Black Lightning

Last Sci-Fi Saturday I savaged Sabrina, which remains a new low to me in dumb TV. This time I have a much more mixed review. I’ve been working my way through Black Lightning (available on Netflix). It’s a superhero show, so it’s fantasy and suffers all the problems and weakness that go with that.

On the other hand, it’s about a Black superhero (three, actually), and the landscape has been sadly and notably deficient in people of color as superheroes. There is also that Black Lightning obviously has a bigger budget, much better acting, and a far stronger sense of authenticity.

That said,… I’m sorry, but superhero stories are just super lame.

In a way it’s not their fault. They’ve always been a form of high fantasy — a modern form of fairy tale to amuse and to sometimes instruct as parable.

Fantasy, including science fiction, has the fundamental problem of fiction — that it’s a fabrication of the imagination — but, to one degree or another, lacks real world grounding. All too often that gives authors license to roam wild in dream-like stories that leave logic and sense scratching their heads.

I think the trick to getting it right is two-fold: Firstly, good writing to carry the story over the unavoidable reality potholes. Secondly, a “writer’s bible” that spells out the rules and capabilities of the fantasy reality. Good world building is vital in fantasy.

It’s the latter point that for me is a huge fail in so many of these. Marvel movies have often been — absolutely correctly — criticized for the arbitrary abilities of the characters. The problem, to some extent, always exists, especially in a long-running series. It takes tight control, a vast reservoir of imagination, and rigid discipline to color within the lines — to create, and abide by, a set of world rules.

Modern audiences are not discerning that way, so many writers don’t bother. They know only pedantic assholes like me even notice, let alone are put off by it. Among those who do notice, most accept it and go with the flow.

Black Lightning (Cress Williams) and his suit of many lights.

Black Lightning, along with many others, suffers from a mode of storytelling that aggravates me in the extreme.

It’s when characters lie, keep secrets, and even interfere with family members, on the grounds that, “I was just trying to protect you.”

It’s something that always really bugged me about Spiderman. Why does he keep his secret from Aunt May? It shows a severe lack of trust.

That sort of thing was my big complaint about Grimm, a show I otherwise liked rather a lot. There the writers used another silly trope, the idea that, “No one would believe me!” Except the secret is easy to prove.

The one thing I liked about Ghost Rider was that Nicolas Cage told his girlfriend and easily demonstrated what had happened to him. The implied lack of trust superheroes seem to have for their loved ones annoys me almost beyond reason.

Besides all the secrets and lies, Black Lightning uses another modern mode that annoys me: people with very little impulse control. We’ve become a culture that elevates feelings over reason. If these fairy tales would be parables, they should embody the real life consequences of giving into emotions without thinking things through.

As I like to put it, the heart pushes, but the head must steer.

§

Two other common modern issues also plague me.

Firstly, despite their powers and technology, fight scenes inevitably center on fisticuffs. Everyone knows kung fu, everyone is a trained fighter. (I’ll credit the show in at least mentioning in passing that one of the daughters studies martial arts.)

I almost died laughing (in derision you understand) when that movie, Pacific Rim, with the giant high-tech robots, boiled down to super-sized hand-to-hand combat. I’ve never seen a Transformers movie, but from clips it appears to be the same childish nonsense.

It’s just goofy and stupid that, when you have powers and/or technology (like, I dunno, guns even) that combat boils down to hitting each other. To me it illustrates just how infantile these stories are.

Secondly, the “science” and “technology” has a very high bullshit level, which is a pity because science fiction centers on science and technology. As such, it has the power to educate viewers. A lot of my earliest science education came from the science fiction I read as a kid.

It’s the tragedy of modern times, of willful cultural stupidity, that it would go over the heads of most viewers (if not be outright rejected). I’m reminded of how SF author Piers Anthony turned from his outstanding early work to the trite nonsense of Xanth. It’s what his readers wanted.

So Black Lightning suffers from these common issues, which actually makes it not that different from most superhero stories.

