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‘Black Lightning’ review: Superhero series a welcome addition

Cress Williams stars as the DC Comics hero

Cress Williams stars as the DC Comics hero Black Lightning. Photo Credit: The CW / Bob Mahoney

THE SERIES “Black Lightning”

WHEN | WHERE Premieres Tuesday at 9 p.m. on CW/11

WHAT IT’S ABOUT Jefferson Pierce (Cress Williams) has two daughters — Anissa (Nafessa Williams), in medical school, and Jennifer (China Anne McClain), a student at the charter high school where he’s principal. He and his ex-wife, Lynn (Christine Adams), worry obsessively about keeping them safe — harder and harder because their city has been overrun by a particularly violent gang. Nine years earlier, Pierce had retired his secret superhero double, Black Lightning, because of the toll it had taken on his family. But times have changed for the worse. He heeds the call once again.

MY SAY In the long history of comic books, there have been numerous black superheroes. In the long history of television, there have been three. Carl Lumbly’s “M.A.N.T.I.S.” came and went, scarcely noticed, 25 years ago, then Mike Colter’s smoldering Luke Cage arrived in 2016, making up for lost time — and opportunities — in a hurry. On the day after Martin Luther King Day, Cress Williams’ “Jeff” Pierce makes three.

His Pierce abides by King’s invocation that “violence . . . [adds] deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars,” as he explains to Jennifer on a long car ride through a starless night.

Yet, without saying as much, his Black Lightning is pure Malcolm X: “Be peaceful, be courteous . . . but if someone puts his hand on you, send him to the cemetery.”

Retributive justice is an enduring theme of comic books, but real-world payback is rarer. After a cop yells a racist epithet at Pierce when directing him to get on the ground, his eyes morph into a pair of blue-hot nuclear reactors, then spit out a jagged fork of high-voltage vengeance. No one actually dies in the pilot, but no one forgets their encounters with Lightning either.

It’s that real-world sizzle that gives this newcomer its snap, crackle and pop. Other cities in CW’s Arrowverse are like no city you’ve ever really seen, but the city of “Black Lightning” is Ferguson or Baltimore, where the police and community are at a standoff, or where gang violence consumes lives and futures. In Pierce’s school, Black Lives Matter isn’t a slogan but a mandate — tested daily, hourly. When a gang member draws a gun on the kindly principal, that gun looks real, and so does his fear. “Black Lightning” wants viewers to flinch, then realize that the gun could easily go off. In the real world, it often does.

Is “Black Lightning” a great addition to DC’s TV canon? The answer will come in time, because it takes time. The pilot’s tropes are overly familiar, the action sequences predictable. But this is absolutely a welcome addition, potentially a valuable one, and indisputably a long overdue one.

BOTTOM LINE Good superhero newcomer with an all-black cast and a real-world vibe.

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