The start of the new CW series “Black Lightning” isn’t so much an origin story as a rebirth. Rather than start at the beginning of Jefferson Pierce’s (Cress Williams) time as the title costumed crimefighter, the show finds the character trying to affect change in other ways, mainly as a high school principal. He has two ambitious daughters, Anissa (Nafessa Williams) and Jennifer (China Anne McClain) and a friendly relationship with both his ex-wife Lynn (Christine Adams) and Henderson (Damon Gupton), a ranking detective in the local Freeland police department.
As a respected administrator, Jefferson has physically and mentally shelved his superhero armor. The figure he used to be, Black Lightning, still looms large in Freeland’s collective memory. But in true superhero fashion, violence in their city leads Jefferson to consider resuscitating his alter ego, giving “Black Lightning” some of the familiar starting-point rhythms of comics-based shows on The CW and beyond.
Because of this table-setting, “Black Lightning” is subject to some of the obligatory checkpoints that superhero stories have when establishing how all these characters’ pieces fit into the overall puzzle. At times, this re-energizing of the character does require some inelegant backstory filling. (One character asks Jefferson bluntly: “Do you remember why you became Black Lightning?”) Through the opening two episodes, charting Jefferson’s previous decisions to retire Black Lightning and his inner turmoil about bringing it back, there’s still plenty among this heavy lifting that signals a thoughtful, rich series once the gears of the show’s momentum start to show less and less.
Rare is the superhero that stands solely as a technicolor punching machine. Some of the strongest elements of “Black Lightning” see the show engaging with the social issues, from gang violence to police brutality, without being defined by them. Jefferson isn’t Freeland’s sole arbiter of social justice or a conduit for community morality — he’s a man trying to help preserve his family as a father and partner. He’s an educator grappling with the legacy of his former students who’ve chosen a more destructive personal path. And whether it’s Jefferson or another character who discovers that they’re more than an ordinary human, neither of those journeys to hero status are easy, oversimplified metaphors for real-world issues or changes.
“Black Lightning” certainly isn’t scared by these problems, either. A black man in a tuxedo walking away from a squad car that he’s just exploded is a bold visual statement for any series, much less one just a little over a half hour into its overall runtime. When delivered in the context of a show where every single character is pursuing their own form of justice, it’s a provocative opening for a show that’s constantly considering the consequences of those actions.
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Whether it’s that moment in the pilot or the hand-to-hand combat scenes, there’s an attempt to give real weight to the growing property damage and body count which grows during the first pair of episodes. (Even if the camera is placed at a removed distance for some of the more brutal torture/killing scenes, these sequences aren’t treated with a cavalier attitude.) The more that the show considers the cost and price of violence the way that its main character does, the deeper “Black Lightning” will engage in relation to its TV comics counterparts. In its parallels between heroic deeds and activism, “Black Lightning” emphasizes action over empty promises, all while showing that “taking charge” and “fighting back” are far more abstract than they sometimes seem.
Against the backdrop of Black Lightning’s reemergence and the awakening of another central character, perhaps the greatest asset of the series is Marvin “Krondon” Jones III as Tobias Whale, the string-pulling crimelord that threatens Freeland’s well-being. Jones brings equal poise and menace to the role, not giving into the outsized, snarling stereotypes that often come with comic book villains.
Exuding power and confidence in the mold of an antagonist who’s convinced that he’s doing the right thing in his own mind, Tobias instantly fills offices and jail cells with a presence that, by design, none of his underlings can match. Just as Jefferson has to re-learn how to control his power, so does Tobias. With a smaller share of the screentime at this juncture, Jones still brings that sense of balance to the evil side of the ledger.
And the show sounds great, too, bringing together Al Green, Sampha, Latimore, and Jack White for its early soundtrack. Like the issues it’s addressing elsewhere, these songs aren’t merely props. Even if they’re woven into the on-screen action with various levels of seamlessness, it’s another example of how the show makes an effort to use the conventions of superhero TV to its advantage.
As “Black Lightning” gradually veers away from flashbacks and dwelling in these characters’ pasts to filling in what we never got to see, the present offers some exciting opportunities. Extensions of justice, be they in collective action or the lightning bolts emanating from one man’s torso, don’t happen in a vacuum in Freeland. The journey to “Black Lightning” fully embracing its present could be one of the year’s exciting TV evolutions.
“Black Lightning” airs Tuesdays at 9 p.m. ET on The CW.