It’s what I call “first level” storytelling. The most obvious straight path from here to there. Which is all too often the mode these days. Simple stories for simple people, I guess. I wish we had the cultural appetite for more.

Left to right: Tobias Whale (villain), Bill Henderson (cop), Peter Gambi (tailor, tech, and friend), Jefferson Pierce (Black Lightning), Anissa Pierce (Thunder/Blackbird), Dr. Lynn Stewart (ex-wife, neurosurgeon), Jennifer Pierce (Lightning).

I find that the aspects of the show that most engage me are the human moments. The actors are convincing and believable. The relationships between them feel real. (In Sabrina they felt about as real as the great love between Princess Naboo and Anakin.)

There’s a special aspect to the “I was only trying to protect you” mode that here gives it some substance. Black people exist in a dangerous world, and there is a strong metaphor in this show about the Black experience (says the white guy standing outside that experience). Black parents have very legitimate concerns about their kids and the surreal world their children must navigate.

In this case Jefferson Pierce (Cress Williams) has, in the past, been forced (due to his injuries) to share his secret with his now ex-wife, Dr. Lynn Stewart (Christine Adams). She divorced him because of her fears for his life; she just couldn’t take the stress.

She comes back into his life in the show, in part, because it turns out their two daughters, Anissa (Nafessa Williams) and younger Jennifer (China Anne McClain) have both inherited superpowers from dad. Much of the “I was just trying to protect you” angst revolves around the parents trying to shield their daughters.

Black Lightning is, in many ways, an X-Men type story about ordinary human beings that are made different in having powers. X-Men was always about being different and the hell that can put one in, be it due to race or sexuality or whatever.

So it’s hard to fault the show on these grounds. It’s a mode that I’ve always hated, but in this case I have to take a different view. It has actual substance and meaning here.

§

On the other hand, some of the writing is so dumb.

Black Lightning has electrical powers. I’ve never read the DC comic, but on the show, his suit lights up (because electrical). It allows them to show when his powers are fading or running out — the suit dims or goes out.

(It’s a bit harder to understand why Anissa’s suit also lights up since her powers are not related to electricity. She has super strength and invulnerability so long as she can hold her breath.)

The thing is, a suit that lights up makes it hard to not be noticed. And, come to think of it, most of the superhero stuff does take place at night.

It’s an example of style over substance (or sensibility). The lighted suit looks cool, but you’d think a superhero might like the ability to lurk in the dark. (On the other hand, one might look at it metaphorically as being unapologetically Black, of refusing to hide oneself.)

Sweethearts Jennifer Pierce (Lightning) and Khalil Payne (Painkiller).

In one arc, Khalil Payne aka Painkiller (Jordan Calloway), a good kid turned bad (and Jennifer’s love interest), repents and agrees to surrender to the FBI and testify against the main villain, Tobias Whale (Marvin “Krondon” Jones III), an albino Black man with some serious attitude problems and considerable wealth and power (including enhancements).

(Tobias’s favorite book is Moby Dick. Get it? The white whale?)

What’s so stupid is not just the whole handoff to the FBI, the big nighttime procession of armored truck and a dozen cars to escort it, but the insanely stupid way they’re all taken down. It’s one of those cases where apparently no one has ever read a comic book or seen a movie.

I knew exactly how that arc would go. What was even dumber is that, having gotten his hands on Khalil, Tobias, a confirmed killer, who was initially dead set on killing Khalil to prevent him from testifying, merely maims him and lets him live. (Due to his injuries, Khalil does “die” but without providing any information about Whale.)

(And, yeah, “die” because no one ever really dies in the comics.)

I think, at root, the problem with a lot of fantasy, and certainly with superhero fantasy, is that it can’t be taken seriously. The first Superman movies had a tongue in cheek tone that, still today, makes them watchable. The only recent superhero movies I’ve really liked are the Deadpool movies because they’re hysterical and so self-referential.

