jefferson Pierce and his not-so reluctant return to fighting crime the opportunity to play around with those distinctions in a way that benefits the particular story being told in the fictional city of Freeland. The most prominent is that Black Lightning is attentive of and intent on addressing the ways in which the world of today sees and responds to people based on the color of their skin. As a masked vigilante, Black Lightning is labeled a hero by some and a dangerous vigilante by others. He’s met with aggression by criminals and the authorities alike, and as the series premiere points out, when an unwarranted traffic stop by the police nearly turns violent, the treatment is much the same for the hero’s civilian identity.

Cress Willaims in Black Lightning

This brings a distinct point of view to the series that not only further differentiates it from other superhero series on the network, but also frees it from many of the trappings that have plagued the narratives of the Arrowverse shows. Early on it seems unlikely audiences will be treated to familiar plots featuring doppelgänger villains or mopey heroes wallowing in crisis that borders on self-pity. Instead, Jefferson Pierce has other things to worry about, like his daughters Anissa (Nafessa Williams) and Jennifer (China Anne McClain), both of whom are destined to join their father on the super-powered side of the story. Additionally, Jefferson must also juggle the responsibility of overseeing the students of a charter school and, to a certain degree, still being mindful of the community in which they all live and work. And that’s not factoring in the continued presence of Black Lightning’s nemesis, Tobias Whale (Marvin ‘Krondon’ Jones III), a Wilson Fisk-like underworld boss with a penchant for wearing sunglasses at night and feeding people he doesn't like to a tank full of hungry piranhas.

It seems like a great burden to put on Jefferson’s shoulders, but like any good superhero, he’s not going at it entirely alone. Before his daughters get in the superhero business, Black Lightning has an ally in James Remar’s Peter Gambi, a seemingly mild-mannered tailor who has a knack for designing super suits, like the updated and illuminated outfit donned by Jefferson when it comes time to save his daughters from a violent member of the city’s organized crime syndicate. Gambi has been altered from his comic book persona to be more of a quartermaster for the hero, like Q to Black Lightning’s James Bond. He’s also BL’s biggest cheerleader, and, in the pilot anyway, the sole person who knows Jefferson’s secret identity who also urges him to once again take up the mantle he’d set aside and to defend the city and community he was the protector of. That puts him at odds with Lynn, who apparently left Jefferson on account of his extracurricular activities as the city's savior.

That creates and interesting and very familiar dynamic in which Jefferson is eager to get back to doing what he does best, even though it puts him at odds with the woman he loves. Right now, Lynn's objection to Jefferson's alter ego comes from a place of concern, but as the series goes on, and it becomes evident Black Lightning is clearly not going anywhere, it will be interesting to see how the writers manage her disapproval without having the audience turn on her like Skylar from Breaking Bad. Jefferson is clearly on the opposite side of the troublesome spouse spectrum from Walter White, but the even though the show is playing in the world of superheroes rather than meth kingpins, Lynn's concerns seem oddly close to being misconstrued as Skylar's objections to a life of crime were. Of all the characters who will hopefully chart a less familiar course, hopefully will be Lynn as the series moves on.

That concern aside, all of this combines to make Black Lightning a series unmistakably of its time, and a series with a refreshingly distinct point of view and sense of purpose. That purpose expands the scope of superhero dramas in way too few have and one that embraces its diversity while acting as a necessary gateway for more stories told from the point of view of heroes from all walks of life, as well as racial and cultural backgrounds. Though it is still playing around in the same sandbox as Arrow, The Flash, Supergirl, and Legends of Tomorrow, Black Lightning alters and even elevates the television superhero landscape in a welcome and necessary way.

Next: Black Lightning Star Hopes the Series ‘Sparks an Appetite For More Diversity’

Black Lightning continues next Tuesday with ‘The Book of Hope’ @9pm on The CW.

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