Justice, like lightning, should ever appear
To some men, hope, and to other men, fear.
In the 1970s comic book series on which the new CW/Netflix show Black Lightning is based, those lines were paraphrased from an original quote to sound more optimistic. (The last line in the anonymously-written play they were taken from actually goes “to few men’s ruin, but to all men’s fear”.)
Now, I don’t know about you, but lightning doesn’t exactly inspire hope in me. Fried routers, burned-out circuit boards, #firstworldproblems – but I digress.
That modified poem is the mantra for the titular character, a superhero whose main purpose in his early comics incarnation was fighting street-level crime and district-level corruption.
Black Lightning a.k.a. high school teacher Jefferson Pierce was created by writer Tony Isabella and artist Trevor Von Eeden in the days when blaxploitation cinema was winding down and the black power movement was seemingly “declining” but actually branching out and maturing into other aspects of American life and culture.
Although the first run of the comic was short-lived, Black Lightning persisted over the years – hooking up with a Batman-led team of misfits aptly named the Outsiders (in a meta move, an issue of the comic makes an appearance on the TV show), being offered a Justice League spot, and even evolving from a gadget-reliant hero to an actual super-powered being.
And now, with the Black Lives Matter movement, with Netflix and Marvel scoring raves with Luke Cage – and just ahead of the culturally vibrant Black Panther – we have a Black Lightning TV show from The CW and Greg “Move your head” Berlanti (showrunner of Arrow, Flash, Supergirl and Legends Of Tomorrow).
We join our hero at a much later point in his life than those early comics. Pierce (Hart Of Dixie’s Cress Williams) is now a high school principal with two grown daughters, and he has given up being Black Lightning for nine years – ever since he was almost killed – for the sake of his family.
And ironically, it is for that same family that he puts on the costume again, when his daughters are kidnapped by sex traffickers working for the notorious gang called The 100.
Rather than a typical “case of the week”, Black Lightning’s debut season is playing out as a serialised story with one underlying storyline – Black Lightning versus The 100 – being examined from a number of angles.
Pierce fights the crime syndicate as his costumed alter-ego, tries to keep the peace as a harassed headmaster, and skates on thin ice with his ex-wife Lynn (Christine Adams). They both hope for a reconciliation, but Black Lightning and the accompanying perils of the alter-ego keep getting in the way of that.
Meanwhile, his older daughter Anissa (Nafessa Williams) explores the old, unsolved murder of her grandfather, a journalist working on a mysterious case that may have ties to the gang.
And his younger daughter Jennifer (China Anne McClain) is romantically involved with a star athlete who unwittingly becomes a pawn of The 100’s leader Tobias Whale (Marvin “Krondon” Jones III), a criminal-in-exile who tried to kill Black Lightning nine years ago and almost succeeded.
If that isn’t enough intrigue, there is also the peculiar matter of Peter Gambi (James Remar), Pierce’s confidante, tailor… and armourer/intelligence gatherer.
As if having a mini-Batcave under his shop is not enough to make you ask just who this guy really is, recent episodes have hinted that he A) works for some shadowy agency, and B) knows Whale and his past transgressions rather well.
The show has a lot of elements to juggle, and lead actor Cress makes a good focal point for its delicate balancing act.
While I’m still not sold that a little voice-changing and those fancy shades can throw people close to him off deducing that Jefferson Pierce is Black Lightning, Williams does a great job of making us care for his struggles in both personas.
Nafessa and McClain provide interesting support, too, because not only are these Black Lightning’s little girls, they have metahuman powers as well (in the comics, the girls are superheroines Thunder and Lightning).
Whether on their own or collectively, the Pierces give Black Lightning a kind of confident swagger that lifts it over the sometimes predictable developments and plotting.
Likewise, the villainy – portrayed with its own pecking order, where even Tobias Whale has someone he answers to – is multilayered, from blunt street-level thuggishness to razor-edged menace in its inner-circle dealings.
Supergirl may save the planet, Flash can save infinite Earths, the Legends can save the timeline and Arrow can save his city. Black Lightning is content to focus on his family and community, and that struggle with its attendant challenges has been compelling enough for us to hope for continued (lightning) strikes.
New episodes of Black Lightning are released every Tuesday on Netflix.