Review: ‘Black Lightning’ creates electrifying platform for race and the real world

The electricity-wielding superhero is the network's first black superhero.
Courtesy of CW. Cress Williams as Jefferson Pierce, a.k.a. Black Lightning.
Courtesy of CW. Cress Williams as Jefferson Pierce, a.k.a. Black Lightning.
Published Jan. 12, 2018|Updated Jan. 15, 2018

Black Lightning is the most grounded, mature series the CW has ever aired.

A bold statement, but a true one nonetheless.

Not only is Black Lightning (played by Cress Williams) the network's first black superhero, he was also the first black superhero for the DC comics on which the show is based. And the series exclusively explores the stories of people of color.

The show follows Jefferson Pierce nine years after he's hung up his stint as the costumed, electricity-wielding Black Lightning. His secret vigilante life had been taking a dangerous toll on his family. Instead of packing supercharged punches, Pierce is now the much-revered principal of a private school trying to keep all his students off the streets.

But this series wouldn't exist without the possibility of Pierce bringing back Black Lightning. When the notorious The 100 gang starts to wreak havoc in his neighborhood Pierce first tries to negotiate with its leaders. But then they threaten his family, and out comes the glowing, lightning bolt-studded suit.

This series feels like nothing CW has done before with its comic book-based shows — and that's a great thing. It's not the stereotypical origin story where we see a young person discover their powers and struggle to control them. Though those that follow DC comics will know that Pierce's daughter's Anissa (Nafessa Williams) and Jennifer (China Anne McClain) eventually discover their own powers and take on the names Thunder and Lightning.

Creators Mara Brock Akil and Salim Akil present a spin on the superhero narrative similar to what Netflix did with The Punisher and somewhat with Luke Cage and Jessica Jones. In their own ways, those Marvel series explored why someone would not want to be a city's hero. Black Lightning does the same by showing Pierce struggle to choose between protecting his city and protecting his family.

Black Lightning also features a comic hero who is middle-aged and is a full-time parent to a rebellious teenager and an activist college student. Pierce isn't the arrogant, fresh-faced teenager who's just discovered his powers and aims to show them off every chance he gets. At times, it seems as if what Pierce wants more than anything is to not feel the pressure of having to use them.

Being Black Lightning only brings him pain. His want for vengeance against Tobias Whale (Marlon "Krondon" Jones III), who killed his father, destroyed his marriage to wife Lynn (Christine Adams). And he continues to hide his secret identity from Jennifer, who's teen angst gets her into dangerous situations; and Anissa, juggling activism, medical school, her girlfriend and a sudden discovery of super strength.

The series doesn't redefine the superhero genre on TV, but it does present a way to explore the lives of those with superhuman abilities by grounding their stories in reality. While the Flash protects the multiverse from evil and Supergirl defends earth from alien threats, Black Lightning's chief concerns lie in his quest for a normal life.

The CW melds together the best parts of its superhero shows and its dramas to birth Black Lightning. It's engaging while adhering to a popular comic book mythos, and stays fresh by tackling real world problems like race, injustice and poverty.

The series' fun characters and modern relevance give Black Lightning the electrifying debut it deserves.

Contact Chelsea Tatham at Follow @chelseatatham.


Black Lightning

9 p.m. Tuesday , CW