While Marvel has found success in building a cinematic universe over the past decade, DC has built its own interconnected series of shows on The CW, using the success of Arrow as a launchpad for numerous series that have allowed them to explore different superheroes, ideas, and themes, while also bringing them together occasionally for exhilarating crossovers, such as the most recent Crisis on Earth X miniseries. The newest show to join this group comes in the form of Black Lightning, breaking ground as the first black leading superhero, and if the series premiere is anything to go by, this promises to be a great addition to the superhero universe and an excellent show in its own right.
Starting the show off with the Nina Simone classic "Strange Fruit" (as well as an unlawful roadside stop and arrest of the main character by police solely because he's black) establishes this show's tone very clearly early on. Much like Supergirl wears its feminism on its sleeve, Black Lightning is unabashed in its exploration of, and concern for, black lives. In many ways, the show seems poised to be about the helplessness of being black in America, giving Jefferson Pierce's life more focus than Black Lightning's in the pilot. However, unlike other shows where a character's civilian alter ego is often in service of their superhero identity, here Jefferson's own life is a rich and full one, of which Black Lightning is one facet that he's clearly working to ensure doesn't take over. At the same time, episode writer and director Salim Akil manages to use Jefferson's experiences as a civilian to paint the necessity of having someone like Black Lightning around. The image of Jefferson walking out of a gang shooting to encounter police officers, arguably a common scene in numerous superhero shows, takes on extra poignancy in this series, with the officer’s words and reaction to Jefferson standing there in a suit working in tandem with the knowledge of Jefferson’s prior police encounter to illustrate how a black man in America cannot expect either group to look out for him.
The pilot also establishes that this is a comeback of sorts for Black Lightning, as Jefferson's inability to protect his daughters, or himself, in the face of gang violence or police racism causes him to choose to use his powers for the first time in nine years. This is a massive benefit from a storytelling perspective, as the pilot establishes that Jefferson has worked through many of the identity crises that other superheroes in the connected universe are currently experiencing, ensuring that the show, and the character, won't be regurgitating storylines that audiences can already see in the other shows.
The one drawback to the pilot is its focus on Jefferson, which is, in its own way, a credit to the show. Jefferson's daughters, Jennifer and Anissa, are well-drawn from the start, their sibling chemistry feeling lived-in, so it's a disappointment to see them reduced to damsels in distress late in the episode who are entirely passive in their own rescue. The manifestation of Anissa's powers, however, triggered by the PTSD she suffers from her kidnapping and near-death experience, is a promising indicator that this won't be an ongoing issue. The supporting players certainly prove themselves more than up to the task of taking on bigger roles, particularly Christine Adams, playing Jefferson's ex-wife Lynn, who manages to infuse a range of emotions into a simple head nod acknowledging and supporting his decision to become Black Lightning again.
The show's focus on character doesn't come at the expense of its fight coordination or special effects, however. The two action sequences in the pilot are both well done, and the one fight that occurs with Black Lightning in full costume and effects is a fun watch that shows Jefferson's full awareness of his capabilities. Show creators Mara Brock Akil and Salim Akil are clearly more interested in exploring the character and the world around him, rather than simply taking every possible opportunity to display Jefferson's powers, and the show is significantly better for it.
All of these elements come together for an excellent start to the series. The writers have a clear grasp on the tone of the show and the themes they want to explore, as becomes evident throughout the pilot, putting it leagues ahead of most shows already. The disconnect from the rest of the superhero shows on The CW does work to Black Lightning's advantage, allowing it to explore its own world without being hamstrung by the rules set up by the previous four shows (as a key example, the point the pilot makes about whom the press chooses to call a hero versus whom they choose to label as a vigilante would lose its impact in a universe where Star City's police force and media have reported on Oliver Queen's Green Arrow as a vigilante). Those with a cursory or minimal knowledge of the comics character need not worry; the show does not assume any prior knowledge, but it doesn't get bogged down in exposition either. Instead, it moves along at a brisk pace, and even conversations and flashbacks that convey information carry important emotion and meaning. If the creative team can maintain and build on the positive elements of this episode, Black Lightning could very well end up being one of the best new shows this season. As it stands, with a pilot like this, it's already halfway there.