There are a very low number of black superheroes on TV, even though the first one I know of appeared in the 1970s. Since then there have been very few. Black Lightning was originally chosen for a pilot by Fox (the same guys behind the not-Batman show Gotham and I haven’t been excited by later previews I’ve seen for episodes) but for whatever reason they turned it down. The CW, home of the “Arrowverse” and CBS cast-off Supergirl (still kept in an alternate universe after the mistake made in the Flash’s appearance during the CBS season, not realizing CW would take it over), picked it up for a series.
I almost missed it due to various distractions (mostly the dental issues) but I caught it just in time and haven’t been able to review it thanks to other distractions (mostly YouTube’s recent actions) and so I’m only just now getting to episode 1, with episode 2 airing later tonight, at least in the US. I don’t know what’s happening internationally. So what did I think of it?
The city of Freeland (I think that’s what they called it–it sounded like Cleveland to me at some points too) used to be protected by the superhero Black Lightning, who used his electrical powers to fight the crimeboss Tobias Whale and the street gang known as the 100 (not to be confused with the other CW sci-fi series–that was the gang’s name in the DC Comics stories). However, he quit to raise his daughters and hoping to restore his lost marriage. Nine years later and Jefferson Pierce is now a high school principal trying to create a safe place against the 100. One rogue member takes an interest in his youngest daughter, Jennifer, but when she rejects him after learning he’s in with the 100 (despite going to a club specifically run by them called The 100 Club–use your head, girl!) and has a run-in with oldest daughter Anissa, he sets up events that may lead to Black Lightning’s return, which won’t sit well with Whale.
The CW DCU superhero shows seem to succeed where the WB DCEU failed. They tend to embrace the comic book aspects and tone it down just enough to fit with the limitations of live-action. That’s the case here. You have a tailor that can create a superhero costume that creates a force field and alters your voice. The costume and the lightning effects are cool, as is the apparent lengths his powers can get to, shutting off power to the club and messing with a radio. And I like the idea of a former superhero returning again when the city needs him most. Plus Anissa may have a few surprises of her own. Not a surprise if you know the characters but it should be an interesting journey and also unlike the movies the show isn’t taking for granted that fans know these characters and remembers the non-fans should be enjoying this as well. That’s how you earn your reality’s rights to mimic the source material. That’s why I don’t mind the show moving from Metropolis to FreeCleveland, although the comics also had Black Lightning work out of Brick City (another fictional universe with no connection to LEGO that I know of) at one point as well.
The cast is also very good. Cress Williams is Pierce, trying to give up being Black Lightning but watching as the 100 gains more power and influence in the city, but forced back into action when his daughters are kidnapped. In other trailers as well as this episode he’s shown to have good chemistry with China Anne McClain and Nafessa Williams, who play his daughters, who in the comics later become the superheroes Thunder and Lightning. (There is even an image with China in her Thunder costume and we see her super-strength here, so that should be interesting to see.) Christine Adams as ex-wife Lynn Stewart also does a good job, and I’m hoping that Damon Gumpton’s Inspector Henderson (based on the second version of the character in the comics, who was black, rather than the original from the old Adventures Of Superman series, who was white–probably a namesake) turns out to be a good cop and not working with The 100. I want his opposition to Black Lightning to be genuine so hopefully he can change his mind as the series goes on.
The two show stealers are James Remar’s Peter Gambi and Marvin “Krondon” Jones III’s Tobias Whale, at least in their short appearances. Gambi created the original Black Lightning costume and worked with Pierce to create the identity. He’s also the one trying to convince him to return as the city needs him once more. It’s more the actor than the character since Gambi does so little in the story. Jones is just having fun as the over-the-top Whale, even harpooning one of his subordinates when his cousin appears to have unwittingly drawn Black Lightning out of hiding and killing another man by feeding him to piranhas. It’s one of those bad guys you like to see in action just to see him get his comeuppance.
There is a tonal imbalance however. It’s one thing to show dealings with the gang in the series, but the relationship with the police is another matter. You have these two cops who pull him and his daughter over (after releasing one daughter during a protest of the 100) and they are very rude to him. One reviewer made a case that they didn’t give the cops any reason to not be concerned but the one cop was very rude to him and didn’t even say WHY they were pulling him over before getting in their face. I’ve seen how the police should and do deal with such things and I’m kind of on the show’s side here. On the other hand, a later encounter near the club I’m a little more conflicted on since I understand the cops’ position since they’re busting up a shooting at the club and even though Pierce didn’t want to be recognized they were in the right this time. That first scene was unnecessary. I don’t mind the show wanting to discuss social issues but it doesn’t seem to know if it wants to be serious (like the original Fox concept) or more action-based (like the other CW shows). I also don’t like seeing the superhero talking about killing the villain (why Pierce originally became Black Lightning, to avenge his father on Tobias) or using a bad guy as meat shield, especially when he already has some kind of force shield or something bouncing bullets off…although apparently not his head since he has to cover it.
Overall, it’s a good start but they do have an adjustment period to smooth out the rough spots. This is a primarily black cast, which is what MANTIS was in the pilot but tried to shove in other characters in the series, and some good actors and ideas. I’m just hoping they continue that way. And despite being created as an original continuity I want to see it end up tied not to the Arroverse (they already have Arrow, The Flash, and Legends Of Tomorrow plus the CW Seed original animated series Vixen, and all the superheroes that comes with them) but Supergirl since they don’t have to be bound by that. There is a comment about white superheroes being called heroes while the black one is a “vigilante” so there is an opening there. She could use more superhero friends and I’m not convinced keeping the black hero away from the mostly white heroes of the other continuities is a positive expression. It’s kind of like multiversal segregation and I don’t think it keeps the shows from doing their own thing but having the benefits of a crossover that doesn’t require time and reality travel. The show airs Tuesdays on The CW.