Review: 'Black Lightning' Is Game-Changing For Superhero TV

Black Lightning is the one of the best pilots in the last few years, and the show immediately [...]

Black Lightning is the one of the best pilots in the last few years, and the show immediately raises the bar for superhero programming.

It has been less than a calendar year since the comic book TV landscape saw a bit of a critical paradigm shift with the one-two punch of Riverdale and Legion. Each of them offered a bold and visually-stunning interpretation of their comic book source material, reducing decades of continuity to a handful of loose guidelines and storytelling conventions, there to be revered or violated depending almost exclusively on the needs of the story.

Black Lightning feels very much like that -- and much like both of those series, it seems likely the show will earn strong reviews from both professional critics and those audiences who demand "something different" and also flock in large, reliable numbers to the superhero shows that show no signs of slowing down.

Black Lightning opens with a five-minute sequence unlike anything you've seen in a comic book pilot. It is raw and visceral and disturbing, and in light of the current events upon which it is commenting, it feels urgent.

Some of the themes explored in Black Lightning are the kind that will often draw criticism from a certain subset of fandom who insist that they "do not belong" in the escapist fantasies of superhero fiction. The world of Freeland, though, is far from escapist in nature. Black Lightning is not trying to be another Flash but to carve out its own path that reminds (or perhaps informs) mainstream audiences that superheroes can be more than just escapism.

Indeed, Jefferson himself is so reluctant in the pilot that it sometimes feels Anissa -- who will appear as Thunder in the show's first season -- is the most heroic member of the family. Certainly, a younger-skewing network like The CW virtually guarantees that a significant portion of the audience will be primarily focused on Anissa (Nafessa Williams) and Jennifer (China Anne McClain). Each of them gives a performance worthy of the attention and Williams, in particular, comes into the show looking and feeling like a fully-formed superhero.

She almost has to, given the microscope she will be under as a young, black, lesbian superhero on primetime network TV.

What Black Lightning "means" is bound to be a question that comes up a lot in the next couple of weeks; it is the first broadcast superhero series to feature a black solo lead (Luke Cage obviously launched first but runs on Netflix), and it seems clear that showrunner Salim Akil takes that seriously, attempting to address it narratively in the same way Wonder Woman embraced its feminist identity last year.

The show will address questions of police corruption and police violence as well as gang and gun violence, with Akil saying that he hoped to address the question of "black-on-black" crime in a serious and thoughtful way. The term, often used as a talking point by pundits who are redirecting the conversation away from other issues, will make some on the left as uncomfortable as a predominantly black TV series dealing with police violence makes some on the right. In the first two episodes, both issues are smartly handled.

The show's politics, then, will not be particularly straightforward; behind Jefferson's desk at the school where he works, eagle-eyed fans can spot photographs of him shaking hands with former Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama. The message is that Pierce, a former Olympic athlete who hopes to inspire his students with his example, is not exclusionary. Neither is the show, which prominently features a member of the Freeland Police Department in a positive light and depicts other sympathetic police officers -- even as it depicts and questions the violence-first method of dealing with suspects frequently seen in American inner cities.

Much of the pilot rests on series star Cress Williams, who delivers a powerhouse performance as a man who is facing stresses, strains, and pressures from all sides and who is constantly restraining himself, trying to find peaceful way to do things that conventional superhero narratives dictate would be easier accomplished with violence.

As Jefferson himself quotes from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in the pilot, though, "Returning violence for violence multiplies violence, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars."

That philosophy is Jefferson's North Star even as things begin to unravel in the island of calm he has created in his school and home. How he will remain true to Dr. King's vision once the dangers of Freeland begin to encroach on his safe spaces becomes the driving narrative behind Black Lightning's return.

Like Legion, Black Lightning introduces audiences not to the hero's shocking origin story but to a world shaped by the character, and one that has shaped him. Black Lightning is referred to in the past tense and seen on wanted posters at the police department long before Jefferson Pierce ever decides to suit up again and fight crime.

Like Riverdale, Black Lightning is a generational story -- one where the nominal hero is only as interesting as those around him, and where both parents and children make first impressions that promise there is much more to explore.

And like The Flash, the show throws a lot at you -- fast -- and wraps it in the candy coating of exciting action scenes and a character who has a voice and point of view distinct enough that it comes through even when he is going through the motions of fast-paced violence.

Black Lightning does not feel like a comic book show angling to be prestige TV, as some of the recent additions to the canon have been. That format can certainly deliver some memorable content but is ultimately unlikely to fully satisfy either the comic book audience or the prestige TV viewer for long. Instead, Black Lightning is prestige TV using the iconography of superheroes to comment on our modern society and, on some level, our obsession with big strong men who will use force to come and save us. That inversion of creative priorities is something rarely seen, and it has a lot of potential if they can maintain this high level of quality going forward.

Black Lightning will have a red carpet premiere on Saturday in Washington, D.C. as part of the "DC in D.C." event. It will premiere on The CW next Tuesday, January 16, at 8 p.m. ET/PT.