In my social circles, there’s a lot of fans of both Marvel and DC’s TV universe. The fans of Agent Carter, The Flash, Supergirl (and the rest) are legion. But no-one seems to be all that interested in Black Lightning. I’d like to talk a little about why I think this show is worth your time.
My discussion here is limited to the modern/current TV shows of the DC and Marvel Cinematic Universes. If something below is contradicted by something in a comment: don’t care, I’m not talking about the comics. Likewise for a show from 30 years ago.
[There will be spoilers in this essay, as I refer to episodes up to and including Season 1, Episode 9, “The Book of Little Black Lies”. Heads up.]
1. No Origin Story
Black Lightning (the show) begins roughly 20 years after Black Lightning originated. The Arrow, Flash, Luke Cage, Agent Carter, and all the rest, show us the origin story of their namesake in the first couple of episodes of the first season.
Jefferson Pierce (Cress Williams), on the other hand, has hung up his spandex. He’s done. In the interest of keeping his family safe and doing as much good as he can (as defined by educating the young black kids in his community), he’s dropped the superhero gig in favour of being the principal of a local school. He’s a well-respected member of his community. He has a family that clearly care for one another. His life is almost the polar opposite of Oliver McQueen’s in terms of disfunction: Pierce has a good and happy life.
In all our superhero shows, this is a rarity.
2. Few Secrets
Unlike many of the other shows (again), Pierce’s love interest (Lynn Stewart, played by the amazing Christine Adams) is fully aware of his alter-ego from minute one of the show. To a significant extent, she is the reason he retired. Throughout the first season, she is constantly pushing back against him taking on the role of Black Lightning. She was there for him in the early days, when he’d come home battered and bloody, and found seeing him that way distressing. Moreover, she knew that their young kids would never understand why their dad was hurt.
There’s no initial tension here about hiding his identity from Stewart, and (frankly) it’s refreshing.
That said, he still tries to keep his identity secret from his kids.
No other show that I’ve seen has dealt with superpowers being inheritable, nor has taken the time to explore the impact of this on the kids inheriting their powers.
For Anissa Pierce (Nafessa Williams), the powers are a gift, a way to strike back against the daily indignities that she has to face as a young black woman. Cat callers, statues celebrating confederate slavers: this is a chance for her to punch back. And she does. And learns the hard way about collateral damage, and what happens when a powered individual punches someone who isn’t. This is where we first start to see the fallout from Jefferson keeping the secret of his powers from his kids.
The fight between Black Lightning and Thunder (Anissa), where both are trying to ‘save’ Stewart from each other is the capstone of this: if Jefferson had been honest with his kids, the situation would never have escalated to Anissa being hospitalised. Secrets, from the ones you care about most, are bad.
While this does, occasionally, come up in other shows, the protagonists never seem to learn from this. I’m sure that 20 seasons from now, Oliver McQueen (Arrow) will *still* be lying to those around him while he goes off to brood/murder 50 people……
There’s a second inheritance angle, though, with Jennifer Pierce (China Anne McClain). Her powers express themselves after Anissa’s, and even though Jefferson and Anissa are being open with one another, Jennifer has not been involved in the discussion.
When she finally breaks down and opens up to her mother, rather than being happy with this inheritance (as is the usual origin story), she’s profoundly upset: the ‘normal’ life that she imagined for herself has just been torn away from her. Regardless of whether she chooses to use those powers or not, she now has something else that separates her from everyone else. She almost immediately asks “can I still have kids?”, a thought that has almost never been expressed in any MCU or DC show (that I recall).
While there is some criticism of this show as being a response to Luke Cage (probably true), and that Jefferson Pierce is nowhere near as likeable as Luke Cage (definitely true), I think that there are humanising and familial aspects to powered beings being explored in this show that aren’t being explored anywhere else. And I think that that, alone, makes it a worthwhile watch (and I hope that the CW keeps it going).