‘Black Lightning’: A Hero We Didn’t Know We Needed

Back in 2017 the CW announced that it would be bringing a new hero to their ever-expanding roster of DC Comics based programming; something that came as no surprise as the lineup had been growing for years. The surprise came with the announcement that Greg Berlanti and his team had joined forces with Salim Akil and had chosen to bring Black Lightning to life.

From the very beginning this was set to be something very different from the usual superhero fair we were accustomed to. The show would be set in its own universe, like Supergirl had been a few years before, so it wouldn’t be beholden to the Arrowverse backstory, but it was going to focus on telling more intimate stories of an older man working to save his community both as principal of a prominent Black high school and as a former super hero forced to come out of retirement.

Black Lightning was able to tell stories on a smaller and closer scale that let its characters and the issues they were dealing with shine without feeling overly preachy or hitting you over the head with how simple they were, usually. Poignant storytelling was a mainstay of the series. Issues facing the Black community were able to take center stage. This alone added layers of realism to the show’s rich tapestry. It was able to tackle a lot of very interesting subject matter that other shows of its kind really couldn’t, or at least hadn’t. Race and community being chief among them, but also fatherhood, career, love, family (both blood and adoptive), legacy, and so much more.

The show was also afforded possibly the most unique opportunity a CW superhero show has ever had in that it was able to masterfully build up its main villain, Tobias Whale, over the course of its entire 4-year run. There were ups and downs, twists and turns, and all manner of unexpected craziness that were all made better by being allowed the time to build him into the truly terrifying criminal mastermind that he was made out to be from the very beginning. All too often big bads are introduced and taken care of in one season and then its off to something bigger and badder-er next year, but Black Lightning understood what they had in Tobias’ character and used it to the fullest.

Now that the series has wrapped and any current plans for spin-offs are off the table, I thought it would be a good time to take a look back at what was easily one of my favorite shows of the genre; especially considering Black Lightning himself will be returning for the Flash’s season 8 opening event “Armageddon” next month.

Photo: Eliza Morse/The CW

What’s it like?

Black Lightning is hard to compare to the other CW superhero shows. The main character is significantly older and more mature, and the issues that they’re dealing with are a lot more grounded than those of the Flash, Supergirl, and Arrow at the time. That being said when the show first started, I compared it to the first season of Luke Cage:

  1. We have two older, strong, Black lead characters that strive to provide a better example of what their people and communities can be and achieve. Men who lead by example, through action. Both are also incredibly intelligent.
  2. Their villains are both smaller scale in that they aren’t trying to rule the world, but rather they’re trying to solidify power and control in their territories. Both have been hard at work for years trying to accomplish this while also maintaining an image of legitimacy to the public with mixed success.
  3. Both shows see their respective heroes battle with these enemies more on a proxy basis until a larger threat appears forcing them to step up in a bigger and more public way.

Things deviate pretty solidly after that, but it was interesting to see this type of character given some room to grow and to get a chance to explore who they are and how they got there.

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The story

Each season effectively picks up where the previous left off, give or take a few months, creating a long over-arching narrative not just about the Pierce family but about their hometown of Freeland.

The show’s first season sees our titular hero coming out of retirement to tackle his father’s murderer, Tobias Whale, after his daughters are kidnapped by a local gang called the 100. As the season progresses, we learn about a shady government organization known as the ASA that has secretly been experimenting in Freeland for decades and Tobias moves to consolidate his control over the seedy underworld of the city by taking in the injured Khalil to turn him against the Pierce family. The ASA, Tobias, another gang leader named Lala, and the Pierces all clash as secrets are revealed and revelations are made.

Season two picks up shortly after and sees the ASA moving in on Freeland with increasing force. They already know that Jefferson is Black Lightning and that his daughters have meta-powers as well, so who knows what they could do?! Not to mention Tobias is still out there with an axe to grind. Khalil crosses his path, and we see how Tobias deals with failure. We also see how the nearby areas surrounding Freeland have been affected by years of ASA experimentation as well as generational racism as Jefferson’s daughter Anissa attempts to help the Purdy people of South Freeland. Meanwhile a new ASA agent informs us of the growing threat of meta-terrorism from the fictional DC country of Markovia.

