If the CW’s stable of DC Comics-based television shows are good for one thing (they’re good for many but bear with me) it’s gaggles of attractive young Canadians wadding through seas of dead parents and betrayal towards inevitable mac-attacks with other attractive young Canadians, undoubtedly breaking the heart of a third gaggle of attractive young Canadians.
So imagine my surprise when I saw that the protagonist in the CW’s latest superhero show, Black Lightning, is played with instant gravitas by Cress Williams, who is a 47-year-old man, which basically makes him 1,000,000 in CW years. At 47 years old, Williams’ Jefferson Pierce is the DCW’s equivalent of Frank Miller’s aging, crotchety, Dark Knight Returns Bruce Wayne. Which actually turns out to be a pretty apt comparison when considering the show’s pilot.
At the onset of Black Lightning, Pierce has hung up the titular moniker for some time, opting instead to improve his community, Freeland, as a high school principal. But a rise in gang violence perpetuated by the growing threat of The 100 Gang. It’s a problem that effects the entire community, to the chagrin of both Jefferson and his two daughters.
Kind of like how in The Dark Knight Returns Bruce Wayne isn’t Batman anymore and instead he improves Gotham by driving race cars while contemplating suicide, but a gang called the mutants is wreaking havoc on Gotham and it pisses Bruce Wayne off, much as it annoys young Cary Kelly, daughter of two local deadbeats.
The Dark Knight Returns is a worthwhile point of comparison when considering Black Lightning as the disparities between the former, a staple of 1986, and the latter, a show that is ever so 2018, reflect a changing attitude towards heroism.
Frank Miller’s Batman is a dick. Always has been, always will be. He is essentially and old, rich, white guy who disagrees with the direction the world around him is taking and in response uses his economic resources to beat the culture around him to death with his personal ideology. Cary Kelly, the kindling of a youthful, feminine power in TDKR, does not have opinions of her own in the narrative. She’s an acolyte. The culture around her is more her own to inherit than Batman’s to cling to, but despite the fact that she actually lives in Gotham, rather than in a mansion, she’s indoctrinated rather than consulted.
While Jefferson Pierce certainly wouldn’t shirk the opportunity to align his daughters’ worldviews with his own, that isn’t the cards he’s dealt. Black Lightning is less a show about deciding to engage in heroism and standing up to villainy than it is a show about deciding how to stand up to that villainy.
Enter a white guy blogging about race.
Jefferson Pierce and his family are confronted with everyday evils, little treacheries like being pulled over by the cops based on the color of their skin. In many ways, they don’t have a choice as to whether or not they react to the world’s ills because more than Barry Allen or Kara Danvers, the world’s ills seek Pierce and his family out. But how to go about reacting and combating those ills is a topic of open debate in the show. Vigilantism? Protest? Social media? Education?
Spoilers, Black Lightning becomes Black Lightning again in Black Lightning. And when he does so, he doesn’t saunter down the middle of the stage to the bowed heads of a subdued, formerly directionless youth. Black Lightning takes a trope we’ve seen before, the grizzled, retired hero called back into action, and confronts it with a youthful eye that is not worshipful, but skeptical.
He might be 1,000 CW years older than the likes of The Flash, Supergirl, or the Green Arrow (who himself is getting into his CW 80s) but make no mistake, Williams is just as charming and engaging as CW’s established superhero protagonists, and the world around him has the potential to provide a show that is just as philosophically engaging as it is ludicrously-costumed.