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The CW has cornered part of the market when it comes to TV superheroes, with the Arrow-verse shows thriving among dedicated (if not enormous) fanbases. The network will soon introduce audiences to a new hero with Black Lightning, and as shocked as I am to say it -- no pun intended -- Black Lightning is as stunningly well-realized and relevant as any other comic book series out there, and it immediately stands out from the Arrow-verse, casting those shows in a ghostly pale light. With its pitch-perfect cast, action-packed drama and emotional sincerity, Black Lightning is the new king of Superhero TV.
Generally, a show like this can only be as good as its star, and Black Lightning will immediately win over fans thanks to Hart of Dixie and Prison Break vet Cress Williams, whose well-rounded performance could've fooled me into thinking his entire career was solely meant as preparation for this role. Williams is a pillar of gravitas as the first black DC superhero to get his own comic book, and his Jefferson Pierce is a highly respected high school principal and community leader in Freeland whose calm and focused demeanor are in place to keep his inner demons at bay. The biggest and loudest of those inner demons is his past as the electro-charged hero Black Lightning, an identity that Jefferson had to put to rest years earlier due to the damage it brought to his family life. But it obviously hadn't gone away entirely, or this would be a very different show.
When viewers first meet Jefferson, he is no longer with his wife Lynn (Christine Adams), who is still mentally wounded from the Black Lightning era, but it's clear that she and Jefferson still care for each other. There's an equally loving relationship between Jefferson and his daughters Jennifer (China Anne McClain) and Anissa (Nafessa Williams). Anissa, the older daughter, is a smart medical student and sometimes-teacher whose same-sex relationship is suitably embraced by her family members. Meanwhile, Jennifer is far more impulsive and oblivious to the dangers inherent to being outspoken within this local community. With the Pierce family, Black Lightning delivers a surprising amount of genuine heart and sentimentality that magically avoids all senses of schmaltz in appealing to viewers' emotions.
Of course, this wouldn't be a superhero show without some supervillains causing massive chaos, and Black Lightning's antagonistic threats come from the deadly street gang dubbed The 100, as led by the ruthless former politician Tobias Whale (Marvin "Krondon" Jones III). Though Jefferson may have set aside his costumed crimefighting, he'd still managed to keep a semblance of peace in Freetown, with his authority and recognizance used to maintain his school's distinction as a communal safe space. But once such peaceful borders get breached, with Anissa and Jennifer getting caught in the middle of it, Jefferson becomes unable to hold back the powerful forces taking over his body, and Black Lightning is born anew, though obviously not without compounding challenges.
We've seen gang violence depicted on TV many times before, but rarely within these specific contexts, since Black Lightning is a story as much about hope and heroism than it is about violence and social decay. One factor that helps keep this show separate from the other currently unconnected Arrow-verse shows -- as well as from the de facto comparison series, Netflix's Luke Cage -- is its non-metropolitan setting. Though the Black Lightning comics were initially set in an outskirts neighborhood of Metropolis, the live-action series altered its comic book location, which allows the ironically titled Freeland to develop its own troubled identity, which can't be done with series set in giant and well-established locations like New York City, Central City and others.
Black Lightning creators Mara Brock Akil and Salim Akil also made this series stand apart by putting a spin on the stereotypical origin story. Similar to how Netflix's The Punisher was more about re-embracing a vengeful persona than crafting one outright, Black Lightning also shows us why someone would NOT want to become a city-saving superhero, balancing the glorification and the downfalls accordingly. And one assumes that the show will dig into all the characters' pasts to show fans what went wrong during Black Lightning's initial reign, which is where we will likely also learn more about James Remar's Peter Gambi, Jefferson's years-old friend who desperately aims to bring Black Lightning's glory days back. (He's kind of like Alfred and Lucious Fox, with Robin's spunk.) As well, we might get a peek deeper into the relationship between Jefferson and Henderson, a compassionate local detective played by Criminal Minds vet Damon Gupton.
Despite providing a realistically gritty tone, Black Lightning is far from a total downer-fest, even if there isn't a Cisco or Mick around to drop silly one-liners. We've somehow made it this far without talking about the magnificence of the Black Lightning character himself, who doles out punishment largely through devastating punches and kicks that are bolstered by Jefferson's lightning powers, which are enhanced by his flashy-yet-dapper costume. (Though if a complaint is to be made, it's that other characters fail to recognize Jefferson beneath Black Lightning's goggles or mask.) It's both visual and mental splendor to watch him do the damned thing, and the fight scenes here are thankfully closer to Arrow than The Flash, with choreographed brawls and more blood spatter that I'd have expected. The 100 do not fight clean.
With bloody clashes in mind, Tobias Whale's crew is a deadly threat that makes Black Lightning something far less kid-friendly than The CW's other DC series. The 100 aren't using CGI-driven powers to threaten people in Freeland; they're using guns and intimidation, which gives this series a timely cultural relevancy that the Arrow-verse isn't all that proficient with. (Granted, they did kick a bunch of Nazis' asses recently...) Tobias and his enforcer Lala, who is played with proficiency by William Catlett, would seem tailor-made for Netflix or FX, and that might not be ideal for parents hoping for inspirational adventures without the hyper-violence, but it certainly makes Black Lightning feel as grounded and mature a show as anything The CW has ever aired.
On the flip side, there are very few mainstream comic heroes on TV that are full-time spouses and/or parents, and Black Lightning does a fantastic job conveying the constant worrying that comes with raising confident (yet still naive) offspring, which is something no abilities or costume additions can change. And the Pierces truly feel like a family, both in the ways they get along and in the ways they disagree with one another. Jennifer is smart enough to know when she's doing the wrong thing, but youthful thoughts dictate youthful actions. And Anissa...well, Anissa's got her own issues that will add to the drama later in the season. So where those elements are concerned, Black Lightning is very much a series that can restore TV viewers' faith in the strength of families facing adversity.
Regardless of who it's necessarily aimed at, Black Lightning is just plain awesome, and Cress Williams could not be a better fit for this bolt-blasting mantle. By telling a big and inherently relatable story in a smaller setting -- and by matching that story with some of the grooviest and most soulful tracks on network TV -- Mara Brock Akil and Salim Akil have created a show that stands apart and stands above in many ways beyond its extremely important distinction of being the first black superhero lead on linear television. Now, other TV superheroes are officially put on notice to shape up, because Black Lightning is about to change the game.
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