Admittedly, when I first heard word of The CW’s latest action drama, “Black Lightning,” I felt myself internally combusting at the thought of yet another superhero show. However, in a major plot twist, I found DC Comics’s “Black Lightning” — with its fierce character dynamics, shocking realism and divergence from the norm — to be a refreshing and impressive jolt of energy for the genre.
Black Lightning’s origins and means of introduction are different from the standard, as Jefferson Pierce (Cress Williams, “Prison Break”) has actually been in retirement from his superhero career for nine years, in favor of more subdued fighting for justice as a high school principal. It is only when both his city’s law and order and daughters’ safety are compromised by a notorious gang, the 100, that Jefferson is convinced to get back into the business of fighting crime and restoring the state of Freeland.
In this way, “Black Lightning” is not just your typical superhero story highlighting a young, suave renegade, fictionally fighting to save the girl, defeating the evil villain or starring in crossovers with other superheroes. “Black Lightning” doesn’t need the hype of an “Arrowverse” (CW’s superhero universe) crossover event to show its worth. Its relevance in the real world and spotlight on true injustice, gang violence and systematic racism is necessary representation in our current political landscape. “Black Lightning” veers beyond basic good vs. evil tropes, as for once, the “bad guy” role is encapsulated by two levels of sincerely destructive villains — Tobias Whale (Marvin “Krondon” Jones III, “Harry’s Law”), the gang kingpin of the 100, and the corrupted white police force that racially discriminates and profiles on the job.
Aside from the sharp and commanding performance of Williams as the namesake, the female leads are equally (if not more) badass and captivating in their portrayals and character potential. With the tease that Jefferson’s eldest daughter, Anissa (Nafessa Williams, “One Life to Live”), has inherited some of her dad’s powers and superhuman skills, it will be intriguing to see how her capacity for influence will be unveiled in the future, given that she is already such a social justice warrior. On the other hand, his younger daughter, Jennifer (China Anne McClain, “A.N.T. Farm”), will most likely undergo the expected route of development for her reckless, party-girl archetype, reigning in her disregard to help her family and leaving some spontaneity to be desired.
Another winning aspect of “Black Lightning” lies in its mesmerizing, prismatic soundtrack, which features hits ranging from Nina Simone’s soulful remake of Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit” to Kendrick Lamar’s robust “Backseat Freestyle.” The musical selections do a stunning job of enhancing the tense moments of the episode, spotlighting Black culture, amplifying Black voices and ultimately tying together the cinematic quality of the series. I found myself focused not only on the drama and turmoil happening between the characters, but also really listening to the lyrics of each song and uncovering their more profound purpose.
The only place where “Black Lightning” stumbles a bit is in some of the more logistical elements of a series premiere. Unless you’re extremely familiar with the “Black Lightning” comics, the average newcomer viewer is left majorly in the dark regarding the backstory of Gambi (James Remar, “Dexter”), Jefferson’s presumptive mentor, tailor and makeshift nurse who is inserted into the mix mid-episode. Besides that slight snag, the special effects of the episode came across as mediocre and cheesy at times, as did the fight scenes and costuming of our hero.
Setting itself apart from the majority of other superhero dramas, “Black Lightning” has the capability to charm anyone, from devoted DC die-hards to novice action-seekers. In combination with a good old cliffhanger ending, introspective characters and quite a large deal of justice at stake, “Black Lightning” is stacking up to be one of The CW’s most thrilling breakout hits. This genre-bending social commentary is innovative and exactly what we’ve been waiting for.