Crackling with conflict and potential, Black Lightning swoops in to save the midwinter TV season, reinvigorating the superhero genre along the way. The series, from Mara Brock Akil and Salim Akil, is the latest of The CW’s costumed vigilante offerings, though it exists (for now) outside of the Arrowverse. But that’s fine—great, even—because the Akils have delivered one of the most fully realized visions of a superhero we’ve seen onscreen to date.
Black Lightning was originally DC Comics’ answer to Marvel’s Luke Cage—the comics publisher even recruited Luke Cage writer Tony Isabella to help create its first black superhero. Of course, they took things quite literally and put “Black” in the name/title (let’s just be grateful that in the end the comics giant chose not to call him “Black Bomber”). But as the network’s first show about a black superhero, the Akils’ adaptation fully embraces the moniker, highlighting black excellence and black girl magic, while addressing contemporary concerns in black communities. They’ve crafted a thematically rich drama full of great performances, tight bursts of fight choreography, and enough humor to take some of the edge off.
Cress Williams stars as the eponymous superhero, whose origin story is nodded to in flashbacks but isn’t the primary focus of the show. Instead, we’re fully immersed in the world of his alter ego, Jefferson Pierce, a private school principal who’s chosen to try to save lives before they’re in imminent danger. This is similar to the character’s comics backstory, but instead of finally unleashing his metahuman powers when his city is beset by crime, this Jefferson dons the Black Lightning mantle once more to combat threats old and new.
The retired vigilante is quickly brought up to speed on just how perilous conditions are in Freeland, the ironically named town that replaces the “Suicide Slum” region Black Lightning’s forebear protected in the comics. This change in awareness is deftly handled by the show’s writers, who commend Jefferson’s accomplishments at his school while commenting on the distance afforded him by class transition. Jefferson’s created a safe haven at his school, but that was ultimately a compromise. There was only so much he could do as Black Lightning—knocking out thieves was merely triage, so he turned to promoting education, a preventive measure he thought would be better in the long run.
These are the same noble goals that so many leaders have strived for in real life, which is one of several grounding elements in the series. Jefferson’s relationships with his family and students flesh out not just the Black Lightning character but also the show’s world. We see how his daughters, Anissa (Nafessa Williams) and Jennifer (China Anne McClain), continue his legacy of excellence, but they have lives—and eventually, powers—of their own. Yet despite their electrifying abilities, they all remain human. The Pierce family is closely knit, even though Jefferson and Lynn (Christine Adams) split up over his vigilantism, so they fight, tease, and support each other. We also see them all strain under the weight of their obligations even as they find new reasons to keep up with them.
But the Akils’ thoughtful characterization doesn’t slow down any of the action—this is a comic book show, after all. There are plenty of kinetic fights and droll one-liners, which Williams delivers with aplomb. The Living Single and ER alum looks every bit the hero whether his bespoke suit is spandex or a three-piece. Williams’ portrayal of this conflicted hero, who feels he’s given both everything and not enough to maintaining peace in his hometown, is already head and shoulders above his CW brethren. There’s a playfulness and gravity to his performance that helps makes the case for older superheroes in the network’s young and chiseled lineup. Not that Williams or Black Lightning is any less vibrant or telegenic than the other CW shows; it’s just a kind of “grown sexy,” which instantly has viewers ’shipping a couple of divorcees.
Like any good leader (or father), though, Williams leaves plenty of room for his co-stars to grow. McClain shows lots of verve as the youngest member of the Pierce family, who struggles the most with her responsibilities while also living up to her family’s reputation. And as Anissa, Nafessa Williams becomes the first queer black superhero on network TV (though we don’t get a glimpse of her suit just yet). The villains are equally developed, including Tobias Whale (Marvin “Krondon” Jones III), a big bad who’s making all the moves from the periphery. A disgraced politician, he represents the inverse to Black Lightning, having gone from a more legitimate stance in the world to criminal mastermind. But the show brings much nuance to those seeming polar opposites, because it understands that real life isn’t that simple.
Black Lightning was originally developed for Fox, which is one of the reasons CW president Mark Pedowitz recently gave for why it wasn’t created with the Arrowverse in mind. Even geographically speaking, the show steers clear of those intertwining properties; by replacing Suicide Slum with Freeland, the show is cutting its ties to Metropolis. But whether that day ever comes, it’s clear those existing shows will be the ones to benefit from the crossover. The Akils have added an exciting new entry to the superhero genre, one that quickly strikes a balance between its light and heavy storytelling. And they’ve found a truly compelling lead in Williams, while keeping an eye on the future (and franchising) with its younger stars. Just as important, they’ve built a world where heroes of all kinds are needed, and then immediately filled that demand—no capes, quivers, or speedsters required.