The CW continues to capitalize on superhero properties with “Black Lightning” which premiered on Jan. 16. In an era where the superhero genre has taken over primetime and streaming television and blockbuster films — some efforts being better than others — “Black Lightning” could have faced potential backlash due to genre fatigue. However, with a promising cast and an intriguing new direction for the CW, the show successfully evades this pitfall and proves itself to be a program to keep on your radar this spring season.
The show stars Cress Williams as Jefferson Pierce, a high school principal and a retired superhero formerly known as “Black Lightning.” While he still has the ability to generate and manipulate electricity, he walked away from this role due to the strain it put on him and his family. However, when his daughters Jennifer and Anissa (China Anne McClain and Nafessa Williams, respectively) are kidnapped by a local gang called the 100, he assumes his alter-ego once again to save them.
What impressed me most about the show was its structure; “Black Lightning” sets itself up as more of a crime drama that also happens to have superheros in it. In fact, Jefferson spends very little time in the costume at all in this first episode. Instead, the showrunners create a great sense of tension by showing us who Jefferson is as a father, a principal and a black man. Racism is brought to the foreground of the story, particularly in a scene where Jefferson is pulled over and forcibly removed from his car by white police officers because they’re looking for a black man who evidently robbed a convenience store. Jefferson, outraged by this blatant racism and abuse of power, reveals his powers to the audience for the first time, where we see the police car lights flicker in and out. These social issues work in tandem with the familiar superhero “call to action” moment seen later in the episode, which grounds “Black Lightning” with a sense of realism that the CW’s other shows — namely “The Flash” or “Supergirl” — don’t necessarily have.
The show features a predominantly black cast, with a strong performance from Williams at its center. He boasts the physicality commonly associated with a superhero, but it’s the tenderness and care he brings as a father to his two daughters that sets Williams’ character apart. The episode does a great job setting up Jefferson’s motivation to become Black Lightning again, and a big part of that is due to Williams’ chemistry with China Anne McClain and Nafessa Williams, both of whom I thought were standouts. I’m interested to see how this family dynamic unfolds following Jefferson’s decision to come out of superhero-retirement.
The biggest thing about the show that I wasn’t sold on was Jefferson’s dynamic with his friend and tailor, Peter Gambi (James Remar). I read that this character is part of Jefferson’s backstory in the comics, but at the same time, it feels a little played-out to have a friend who can conveniently make a new super-suit for the hero in their time of need, and I wasn’t wild about the performance, either. This is a small detail, and I may change my mind after I see their friendship inevitably evolve throughout the season. I also felt that while the dialogue was well written, a few of the exchanges between the actors didn’t feel as organic as it could have, but there’s plenty of time for all of the established character dynamics to be fleshed out.
Based off its pilot episode, “Black Lightning” means business, and it doesn’t look like it will be pulling any punches socially or physically. This show isn’t connected to the other CW superhero properties as of today, and I would argue that it doesn’t need to be based on what I watched. It was fun to see a character I was unfamiliar with make his debut within a world that feels lived-in and well realized.