With four episodes aired, The CW’s Black Lightning has proved it is very different from its superhero cousins on the network. Originally developed by Salim Akil, Mara Brock Akil, and Greg Berlanti for Fox, it was never really meant to share any of the trappings of the Berlanti-produced superhero universe initiated by Arrow and The Flash. And though it switched from Fox to The CW before a single scene was shot, the legacy of its development as a standalone series shines through at all levels — from its predominately black cast to the way it uses the superhero genre to tell its sublime story about corruption in communities like Freeland and the possible ways to renew them. Here are just five of the ways Black Lightning distinguishes itself from the other CW superhero shows so far.
This may be the key difference: Black Lightning is not about Jefferson Pierce (Cress Williams) discovering his abilities and slowly growing stronger while facing a series of mini-bosses until a season-ending fight with the Big Bad. While Arrow, The Flash and Supergirl excelled at using the origin story to drive their debut seasons, Black Lightning smartly avoided that narrative framework. For one, it is a very familiar story structure on TV at this point, even if every medical drama also proceeds from the same basic premise. But for the point the producers are trying to make, or at least the one that is emerging from the episodes aired, it was imperative that Black Lightning be a character who knew his powers and gave it all up before returning as the series begins.
As we now know, Pierce gave up protecting the streets nine years prior to the pilot for two reasons: to raise his kids and to save his struggling marriage. In the few flashbacks we have seen to his first run as Black Lightning, the physical cost was enormous and too much of an emotional toll for his wife Lynn (Christine Adams) to bear. But it also seems his retirement coincided with the conclusion of a traditional origin story arc. He apparently killed his nemesis Tobias Whale (Marvin “Krondon” Jones III), making it easier to step away from the life of a hero.
Though, as we have also seen, Tobias survived and has continued to be Jefferson’s primary antagonist — even if both believed the other to be dead. These story points — and the moment yet to come when Black Lightning learns Tobias is alive — could not occur with a traditional origin narrative. But because the audience is familiar with origin stories thanks to those other shows, Black Lightning could skip to the character’s return and hint at all those unseen tales. At the same time, it is doubtful the show could pull off that move without the benefit of the other shows – and the Marvel Netflix programs – popularizing the origin myth on television.
At the same time, Black Lightning is telling an origin story thanks to the emergence of powers within Jeff’s children. Older daughter Anissa (Nafessa Williams) is already hitting the streets with her air-based powers. But in a departure from the familiar narratives, Anissa’s first night out led directly to unintended consequences and a greater initial internal conflict than we have seen before. And thanks to a conversation between Jeff and Lynn, we can be pretty sure Black Lightning was far more confident in his choice to hit the street than Anissa after that first night.
That contrast highlights the advantage of presenting the title character as a returning hero. His confidence and glee at using his powers has a ready-made counterpoint in his daughter’s struggle to process her abilities. And by choosing to confide in a potential girlfriend instead of her own mother, Anissa’s establishes a new wrinkle in the secret-identity trope of shows like The Flash. Here, it is more of a direct issue of trust than the hero’s usual concern for their loved-ones’ safety.
Which will be interesting material to see play out once Jeff and Lynn become aware of Anissa’s powers. Well, provided that it comes out before she adopts a heroic identity of her own. But should that happen first, the moment of revelation will have a very different tone than the moment Barry Allen (Grant Gustin) finally revealed himself to Iris (Candace Patton) or the matter-of-fact way characters like Ralph Dibny (Hartley Sawyer) learned the identity of the Flash.
Meanwhile, there is also the possibility that Jennifer (China Anne McClain) will exhibit powers as well. A development only hinted at in previews for the fifth episode (above).
No matter the eventual resolution of Black Lightning’s return or his daughters manifesting abilities, Cress Williams is ready to tackle the material with a rare authenticity for network superheroes. Perhaps the show’s greatest asset, Williams makes you believe within seconds of the pilot beginning that he is a seasoned superhero who stepped away to become a charter school principal. In fact, the show has gone out of its way to present Williams the opportunity to illustrate Jeff’s qualities as an educator and school administrator — even if the seeds have already been sown for his dismissal from Garfield.
Also, by being a mature adult, Williams imbues Jeff with an authority Stephen Amell, Grant Gustin, and Melissa Benoist could not possibly hope to possess in their debut years. Not that their stories warranted that quality, but it is refreshing nonetheless to see it here in Black Lightning’s early hours. Whether strolling through the halls of the school, dressing down Jennifer’s paramour Khalil (Jordan Calloway) for poor grooming habits or his oddly pleasant conversations with doormen and elevator operators, Jefferson Pierce, as played by Williams, is a different kind of hero.
Indeed, it would be difficult to imagine the other lead superheroes displaying the emotions Jeff has in the moment he learns his former pupil LaWanda (Tracy Bonner) was shot dead in front of the motel where he saved his daughters from the 100 a few days earlier.
LaWanda’s death, which occurs midway through the second episode, “LaWanda: The Book of Hope,” is emblematic of the way Black Lightning treats the violence Jeff must face. Eschewing traditional metas or monsters of the week, Black Lightning’s adversaries are symptoms of a greater societal decay. The point is made starker when you remember both LaWanda and her killer Lala (William Catlett) were Jeff’s students just a few years ago. Unlike most of the first season metas on Flash or the people on Oliver’s list, Jeff knows the perpetrators and the victims. Nearly every crime in Freeland – going back to the death of Jeff’s father – has a personal cost for Black Lightning. Sometimes it means trying to appeal to an old school friend and returning later as Black Lightning to pummel him into submission. Other times, it means watching a student’s casket get lowered into a grave. And other times, it means watching his daughter cry as he tells her boyfriend that he will never walk again thanks to a bullet meant for Black Lightning.
Then you have the apparent ringleader of the violence. Tobias is presented in the first handful of episodes as Black Lightning’s version of a big bad. He manages to stroll into lock-up and kill Lala with a swagger and a ruthless efficiency. Then, in episode 4, “Black Jesus,” Lady Eve (Jill Scott) makes it clear he is part of a much deadlier and secretive organization. Though based on a classic Black Lightning comic book opponent, Tobias is as much a symptom of the wider corruption as Lala. And it will be interesting to see how the show pivots when Jeff becomes aware of the people backing Tobias.
And underscoring all the ways Black Lightning evolves the superhero television genre is its move away from the orchestral themes and flourishes of Arrow/The Flash/Supergirl/Legends of Tomorrow composer Blake Neely for a hip-hop soundtrack with songs that actually comment on the scenes they are backing. While it has been happening since the moment Jeff destroyed the police car outside the club in the pilot, the most obvious use of this technique was during “Black Jesus,” in which a recurring song tells you about Greenlight, the drug moving into Freeland.
Since it is such a new storytelling device in superhero television, it is difficult to say how consistently successful it is. Some of the uses of the “Black Lightning’s Back” refrain feel like an after-thought while the music used during Jeff’s raid on the motel and the “Greenlight” track feel particularly inspired. And on a few occasions, the attention of the viewer becomes divided while attempting to parse the lyrics and the action of the scene. Nonetheless, it is such a striking technique that the show should be lauded for attempting it. Hopefully, it will become a fully integrated aspect of the program’s grammar before too long.
But these are only a handful of reasons the early days of Black Lightning are exciting to watch. There is more that could be said about its cast; including the menace Jones exudes as Tobias. Since it is shot in Atlanta, the geography and mood are very different from the Vancouver locales which sub in for Star City, Central City and National City. Then there is the emerging voice the Akils gave to the show; which will be interesting to examine when the first season of Black Lightning can be viewed in its entirety.