Season three picks up a few months after the end of the last season and things have taken a dark turn for the Pierce family and people of Freeland. Anyone with meta-powers is being picked up off the streets by the ASA to be cataloged as a potential weapon against an invading Markovian force led by the sinister soldier Gravedigger. We see people stretched to their absolute limits and what the stress of these situations has done to all of our beloved characters.

The fourth and final season culminates in an epic struggle between Jefferson and Tobias. Tobias has nearly accomplished his goal of solidifying his power and emerging as a truly unstoppable force while Jefferson sees himself at his lowest point in years. How can he possibly come back and be the example he needs to be for the people of Freeland? Does he even want that anymore? The final episodes of the series come together and provide a satisfying conclusion to a masterfully crafted four years of storytelling.

The characters

The biggest highlight of the show is its incredible cast of characters.

  • Cress Williams’ Jefferson Pierce is a deeply compassionate man who sees himself as the protector of his family and the keeper of his father’s honor. He has a very real weight on his shoulders that he doesn’t always cope with well. He wants what’s best for the people he loves, but his stubbornness doesn’t always let him see beyond what he thinks that might entail. He’s flawed, but at the core he’s a good person and he wants to do the right thing.
  • James Remar’s Gambi is a disciplined and detail-oriented man with a one-track mind and an unwavering faith and belief in Jefferson and all the others he comes to mentor. He’s more than just BL’s “man in the chair.” He’s a surrogate father, a mentor, a confidant, and a friend. He’s an ear to vent to and sound advice to take with you. Despite having a checkered past, Gambi’s character is proof that people can change.
  • Christine Adams as Lynn is fiercely intelligent and loving of her family while also being terrified of and astounded by what they’re all capable of. Lynn has never been a fan of vigilantism, but she comes to understand that it was never about the fighting itself but more what they all are fighting for. She starts off as an outsider, but through her trials and tribulations comes to be just as much a part of the team as anyone.
  • China Anne McClain and Nafessa Williams, as their kids Jennifer and Anissa/Lightning and Thunder/Blackbird, add layers to the family dynamic influencing how we understand this family’s history and it’s legacy going forward. They both discover their powers and we get to see them handling this incredible change both with maturity and without. We see how Jefferson and Lynn and Gambi have shaped these young women into the strong and independent people they are.
  • Jordan Calloway as Khalil/Painkiller is a deeply troubled young man, trying to find purpose, love, and meaning in his life when he feels like he shouldn’t have any of it in the first place. Watching him transform from a strong and confident high school athlete to a broken killer is extremely compelling, and it makes me all the more upset that we won’t be getting his spin-off show.
  • Marvin “Krondon” Jones III is the stand out amongst the main cast for me though. His performance as Tobias Whale made for one of the most compelling and multilayered villain characters I’ve ever seen. He’s calculating and intelligent while also being imposing and menacing. This is a powerful man who is going to get what he wants and you’d better hope you’re not in his way. The way that the writers were able to incorporate his real-life albinism into the character is also a work of perfection.
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There are a lot of other characters worth mentioning but I’d be writing a short novel if I were to continue with everyone. Suffice to say, the characters in Black Lightning are developed, nuanced, and multi-layered people that are incredibly interesting to watch.

 

Final Thoughts

Black Lightning was a great show. It wasn’t always perfect and it definitely had its share of moments that could’ve been improved on, but overall, it was a fantastic treat. For four years it was one of the best things the CW produced and it makes me incredibly sad that it never really got the recognition that the others all seemed to enjoy (except for Legends of Tomorrow). It was a clever, intelligent, poignant, and at times scathing examination of American culture, the superhero genre, and Black life all tied together with a compelling melodrama about a family trying to weather hard times and make their community a better place.

Arrow started off CW’s superhero universe and gave it legs. The Flash brought in light and love. Supergirl broke all the limits. Legends of Tomorrow brought hope and put it all in an incredibly fun and silly package. But Black Lightning gave us purpose and substance. It had something real to say, and it didn’t try to hide it from the pilot to the series finale. It was unashamed of what it was, and I loved that about it.

To Cress, James, Christine, China, Nafessa, Jordan, Marvin, and everyone else that brought these incredible characters to life I say thank you and I can’t wait to see any and all of you as you continue your amazing careers.

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