When the CW announced Black Lightning, I was immediately excited. But I was concerned, too. We already have four superhero shows on the CW network alone, not counting ABC, Fox, NBC, Netflix, Hulu, Syfy and DC’s current and upcoming offerings. Is now the time for another one? There are tons of good reasons for Black Lightning to exist, and the show is very necessary for many of the same reasons Black Panther will be an important movie for Marvel and moviegoers alike. But it’s entering a crowded market.
Immediately, though, Black Lightning set itself apart in one crucial way. Black Lightning is not an origin story. It isn’t about a newbie hero in a world that has never seen heroes. It’s not about a kid learning how to use his powers. It’s not about some wild new villain (just yet).
Black Lightning is mature, and is about mature people. Its main character is father with adult children – one old enough to have graduated college. When we meet Black Lightning, alias Jefferson Pierce, he’s already been Black Lightning and given it up. He’s the principal of the city high school and beloved by many in his community as a charismatic peacemaker. It’s not that he doesn’t know how to use his powers, but instead has almost forgotten how to use them. That said, when he’s summoned back to duty, he demonstrates that using superpowers is akin to riding a bike: you never really forget.
Black Lightning has a history. He’s a hero missed by his community as it struggles against gang violence and police ineffectiveness. People remember him and long for him to return while his estranged wife fears the return of what she calls his ‘addiction.’ Meanwhile, his one-man Team Lightning has taken up the life of a tailor while being certain his old friend would take up the mantle again one day. The villain who thought Black Lightning dead still lurks in the shadows as a powerful, ruthless gang leader named Tobias Whale. Whale is very much DC’s answer to Marvel’s Kingpin, a huge, dangerous, and intelligent man who doesn’t suffer fools in his organization.
Black Lightning is also very much of its moment in time. In this way, it’s not unlike Marvel’s Luke Cage, in both its earlier and recent incarnations. Back in the late 60s and up through the 1970s, comic book publishers made efforts to diversify their lineups with new heroes that weren’t just some more affable white dudes. Luke Cage, Black Panther, Blade, and Black Lightning all came out of that. The last on that list was DC’s first African-American superhero to lead his own title, so it makes sense that he’d be the first to pick up his own show. But like Luke up in Harlem, Jefferson lives in the here-and-now, where distrust of the cops is a way of life, and the police, in turn, grow frustrated with increasingly organized and clever gangs that are getting better at bringing plausible deniability into their toolkits.
Of all his colleagues at the CW, Black Lightning reminds me the most of — seriously! — Supergirl. Like the Girl of Steel, Black Lightning is a source of hope both as an icon for those that know of him and to those closest to him. He inspires people to action, something he struggles with thanks to the precarious position he occupies at the meeting point of the police, the 100 Gang, and his community. He worries about the possible effects his powers could have on his wife and daughters. But he feels called to action. Not burdened, but responsible.
Compare that to Arrow‘s Oliver Queen, who has a preternatural talent for the work he does but feels burdened by it. Or to the Flash‘s Barry Allen who can’t decide if he loves being the Flash or regrets every move he’s made, depending on the season.
Black Lightning feels like a superhero show grown up. Not because it’s brutally violent or scandalously salacious, not because it’s grimdark or overly serious. But because it’s about a superhero who is himself grown up — and because the show seems at home with itself in that. It knows its character, it knows the world it wants to build. The team behind Black Lightning has put some good pieces in place, but it has a lot of work ahead to keep the show moving forward. Many superhero shows have struggled to maintain momentum after strong starts like this one. Even so, my hopes are high. I thought the CW was adding one too many ingredients to the stew, but it seems like it found the missing flavor.
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