Not to minimize its legitimacy in any way, but it’s fairly obvious that The CW’s new superhero series ‘Black Lightning’ was greenlit to compete with Marvel’s ‘Luke Cage’ and perhaps cash in on promotion for the upcoming ‘Black Panther’ film. Black superheroes are having a small but long-overdue moment. It helps when they’re pretty decent.
Based on a character who’s had a spotty on-again/off-again publication history appearing in DC Comics since the late 1970s, the TV version of ‘Black Lightning’ is officially part of the Arrowverse franchise along with ‘Arrow’, ‘The Flash’, ‘Supergirl’, etc. However, no direct tie-ins with any of those are mentioned in the pilot episode. It’s implied that the character is a meta-human, but no actual origin for his powers is explained as of yet. In fact, the timeline of this show stretches back past the S.T.A.R. Labs reactor explosion that created most of the meta-humans in this universe, and I’ll be interested to see if that ever gets addressed. Come to think of it, I’m not sure whether this story even takes place on the same Earth dimension as the other shows. For now, it’s probably best not to worry about such things.
Jefferson Pierce (Cress Williams) is an upstanding high school principal in the troubled city of Freeland, an area beset by gang violence and rioting. Up until nine years ago, Jeff was also a vigilante superhero known as Black Lightning, but he retired from crime-fighting due to the toll it took on his marriage and family life. He also became greatly disillusioned by the small impact he perceives that he made in stopping the overwhelming crime problem. During his absence, Black Lightning was labeled a public menace and a wanted fugitive by the police. These days, Jeff tries to make a difference by keeping the kids in his school on a straight-and-narrow path. That’s of course difficult with teenagers, especially his own two teen daughters, Anissa (Nafessa Williams) and Jennifer (China Anne McClain).
Jeff has a really bad day when social activist Anissa is arrested during a protest march. Later, he’s racially profiled and roughed-up by racist white cops over nothing. He almost loses his temper, causing electricity in his vicinity to black out momentarily, but keeps himself in check.
When wilder child Jennifer sneaks out to a nightclub populated by members of the notorious 100 Gang, she foolishly flirts with a young gang-banger named Will and nearly winds up being sold into sex slavery. Fortunately, good dad Jeff has been keeping tabs on her. He follows her to the club and saves Jennifer by fighting off dozens of punks and unleashing his powers. In addition to general ass-kickery, he can shoot lightning bolts, and his punches and kicks are backed with powerful electrical surges. On the way out, he gets tazed by more racist cops and fights back this time, zapping them. This doesn’t play well on the news, which runs fear-mongering stories about the return of the dangerous felon.
Despite this relapse, Jeff swears to his ex-wife Lynn (Christine Adams) that he’s not bringing back Black Lightning. This greatly disappoints his old white friend, Gambi (James Remar), who insists that the city needs a hero again. Gambi was basically the Alfred to Jeff’s Batman. Rather than a butler, he’s a tailor, and still maintains a secret crime-fighting headquarters hidden behind a false wall in his bespoke suit shop. (If that detail’s not from the original comics, I’m guessing the writers are big fans of the ‘Kingsman’ franchise.)
Will becomes obsessed with Jennifer and kidnaps both her and Anissa. This violates a longstanding détente Jeff had negotiated with Will’s boss, a drug-runner (and former student of Jeff’s) who calls himself Lala. Naturally, this calls for Jeff to officially bring Black Lightning out of retirement. Gambi makes him a brand new, goofy light-up superhero costume, and Jeff storms the motel that Lala operates out of, kicking ass through dozens of thugs until he rescues his daughters. Another neat trick he can do with his electrical powers is pick up Will and fling him through the air, crashing down onto a car parked below.
All this disruption to his operation gets Lala in hot water with big crime boss Tobias Whale (rapper Marvin “Krondon” Jones III), who shoots him in the shoulder with a harpoon to emphasize his displeasure. He doesn’t seem like a very nice man.
After everyone returns home safely, Anissa suffers some PTSD after effects and suddenly discovers that she has super powers by accidentally shattering a bathroom sink just by leaning on it.
Episode Verdict / Grade: B+
Much like the ‘Luke Cage’ series, ‘Black Lightning’ has something of a modern day Blaxploitation vibe that’s pretty appealing. I have to say, I like the idea of the hero being an old guy (Cress Williams is 48) rather than a fresh-faced twenty-something. That’s refreshing, especially in this franchise.
The series takes itself more seriously than any of the other Arrowverse shows, tackling real social issues like institutional racism. This being a comic book show, it does so very heavy-handedly. (The white cops are especially caricatured.) As is his style, executive producer Greg Berlanti also foists in a bunch of soap opera melodrama around the teen girls, Jeff’s relationship with his ex-wife, and problems at work dealing with an uncooperative school board. I don’t especially buy Jeff’s relationship with the Gambi character, which feels like an old comic book storyline that really should have gotten updated. (Why does he have to be white?) As mentioned earlier, the superhero costume looks kind of silly.
Quibbles aside, the pilot episode is entertaining and has a lot of potential. I’ll watch again.