No pun intended, Black Lightning was the “black sheep” of the CW superhero macrocosm known as the “Arrowverse” that premiered in January 2018. Starring an All-Black cast (save James Remar’s character Peter Gambi) series’ developer Salim Akil had the audacious ambition of telling both a socially conscious and family oriented saga with a distinct African-American flair, utilizing one of comic’s premiere and underappreciated black superheroes from the DC Comics pantheon.
The opening four-chapter book “Reconstruction”, started off well enough. Time-jumping one year from last season – post-Crisis – we find the Pierce family severely fractured. Jefferson Pierce (Cress Williams), still distraught over the death of Bill Henderson, tries to reconcile his dueling identities as a floundering family man and a past-his-prime heroic symbol, having retired the mantle of Black Lightning following the Markovian/ASA debacle. Dr. Lynn Stewart (Christine Adams) and Jefferson are in couples’ therapy, trying to maintain their brittle relationship, which has been complicated by Dr. Stewart’s unresolved addictive personality with the meta-human serum she derived last season for Gravedigger. Anissa (Nafessa Williams) and Jennifer (China Anne McClain) now operate as the de facto dynamic duo of Thunder & Lightning protecting Freeland from gangs in their father’s absence; but their personal lives are not really any better.
In terms of the other returning cast, Gambi (James Remar) and TC (Christopher A’mmanuel) are consigned to a meager supporting role. Gambi is no longer the remorseful surrogate father, or former assassin seeking absolution; but is relegated to banal sub-plot duties, tech support and exposition responsibilities. Christopher’s character also suffers this fate, only ever really being on screen in “the layer” to help the Pierces alongside Gambi. There is a vale attempt at a budding romantic relationship between him and Jennifer, but this comes off as nothing more than unrequited pining on his part. Shapeshifter Grace Choi/Wylde (Chantal Thuy) has a more prominent role this season, as not only Anissa’s wife, but partner in crime-fighting. Due to budget constraints, the full extent of her metamorphic powers are reduced to feral claws and ADR snarls. Lala/Tattooed Man (William Catlett) also returns, but is soundly taken off the board early on. While I always adored William’s performance since season two, he remains woefully underutilized in this show. His character has been treated as the unfortunate punching bag since his debut, which does not befit either the character or the actor.
New this season is Det. Hassan Shakur (Wallace Smith), a cynical officer who once idolized both Black Lightning and Chief Bill Henderson. Replacing Henderson as Black Lightning’s “man on the inside”, Wallace comes off as that stereotypical “tough good cop who plays by their own rules”. I liked the premise of them working out their burgeoning, if uneasy, relationship while avoiding the trope of that familiar Batman/Gordon dynamic. As a fresh tertiary character, I can’t readily say Wallace’s performance stood out as well amongst his seasoned peers – but he is definitely the one who stands out for me from the new additions. Perhaps if given another season, he could have come into his own like some before him on the show.
We’re also introduced to chief of police Ana Lopez (Melissa De Sousa), who acts as this season’s cartoonish parallel antagonist, pushing a zealous anti-meta-human agenda on Freeland. It was hard getting behind Lopez’s cliché motivation or manic obsession that goes off the rails like a bad supervillain origin story by season’s end. One of this season’s many fax paus.
The only other new character worth mentioning is the cutlass–wielding assassin Ishmael (Rico Ball); if only for being a paper-thin “Painkiller” imitation introduced in the latter half of the story as the main physical foil for our family of heroes. Needless to say Rico doesn’t hold a candle to Jordon’s performance; and he’s just too generic and one-note to warrant further discussion.
“Book of Reconstruction” is the strongest part of this season, as it revels in the emotional torment of the Pierces, particularly Jefferson. Cress is allowed to flex a gamut of emotions, while he wrestles with his own self-loathing and short-comings as both a father and a husband. There are subtle nods to coax him to return to form as his electrified alter ego, but none are compelling enough to garner a second thought. His interactions with fellow cast members, particularly Christine, really accentuate their respective acting acumen.
The subsequent “Book of Ruin” aptly shows Tobias Whale (Marvin “Krondon” Jones III) execute his magnum opus on taking over Freeland and getting his revenge on the Pierces with sinister and systematic precision, befitting the nefarious criminal mastermind of his reputable caliber. Marvin deliciously chews up the scenery whenever he is on screen. More Gene Hackman’s “Lex Luthor” than Vincent D’Onofrio’s “Kingpin”, Marvin’s performance as the diabolical albino Whale deserves recognition, as he’s equally charming, comically offensive and menacing. And when the domino pieces of his well thought-out scheme start to fall into place, it gives one pause as a genuine crucible our cast must overcome. It ends with a standout performance by Christine when she is incarcerated, which may be heart-wrenching for some viewers to watch.
