The CW’s latest superhero show made an impressive debut that suggests it could be one of the new standard bearers of the genre. Right off the bat, Black Lightning ties its story into real problems that its viewers are probably all too familiar with.
The first time we see Jefferson Pierce (Cress Williams), he’s yelling at his older daughter Anissa (Nafeesa Williams) for getting involved in a violent protest. Unlike real-life Black Lives Matter activists, Anissa is not protesting police violence, but rather the failure of the police (and the community at large) to prevent the local gang known as the One Hundred from murdering and terrorizing the residents of Freeland. Perhaps the superhero known as Black Lightning could help, but he’s been missing in action for nine years now. Instead, Jefferson is living a peaceful life as the principal of Garfield High, though his electricity powers still bubble out when he’s feeling particularly angry or stressed — such as when he gets pulled over by a police officer and harassed for no reason, right in front of his daughters.
After this ignominious car ride, the Pierces go their separate ways. Jefferson goes to a school fundraiser being held in his honor, while his younger daughter Jennifer (China Anne McClain) heads out to a local club. Between her father’s demanding expectations, stressful school social relations, and the day-to-day racism she encounters, it’s easy to see why Jennifer could use a break. But unfortunately this one goes badly for her. After a member of the One Hundred named Will starts flirting with her, Jennifer soon finds herself pulled into a side room and threatened by gangsters
Luckily, heroism isn’t dead. After his fancy party, Jefferson follows his daughter to the club, where he puts his lightning powers to use taking out the lights and frying some gangsters. Once that threat is handled and Jefferson steps back outside, he’s greeted by the other ever-present threat in his life: cops. It’s incredibly satisfying to watch Jefferson blast these racist cops with lightning, especially after one of them has the ill-conceived idea to tase him.
The incident at the club has everyone asking: Is Black Lightning back? Jefferson, for one, isn’t interested. To him, the whole point of Black Lightning was to kill someone named “Tobias.” After that, it broadened to all kinds of criminals. For Jefferson, it really seems like the struggle has no end, and the only loser is him — especially since the media insists on calling him a “vigilante” rather than welcoming him as a superhero like The Flash or Supergirl. After he kept coming home broken and bloody, his wife Lynn (Christine Adams) divorced him and kicked him out of the house for endangering his daughters. Jefferson is where he is now (celebrated principal, father of two successful daughters, on the verge of a reconciliation with Lynn) because of years of hard work. He’s not turning back into Black Lightning just like that. (Recap continues on page 2)
Unfortunately for Jefferson, the genie is out of the bottle and won’t be easily put back. Following his humiliation at the club, Will decides to approach Jennifer at school. Anissa intervenes, which inspires Will to try drawing his gun. Eventually Jefferson arrives and talks Will down by saying the police are on their way and would love an excuse to kill him, so Will retreats. Jefferson tries to secure his daughters’ safety by going to a local One Hundred leader named Lala and reminding him of the unspoken pact that gangs are to stay away from Garfield High, but the intervention doesn’t go as planned. Instead of standing down, Will doubles down on his aggression and kidnaps Jennifer and Anissa right from their school.
It seems unlikely that Garfield would lack even the most basic security capable of deterring these gangsters’ attack, but then again, that’s the whole idea of this show: In a world that’s falling apart at every level, true heroes need to stand up to protect people. Jefferson does just that, and he even has a tricked-out new Black Lightning suit (capable of conducting electricity and everything!) to help get his daughters back.
This is the show’s first try at a superhero fight scene, and it succeeds admirably — Black Lightning even uses one of his gangster enemies as a human shield to soak up some bullets, proving that he’s not going to be playing nice. I like that his powers can be used both for projectile lightning blasts and enhanced hand-to-hand combat (with electric sparks flaring every time he hits someone); it should make for an adaptable show. The crescendo comes when Black Lightning finally comes upon Will and suspends him in the air with a lightning bolt before sending him straight into the windshield of his own car. The hero is back, and his daughters are safe.
In the closing minutes, we find out that Black Lightning’s old nemesis Tobias (Marvin “Krondon” Jones III) is very much still alive, and now in charge of the One Hundred. But in the face of this threat, we also get a pleasant surprise when Anissa manifests her own superpowers in the form of red-hot strength. Soon enough we’ll get our proper introduction to Thunder, but for now it’s enough to be secure in the fact that we have a promising new superhero show on our hands — one who actually has something to say.