PILOT LITE: Black Lightning (2018)

Posted: January 29, 2018 in Pilot Lite
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Back in the 1970’s the comic book landscape was almost entirely dominated by white heroes and their supporting casts. DC Comics, seeing a niche to be filled, decided to create their first black hero. And so Black Bomber was born!

bl2Well, sort of. DC’s original idea for their hero was a white man (who was, of course, a racist) that would turn into a black superhero when under stress. As the character was being worked out, Tony Isabella (who had written Luke Cage for Marvel) was hired to revamp what they had started. Isabella didn’t so much re-work the character as create something completely new. He used a concept he had started in the past and built it up to make Jefferson Pierce AKA Black Lightning. The character had many appearances over the decades, but he never cracked the A-list (despite a few stints on the Justice League). This wasn’t helped by rights issues keeping him out of most DC Adaptations for decades (hence the creation of characters like Black Vulcan on Super Friends and Juice on Justice League Unlimited). That said, Black Lightning has always been ripe for adaptation. With interest in comic book shows and movies at an all-time high, now is probably the best time ever for Pierce to make it to the big leagues. With the successful premiere of Black Lightning last week, audiences seem to agree.

jpThe series opens with Cress Williams as Jefferson Pierce, retired superhero, working as a school principal. He’s a single dad with two rebellious daughters and an ex-wife whom he’s still holding a torch for. After 9 years of living the normal life, Pierce is called back to action by a mix of societal injustice and gang violence. It’s a bold choice to make Jefferson’s first use of his powers after self-imposed exile to be triggered by police officers who are racially profiling him. In that way, this show speaks to something in our society that many people are only too happy to ignore or turn a blind eye to. It’s a clear mission statement that seems to force viewers to either be complicit in the injustice or take a stance and get on the side of people whom it’s affecting. From there, he turns his sights on The 100, a local gang who have spent years terrorizing the city and take his daughters hostage.

bwOne of the biggest strengths of this series on a structural level is the way it uses flashbacks. Here, the hero’s past is used to create an origin that is literally unlike any we’ve seen before. Origins and superhero storytelling go together like peanut butter and jelly (in that they’re insanely easy to make and get old after you’ve had a few) but this may be the only one in the last 10 years or so to actually do something different. This is not the creation of Black Lightning but of Jefferson Pierce, single father and educator. His past as Black Lightning is largely assumed and the narrative beats of the flashbacks show his decision to abandon that way of life and instead focus on rebuilding his family and school. They’re done in a stylish Sin City-like black and white with accents of blood red when appropriate.

blThe cast of characters are incredibly solid and all seem very assured in their roles. That’s pretty surprising given that pilots usually have an uphill battle of establishing their world and characters despite only having broad aspects of the plot and characterization drawn. As such, first episodes usually have a diminished sense of character motivation. In stark contrast to that, Black Lighting has a focused lead in Cress Williams. He absolutely nails the conflict within his character and the tension forced on him by the world he lives in. His daughters (Jennifer and Anissa) are handled by China Anne McClaine and Nafessa Williams. They provide a certain amount of sibling antagonism between each other but its clearly rooted in affection. This is most obvious when Jennifer gets embroiled into one of The 100’s schemes and gets a sagely talking-to from Anissa.

Aside from the Pierce family, Jefferson’s most notable ally is Peter Gambi, tailor extraordinaire. Gambi is a bit of a stock role in that he provides wisdom and technology to the hero. The only real way to make a character like this shine is to cast a talented character actor. Luckily, James Remar is on hand to provide Gambi with the needed weight and heart that  a role like this needs. So far, he’s acted as Pierce’s “Alfred” so we’ll see if/how he evolves.

twAnd finally, we come to the villainous Tobias Whale. Played by Marvin “Krondon” Jones III, Whale is essentially DC’s version of Daredevil‘s Kingpin. He’s the overlord of organized crime and his imposing stature is only matched by his savagery. Krondon is a rapper who (like the comic book version of Whale) is afflicted with albinism thus adding an immediate air of authenticity to the character. Not much is known about Whale in the pilot other than the fact that he has a grudge against Black Lightning and was responsible for the death of Jefferson’s father. As such, both men are on a course that lead them crashing into one another.

To me, the only weakness in this series is tiny compared to all it has going for it. The showrunners have stated that it won’t be connected to any of the CW’s other “Arrowverse” series (Arrow, The Flash, Legends of Tomorrow, and Supergirl) because they want Black Lightning to establish himself as his own hero before there’s any talk of crossovers. And that’s completely understandable. However, you can have that while still setting it in the same universe. In fact during a news report in the pilot, it’s flat-out stated that there are other superheroes in this world. So why not just keep it on one of the established Earth’s in the CW’s multiverse and then crossover when the time is right? I’m guessing that line in this episode was a way for them to unofficially do just that. Still it seems odd that they’ve taken such a vocal hard line against it.

By the time this is released, Black Lightning will be a couple of episodes into it’s first season. If this pilot is any indication then we should be in for a hell of a run. It will definitely be fun to see how the Pierce family grows and develops over the coming years. And, fingers crossed, maybe we’ll even get to see the heroes of this story crossover into a grand adventure with the likes of Supergirl and Green Arrow next season.

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“See ya soon!”

 

 

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