Feature Article

Black Lightning Finds Balance Between Violence and Super Heroics

The best of both worlds?

Over the past six years, the world of DC TV has established itself to be the place you go when you want to see shenanigans and dangerously-close-to-maudlin melodrama directed at legions of die-hard young adult fans. Even Arrow, arguably the most grim of the bunch, manages to keep up the pace with a level of tongue-in-cheek self awareness that prevents it from getting too rain-slicked and colorless.

This is standard operating procedure for live action superhero media today, even outside of the "Arrowverse." The stark binary between seriousness and super heroics is held up almost religiously in the world of shared universe genre TV. On one end of the spectrum, the CW DC shows revel in their superhero source material by leaning all the way into the absurdity and sci-fi camp. On the other end, the Marvel Netflix universe pulls the opposite direction, with bone cracking, blood spitting brutality, shows like Daredevil and The Punisher rarely acknowledging their comic book roots too directly.

The middle ground between those two extremes has, historically, been a no man's land filled with half-hearted one-shot episode attempts at reaching some sort of cringing, self conscious compromise between poles. After all, the logical part of anyone's brain surely has to balk at the idea of a person with honest-to-god super powers, wearing an honest-to-god spandex costume, dealing with honest-to-god violence that isn't cushioned by bloodless punches and biff-bang-pow theatricality--or vice versa, the world of genuine, real world violence being legitimately thwarted by someone running around in a domino mask or cape.

And then along came Black Lightning.

If you tuned into this week's premier, chances are you were probably surprise by a few things. For one, the show breaks the DC TV mold by dropping us into the story essentially in media res. It's not an origin story, it's not a "learning to be a hero" arc, it's set after Jefferson Pierce, the titular Black Lightning himself, has already retired from his masked vigilante lifestyle.

And then, there's the brutality of it. The pilot episode opens with a visceral police profiling scene in which Jefferson is manhandled out of his car in the rain and forced onto the hood while his daughters watch with guns trained on them. It's a moment that bubbles with a level of tension and anger that would be at home in a grounded prestige drama--except for one important twist. The rage and anger bubbling below the surface of the scene prompt Jefferson to tap into his super powers--electric currents he controls through his body--crackling literally and unselfconsciously into frame.

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Over the years, terms like "gritty" and "street level" have been used to describe a lot of superhero media, both positively and negatively, but almost always as shorthand to convey one critical point: These are words that belong to superhero shows that are violent and, in that way real; definitely not centered around people who can shoot lightning bolts out of their hands.

It would be impossible not to describe the world Black Lightning takes place in as "gritty" or to avoid the "street level" cliche when trying to explain just where Jefferson works as a hero. But the show immediately turns both concepts on their respective heads.

Jefferson's super powers don't get a real explanation in the pilot, there are no flashbacks of some ancient mystical rite of passage, and he's not shown as some sort of experiment gone wrong or a technological genius who went too far. He doesn't hem and haw about the logic it requires to accept him as a thing that exists in the world being established around him. He just is--and the city he protects understands and accepts it.

The critical threat facing Jefferson's hometown of Freeland isn't a dimensional rift, or a crazed mercenary, or a doomsday device--it's gang violence. He's not fighting against people who are shooting ray guns or firebolts or psychic projections, he's up against people with guns and money and power. People in Freeland are murdered, forced into prostitution, and caught in all-too-real cycles of violence and crime from which they can't escape. The figure of Black Lightning--superpowered, costumed, otherworldly--represents genuine, earnest hope to the entire community. He is already a public figure and a symbol, he's already accepted, understood and believed. The question on Freeland's mind isn't "is Black Lightning real?" It's "Is Black Lightning back?"

Black Lightning isn't just walking an unprecedented tightrope, it's full-on sprinting. If the show's confidence in both tone and subject matter continue, it could remain grounded in reality and fantasy simultaneously. It's a degree of balance that feels new in the world of genre TV. And so far, Black Lightning doesn't seem in any danger of stumbling.

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