By: Adam Basciano
Black Lightning may be the 5th DC Comics related show on The CW Network, but trust me when I say, it is nothing like any of its predecessors. At its core, the pilot episode revolves around Jefferson Pierce, formerly the retired superhero Black Lightning. In the series, Jefferson ended his vigilante crime fighting days nine years prior to the episodes beginning. Instead, he decided to serve his community and city, as the principal of Garfield High School. Despite the increased graduation rate and decreased crime rate at the school in Jefferson’s tenure, his city is besieged by crime at the hands of The 100 gang. When his daughters are kidnapped by the gang, Jefferson Pierce once again suits up as Black Lightning to rescue his girls.
One thing that sets this show apart from it’s predecessors, is that it isn’t your standard origin tale. You aren’t spoon fed how our hero got his or her powers, you’re not privy to what all of his powers are, and you don’t get a blow by blow explanation of what his costume can do, how it works, or who made it. Instead, this show tells you why Jefferson Pierce retired from being a superhero, before you ever see him in action. As for that reason, after his wife found him laying in a bathtub full of his own blood, riddled with bullet holes, and his daughters saw him patching himself up, he decided to quit. However, it was too little, too late for his wife, as she kicked him out, leaving the two separated.
I loved that these aspects of the story were shown sporadically through the episode in flashbacks. These scenes were done in an almost black and white style, with colour only being the red of the blood. It made the visuals of the scenes all the more powerful. These scenes emphasize that our lead character is fallible, capable of being hurt or worse, and that there are consequences to his actions, which go beyond physical harm. To me, this was refreshing, because in some of these superhero shows and film, the sense of any real danger, or loss for our main characters, is often muted, lessened by their power set, or thrown out the window, due to a convoluted plot device.
In terms of present day, what really made me smile was that the Pierce family all felt like real living, breathing people. For me, Jefferson Pierce being a principal is great. Here’s your average guy, with a tangible job. He’s not a billionaire, like Oliver Queen, or a tech genus, like Ray Palmer. I love the larger then life persona’s but there is something more tangible about a hero who has a normal job, that most people can identify with. He’s an overprotective father, who tries to impart some wisdom to his daughters, and just wants to see them succeed, be safe and happy. That’s pretty much most fathers I’ve ever come across, including my own.
It’s also nice to see an actually full blown adult male, who doesn’t look like a 25 year old Abercrombie model, or boy band member, playing a superhero in a leading role on a CW superhero series.
In present day, Jefferson shares custody of his daughters with his estranged wife Lynn. As the relationship is portrayed, they are more then amicable with each other, and put their differences on the back burner, when it comes to co-parenting their children. Not once did present day Lynn come off as whiney, nagging, or needy. She’s strong, independent, and as a parent, co-operative. This is a minor miracle, considering the show is on The CW!
As much as I love The CW, over the years, they’ve had problems portraying female leads in superhero shows, in my opinion. Despite feigning strength, independence and co-operation, most have fallen into the trappings of CW melodrama, eventually reverting back to whiney, nagging, and needy. See Lana Lang on Smallville, Felicity Smoak on Arrow, and Iris West on The Flash, for past and present examples of this. I hope Lynn doesn’t regress like these characters did.
As for Jefferson and Lynn’s daughters, they act like you’d expect modern a day teenage and college students to act. While both are headstrong and tough, like their father, Jennifer the teenager, is more prone to bucking authority and getting in to trouble, whereas, Anissa is more composed and se in her career path. Also bucking The CW trend, is that we actually have actresses, who are either the actual age, or close to the age of their characters. At the end of the episode, one of the daughters is revealed to be metahuman. You’ll need to watch to find out who. I don’t have much experience, with Cress Williams, Christine Adams, China Anne McClain, and Nafessa Williams, but they each give string performances in this inaugural episode and I want to see more.
I think Hollywood has made positive strides in representing people of colour, within the superhero genre at least. In the late 90s, we got Blade, starring Wesley Snipes. Now we have Anthony Mackie as The Falcon in the MCU. Studios are no longer afraid to cast people of colour in roles typically earmarked for caucasian actors and actresses. We’ve got Laurence Fishburne as Perry White in Man of Steel and Laura Harrier as Liz Allen in Spider-Man: Homecoming. On the DC CW shows, there is plenty of representation of people of colour. On Arrow, you’ve got John Diggle and Mister Terrific. On The Flash Wally West, which takes its cues from DC’s New 52, from a few years ago. Legends of Tomorrow features the character of Vixen and one half of Firestorm, leading the charge. Meanwhile, on Supergirl, Jimmy Olsen is played by Mehcad Brooks, and Martian Manhunter- when not in green Martian form- is played by David Harewood. This is all fantastic, but- in my opinion- each one of these characters essentially fulfills a sidekick role to our titular hero of the series. Sure, they each get side storylines, and episode moments to shine, but this doesn’t extend, or last the majority of a given season. Of the characters I’ve mentioned, the ones who have gotten the most play, are John Diggle on Arrow and Firestorm, on Legends of Tomorrow. More on that when I eventually do retrospective reviews of those shows.