But taking this silly stuff seriously just makes the stupid stand out.

I realized at some point that Black Lightning, for all that I do see value in it, is essentially Power Rangers. Super suited silliness.

Black Lightning socking it to Tobias Whale (Thunder in background).

The one major white character, Peter Gambi (James Remar), ostensibly a tailor, is Black Lightning’s good friend, confidant, and tech support guy. He made the magic suits for the three heroes. He’s kind of a reverse Barney from Mission: Impossible (which is kinda cute; the token tech guy).

At one point he fakes his death and doesn’t tell anyone, including the Pierces, which really set my teeth grinding. “I was just trying to protect you!” From what? Better to let your only friends in the world mourn your death?

(I do wonder if the tailor shop, with the high tech underground sanctuary is a nod to The Man from UNCLE. The writing on this show is at a higher level than with Sabrina.)

§

I could also cite that, as with nearly all superhero stories, the energy equation is completely ignored. In this case, so are just about all the physics regarding electricity, which is mostly treated as a form of magic.

And lastly, the show maintains the superhero trope that secret identities are ridiculously easy to penetrate. That no one recognizes Superman because Clark Kent takes off his glasses has long been mocked. Lois Lane, ace investigative journalist, who knows both very well, is utterly fooled.

Jefferson Pierce is a well-known person in the community, but goggles, a glowing suit, and Batman-like vocal distortions, are apparently all it takes to disguise someone.

In contrast, recently on The Blacklist, I immediately recognized that a supposed Elizabeth Keen wasn’t just from how she moved, despite the show casting an actress with similar appearance and taking pains to try to fool the viewers. (And female characters disguised as men almost never fool me.)

Humans have excellent pattern recognition tuned by millions of years of evolution. Covering the eyes and disguising the voice wouldn’t fool anyone, but it’s kind of a comic book tradition, so that’s what we get.

§ §

Bottom line, the BLM grounding of the show seriously elevates it above the norm. It’s as good as any modern superhero story (which, in my book, makes it hard to fully enjoy, but which I believe most audiences won’t much mind).

At the least, it’s worth noticing and supporting. The human aspects are engaging, and the overall story arcs aren’t bad. I give it a strong Eh! rating as just a superhero show, but an Ah! rating as a cultural landmark.

I’d recommend checking it out.

Stay safe, my friends! Go forth and spread beauty and light.

About Wyrd Smythe

The canonical fool on the hill watching the sunset and the rotation of the planet and thinking what he imagines are large thoughts. View all posts by Wyrd Smythe

15 responses to “Black Lightning

  • Wyrd Smythe

    I should mention this is originally a show in the CW network, but (as I did mention) it’s available on Netflix. It’s three seasons with a fourth in progress now. Three seasons are on Netflix.

  • SelfAwarePatterns

    It take something special to attract me to a superhero TV show. I have watched some, but I’m usually not willing to get into a long running series. Movies are easier because they’re one off events.

    The HBO Watchmen miniseries has an interesting take on black superheroes, as well as secret identities. Unfortunately they can’t be discussed without getting into major spoilers. But they’re interesting extensions to Alan Moore’s original vision. The show has aspects I found annoying, but it held my interest far better than most superhero shows.

    • Wyrd Smythe

      Yeah, I’m the same way with superhero TV shows. I’m kind of checked out on Marvel movies — the last few I watched seemed so much like the first few I saw — just more of the same silliness. I did enjoy the first dozen or so before it got old. I do agree that movies are much easier.

      I started watching Black Lightning because I so strongly support the ideas behind Black Lives Matter. And, as with Sabrina, after hearing so many say such good things, one gets curious what it’s all about and wants to see for oneself. Sabrina was a huge disappointment, a waste of time, but this one landed pretty well with me considering.

