The Black Lightning Series Premiere is a Victory for Comic Book Fans, Diversity

Black Lightning
Photo Credit: The CW Network

Black Lightning Series Premiere, ‘The Resurrection’ Plot Summary:

After laying down the mantle of Black Lightning, Jefferson Pierce (Cress Williams) has become the principal of his city’s most successful high school.  But when members of The One Hundred street gang threaten Jefferson’s school and his two daughters, the hero is forced to come out of retirement.

It sure is a good time to be a fan of live action comic book adaptations, especially for those of us who have been waiting for the genre to make a much-needed push for racial diversity.

Back in 2016, Luke Cage managed to become one of the highest praised and most watched shows on Netflix; unafraid to carve out its on place in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The show featured a style and tone that resonated with audiences not typically targeted by the genre.

The hype for next month’s release of Black Panther cannot be overstated, as the first mainstream superhero of African descent makes his solo film debut. Yes, there have been some casting missteps along the way (see the Ancient One in Doctor Strange, and everything to do with Iron Fist), but the move to include more diverse characters in Marvel and DC’s shows and movies has largely been a success story.  Given that momentum, there may be no better time for The CW’s Black Lightning to enter the scene.

The DC superhero shows on The CW have always done a reasonable job of injecting racial diversity into their casts (Diggle, Curtis, and Rene on Arrow; Cisco and the West family on The Flash; Jax, Amaya, and Zari on Legends of Tomorrow; and James and J’onn on Supergirl), but Black Lightning stands as the first time a person of color is in the title role.  Fittingly, the show addresses important race-based issues affecting our country much more directly than any of the network’s other shows; right off the bat, the premiere explores how protests, racial profiling, and gang violence impact Jefferson as a parent, principal, and former hero.  This willingness to openly tackle social issues is both smart and important for setting the show’s tone, distinguishing the series from its sister shows.

The only danger of taking this route is that the premiere occasionally feels too similar to the other high profile superhero show starring a black man, Luke Cage.  Yes, street gangs with powerful and politically connected leaders spur on both heroes’ decisions to reluctantly fight back, but the similarities stop there.  Jefferson immediately sets himself apart from Luke Cage and the CW’s other heroes on several levels that make him infinitely more interesting that your average superhero.

As a battle-worn hero forced to end his retirement, the father of two headstrong girls, and a successful professional who understands the importance of education and inspiring change in his community through non-violent means, Jefferson stands out and already comes off as a fully realized character.  On top of that, the mystery surrounding his retirement, his first vigilante campaign, and his failed marriage add an air of intrigue that will give the show’s writers plenty of dramatic material to explore moving forward.  In only one episode, Jefferson has become one of the most compelling heroes in the CW’s DC pantheon.

That being said, the premiere’s primary conflict is not overly complex.  This straightforwardness is actually an asset, though, as the plot never has a chance to overshadow the characters. Many viewers will no doubt be annoyed by the fact that the story really is kicked off by Jefferson’s younger daughter, Jennifer (China Anne McClain), and her rebellious nature, but the show does a rather good job of explaining what aspects of Jennifer’s upbringing would lead her to make such decisions.  As many times as we’ve seen heroes forced into action because of their children’s poor choices (*cough* literally every season of 24 featuring Kim Bauer *cough*), this case felt much more justified.

Likewise, the episode’s villains proved to be just complex and threatening enough to elevate them above your average television gang.  In particular, Lala (William Catlett) came off as a strong foil to Jefferson and could be one of the season’s standout characters.  I am still unsure what Tobias Whale (Marvin “Krondon” Jones III) has to bring to the plate as season’s primary antagonist, but I’m hopeful his connection to Jefferson will keep their conflict exciting on both a personal and philosophical level.  On top of that, the inner struggle Jefferson faces as he considers what impact his alter ego will have on his city, family, and body makes for a character-driven story that will be sure to entertain and cause discussion.

The CW has offered some of the strongest live action shows under the DC label, but Black Lightning appears poised to chart its on path forward and offer new directions to a genre constantly in need of evolution. Perhaps best thought of as Arrow meets The Wire, this latest foray into the world of comic books is an exciting development that should appeal to a wide audience. Everyone with Arrowverse fatigue should take notice:  Black Lightning is not your typical comic book show and is all the better for that fact.

Rating: 8 out of 10

Josh Sarnecky is one of Pop Break's staff writers and covers Designated Survivor, Game of Thrones, and Stranger Things. His brother, Aaron, is the site’s TV Editor, but Josh is the family’s reigning Trivial Pursuit: Star Wars champion.