There is the shoehorned pseudo-pilot mid-season episode starring Khalil/Painkiller (Jordan Calloway) teasing a potential spin-off that was in the works – which has since been squashed around the same time the final episode aired. The “backdoor” episode titled “Painkiller” was an out-of-place disaster, with an oversaturated neon color palette and an overabundance of CG scenes that assaulted and offended my ocular organs. The fact that this was to foreshadow Jordan’s solo spin-off series was a shame, and the prenatal cancellation was just salt on that garish wound. Fortunately, we get to see Jordan’s character return to Freeland. Jordan’s acting remains stellar, even with him juggling duo personalities (Khalil the Yin and Painkiller the Yang) which he makes work despite how hokey it may seem.
In terms of the climax, the two-parters “Book of Reunification” and “Book of Resurrection” cap off Black Lightning’s final season. Compared to prior seasons, none have felt more rushed and formulaic than this. Brute forcing their way into the boss’ layer and take out the bad guy was pretty much copy-pasted from last season with less fanfare. Given how well prepared Tobias was by this point, the fact that everything went down near-effortlessly for our heroes was appalling and offensive from a standpoint of suspended disbelief. On a side note, Lopez’s adjacent super-powered tantrum being undone in a single shot was obscured. And the bewildering revelation of Jennifer’s deceptive doppelganger (played by Laura Kariuki) was so out of left field and superfluous it might as well have been out of the park. The bait-and-switch cliffhanger of the penultimate episode was not appreciated either and would have been more impactful (being the final season) if the showrunners stuck to their guns. The climactic confrontation between Jefferson and Whale is less than epic. Given how their bitter rivalry has been built up to that point, it was a severe disappointment. To spare the hero the moral dilemma of vanquishing his mortal enemy, karma steps in to absolve Jefferson of any culpability when Whale meets his inevitable end.
There are a lot of negatives about Black Lightning’s final season that tarnish a once promising show. For whatever reason, gone are the subtle and overt social commentaries the series has been known for. Even when it focuses exclusively on the Pierces, a lot feels disjointed. Lynn’s addiction is quickly dismissed; the introduction of a “new” Jennifer serves no narrative purpose or conflict; Painkiller’s return ultimately goes nowhere; the out-of-the-blue former secret love interest of Lynn thrown in last minute had little to no room to develop and is resolved off-camera (or forgotten). Not to mention, the handful of miscellaneous secondary and tertiary bad guys are utterly lackluster and forgettable. Lastly, the epilogue tease of a returning villain is meaningless. At face value, all I can see is a protracted sequence of pointlessness.
In terms of pros, however, the acting by the main cast remains the series’ greatest virtue. Cress and Christine both get outstanding moments this season, and despite the bad hand Jordan was dealt, still nailed that high level of quality he had set for himself. Marvin also kills it as Tobias Whale, and he’s given free rein this time around to ham things up without having to share or delegate the spotlight. Also, Tobias’ endgame reaches that level of ultimatum this series needed to go out on, even if it was not executed to perfection.
It is regrettable that Black Lightning had to close on a muddled, rushed mess of a season, that nevertheless had shining moments. Technically, these characters still exist in the CW “Arrowverse”, but the likelihood of them coming back in any meaningful way in the future is next to none. I can only wish the entire cast the best of luck in whatever new roles and endeavors they find themselves in post-Black Lightning, as such talent should not be shelved indefinitely.
Looking back, Black Lightning was avant garde. A family of all-Black superheroes in an oppressed and downtrodden Black community plagued by corruption, gang violence, exploitation and an indifferent or racist police force/government. Black Lightning was a unique African-America superhero story that tried to highlight these facets African-Americans face both on a micro and macro scale. In terms of aesthetics, its ever-improving and unique comic book art style and hip-hop tracks gave it a distinct flare and presentation.
Looking forward, we have the new “Naomi” CW series by executive producers Ava DuVernay and Jill Blakenship, starring Kaci Walfall, which is in production and is forthcoming. Here is hoping “Naomi” (a relatively new Black DC superhero) learns from Black Lightning, both the good and bad, and improves from and outperformed its forbearer.
Hailing from the eastern-most Caribbean island of Barbados, Fabian Wood has long since been fascinated by the power of storytelling to inspire and invoke emotions – whether in film, comics, or videogames. No longer content to be just an avid comic book reader and videogamer, he’s eager to exercise his literary acumen as an aspiring writer and reviewer.