Like Luke Cage on the Marvel side of things, Black Lightning is the star of the show and gets to be the full-fledged hero. You could excuse a superhero show, of putting our protagonist in a world and city, that is slightly more friendly and less troubled, than the one we live in. However, Black Lightning throws our hero into a world that’s happening right outside our window. Sure, the city he operates in and the powers he has are fictional, but the world he inhabits, is very much real.
The issues he faces are hard hitting ones that people of colour have been facing for quite some time. Some of which, have gotten worse and magnified in the last year. In this pilot alone, the story tackles gang violence, police brutality, and racial profiling. What makes everything even more powerful, is the fact that this is happening to our lead characters, not just some throw away guest star or extra. Jennifer is arrested for attending an anti gang violence rally, where police cars got burned and overturned. Jefferson is pulled over by the cops, because he “fits” the description of a robbery suspect. Not to mention, both Jennifer and Anissa are the victims of gang violence, when they are kidnapped by members of The 100.
The episode even shows gun violence in a school setting. This is a tragic and unfortunate circumstance that has reared it’s ugly head in recent years, affecting all creeds, colours and races. TV has been very reserved and hesitant, to show much depicting anything related to this subject. I think the pilot episode for Black Lightning was very gutsy in its handling of these serious issues. I commend it for that. Anything less, or watered down, would’ve been a disservice, both to the issues themselves and the viewer. In spite of all this seriousness, the episode does stress goodness and hope, by emphasizing all the positives Jefferson Pierce has accomplished as principal, and referencing the people he saved as Black Lightning. Representation does matter. Just look at the response people and more specifically women had for the Wonder Woman film. I have a feeling, Black Lightning will do the same for people of colour and all viewers of superhero television and comic book fans alike.
This being a superhero show, our hero needs a physical representation of the gang violence to fight. As I said, that comes in the form of The 100 gang. For most of the episode, that adversary is a character known as Lala, played by William Catlett. The character is pretty violent, as you see him pistol whip his cronies when they screw up. He’s also pretty forceful with and cruel to a child in his employ and under his care. Viewers will have no problem hating this character. The real “Big Bad”, as it were, is Tobias Whale, played by Marvin Jones III. He is the leader of The 100 gang, pulling the strings from behind the scenes. From the brief glimpse we got of him, I get a real Kingpin, of Daredevil vibe from him. What makes things all the more interesting, is the personal connection between Jefferson Pierce and Tobias Whale. Tobias killed Jefferson’s father, a reporter who tried to expose his criminal organization and his leadership of The 100 gang. It should be riveting to watch this conflict intensify, and their eventual face off, as the season progresses.
This wouldn’t be a superhero show, if our protagonist didn’t wear a costume. Well, unless your show is called Smallville that is! Jefferson Pierce does indeed “suit up”, but it doesn’t happen until the third act. We do see a news video from years ago, when Black Lightning saved a store owner from being shot and killed in a robbery attempt. It was also a nice nod to the characters first costume in the comics, and a tease at what was to come later in the episode. When we do see the upgraded outfit, I think it looks good. I thought in still photo’s it looked clunky at times but on film, and in motion it works. I also dig the more armored look. It makes sense for the character, while breaking away from the leather look, which has become common place on CW DC shows.
As for the fight sequences, there’s a cool fight scene at a motel complex, that is grounded and gritty, more akin to what you’d see on Arrow, then the CGI heavy battles found on The Flash, Legends of Tomorrow, or Supergirl. As I said before, other then seeing Jefferson Pierce harness and control electricity, we don’t see how or when these abilities manifested. Nor do we know, if the costume manipulates or enhances these abilities. I do hope the series gives us more details on these matters, as the series progresses. The CW shows have fallen into a trap of providing our titular characters with a whole “Team” of characters to assist them in their heroics. Even though, some of these characters and their power sets, have no need for a team. Instead, Black Lightning, provides our hero with one confidant, in the form of Peter Gambit, played by James Remar. The character is Jefferson’s oldest friend, mentor and father figure. He’s the one who urges Jefferson to return to his vigilante night life. He uses the guise of his men’s clothing shop, specifically the hidden basement, to make upgrades to Jefferson’s costume. He’s essentially the Alfred, to Jefferson’s Bruce Wayne. I want more of this relationship explored, and I hope to God, this series keeps Jefferson Pierces inner circle contained, even if/when, they bring his daughters into the superhero fold.
I am not to familiar with Black Lightning in terms of his comic book exploits, but after this pilot episode, I will definitely be seeking them out. That right there, is an absolute win for this show and DC Comics. In terms of superhero pilot episodes, prior to this, I’d rank Smallville, Arrow, and The Flash, as my top 3. For me, Black Lightening is better than all 3 of those. The current crop of DC Comics shows taking residence on The CW, have a fun, popcorn, fluffy tone, more in the vein of the likes of Ant-Man and Guardians of the Galaxy. That is by no means a knock on those, as I enjoy them all. However, to me, the opening episode of Black Lightning is the Batman Begins and The Dark Knight of superhero television.
I'm a long time fan of superheroes. I love DC and really like Marvel. Will be contributing comic book review columns, to Revenge of The Fans.