CW Years, or, Black Lightning

black-lightning

ZAP ATTACK

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.

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Permission to Treat the Batman as Hostile, or, Batman Versus Superman Colon Dawn of Justice

BvS

LOGO MASH-UP ATTACK

With 2013’s Man of Steel it seemed director Zack Snyder was intent on applying Christopher Nolan’s gritty Dark Knight aesthetic to Superman. Structurally, Man of Steel very much feels like Batman Begins and one would be forgiven for thinking that Snyder was something of a Nolan acolyte. With that film’s successor, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, however, Snyder proves himself a far more loyal disciple to the likes of comic book writer and artist Frank Miller, whose distinctive insistence on redefining what popular culture thinks of the Dark Knight can be felt throughout the film.

With Man of Steel, Superman was course corrected, moved toward the operatic grit of Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy. The tone of Superman was adjusted to mimic the tone of Batman, and in response, the Batman of Dawn of Justice is proportionately moved further into the bleak shadows to compensate. On a scale where a sad face is Batman, a smiley face is Superman and a neutral face lies somewhere in between, Man of Steel flattened out Superman’s smile and Dawn of Justice knocks Batman off the scale completely.

The Batman of Dawn of Justice, played by Ben Affleck, isn’t just bleak. He’s hostile. Not just to the criminals he brands but to the audience. He dares you to like him. He dares you to tell him what Batman does and doesn’t do. He aggressively challenges what Batman is supposed to be in 2016. He embodies the sort of confrontational maverick spirit of Frank Miller’s Batman texts.

Frank Miller wrote Year One, for many the defining Batman origin story, and The Dark Knight Returns, widely considered to be the greatest Batman story ever put to paper. His Batman is a one-eyed man in the land of the blind, cursed to be the only one able to see through a soft, shallow world of senseless violence and half-hearted political correctness. He’s better than the world around him, he knows it, and he’s less than gracious about it.

He’s a jarring reaction to the biffs, pows and bams of Adam West’s caped crusader of the 60s, a whiplash-inducing course correction.

He’s also kind of a dick.

And that was in 1986.

By the time Miller wrote All-Star Batman & Robin, the Boy Wonder in 2005 his Batman was still reacting to popular culture’s perception of the character and, adjusting for inflation, had gone from kind of a dick to an all-out sociopath having sex on rooftops to the soundtrack of screaming criminals burning to death on the streets below.

A little over ten years later Snyder carries that torch forward, continuing Miller’s tradition of presenting popular culture with a Batman it doesn’t necessarily want, and one that doesn’t seem to want them either. The Batman of Dawn of Justice carries on less in the tradition of Nolan’s gritty realism and more in the vein of Miller’s blatant hostility towards the concept of what Batman should be. Like Miller’s Batman of the 80s it proves to be something of a reaction to what the world thinks of Batman. Like Miller’s Batman of the 00s it proves to be an overreaction no one necessarily wanted.

There’s an inarguable difference in quality between Miller and Snyder’s Batmen, undoubtedly because the latter is largely an adaptation of the former. It seems pretty clear already that Dawn of Justice will never garner the reverence of Miller’s best texts. Even its best Batman moments lack compelling context, and are best when you mentally pry them free of the film they’re buried in. But the feeling I get watching Ben Affleck’s Batman operate with such glorified cruelty is the most accurate filmic representation I’ve encountered of the sort of weary fascination Miller’s Batman instills in me.

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice is burdened by a script that too often forces you to do its work for it, putting the onus of rationalization, logic and character motivation on the viewer. By design it isn’t really fun, or funny and it seems content to wade in a tone of helpless despair. But if nothing else, it manages to mimic the confrontational hostility of the Frank Miller Batman texts that have become inseparable from the character.

While Zack Snyder hasn’t created a triumph akin to Dark Knight Returns, he has still rather successful emulated one of the most important creators to ever interact with Batman. Dawn of Justice is not Snyder’s Dark Knight Returns, but it just might be his All-Star Batman & Robin, the Boy Wonder.