      In fact, on tonight’s schedule is the remake of Judge Dredd, which is one of those over-the-top 1990s SF action movies that got so little love but which I just adored. (Even higher on my personal list is Demolition Man because Sandra Bullock, Wesley Snipes, and it’s really really funny. The whole not taking it seriously thing makes it a gem to me.) I’ve heard the remake, Dredd, is pretty awful, so I’m expecting to throw popcorn at the TV. It may or may not prove worthy of even a post.

      I keep meaning to subscribe, at least temporarily, to HBO. There are a number of shows there that sound interesting. (Apple TV is also producing some interesting titles, damn it. The whole point of cable cutting was cutting costs, and now my subscription list risks being higher.)

      I’m a long-time fan of the Watchmen gnovel, and I really liked the movie version. I’ve heard good things about the HBO version. (And some bad things, but superhero shows… see above post!)

      • SelfAwarePatterns

        I actually liked both Judge Dredd and Dredd, but they’re very different movies. The first is a fun romp and gives us a broad overview of that world. The newer one is far darker and grittier, with all the action focused on one building. Definitely not for everyone.

        The interesting thing about HBO Watchmen is it’s a sequel of the graphic novel, not the movie. That confused a lot of people who had only seen the movie. The main difference is squid stuff, which the show retains from the comic.

        I’m probably going to have to get Apple TV at some point. I haven’t kept up with what’s happening over there. But I know they’re working on a Foundation series.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        Yeah, I figure Dredd will be modern mode storytelling and don’t expect to love it, but my affection for the original drives me to see it. And I might get a good post out of slamming it. 😉

        I do know the HBO version of Watchmen isn’t a remake of the comic or movie. I did not know they kept the squid. I thought Synder’s ending was better. Certainly more modern.

        The Foundation series is definitely one draw for Apple TV. Apparently Jon Stewart also has a show there, and I really enjoy his work.

        It’s funny how, as a long time Windows/MS-DOS guy, I’ve slowly slid into the Apple ecosystem. First my iPod, then an iPad, now I have an iPhone. I have a lot of ebooks from Apple (and music from iTunes). I rent space in the iCloud, and I’ve been meaning to subscribe to Apple News. (Google News is making me crazy; why are their iOS apps so bad?) Pretty sure I’ll never buy an Apple laptop or desktop, though. Too much of my stuff is Windows.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        Well, Dredd (2012) was… about what I expected. Weirdly claustrophobic taking place in that building. It reminds me a little of The Raid (2011), but with bullets, and not nearly as exciting or interesting. Kind of tedious in some regards — too much of that slo-mo stuff for one. Not much logic or sense, kind of laughable at times, and Urban can’t quite pull of that Stallone mouth, but now at least I’ve seen it.

        Really a good example of what I was saying about taking this stuff too serious. The movie needed a Rob Schneider or Diane Lane to leaven it a bit and turn it into something fun. As it was, it was just another forgettable excuse for mayhem and guns. (I cracked up when they whipped out the Gatling guns. Those have gotten to be a bit of a well-worn trope.)

      • SelfAwarePatterns

        Yeah, I enjoyed the 2012 movie, but if it comes on I’m generally not interested in watching it again. I might well watch the earlier one if I have nothing better to do. It’s just a more inviting world.

        I can understand that the producers of Dredd maybe didn’t want to immediately make the movie about the whole world, to leave space for that in sequels. But focusing on one building was too narrow. And I agree some levity would have made it a far better movie.

        This seems like it could make a good TV show. I wonder if anyone is thinking about that.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        Oh, I can definitely see it as a TV show! It has the potential to be better than the usual superhero stuff.

        I just wish the world-building and plot had been a bit better. They couldn’t help but add a mutant empath, which adds complications about exactly what her power is and when and how it can be used. The four corrupt judges didn’t really add anything and also raised some questions. A TV show would give them room to explore all that.

        I will say that keeping it to about 90 minutes was a good choice since it made them keep moving things along. And it would be interesting to know how much The Raid influenced the story. It’s very similar in a lot of ways, and The Raid was a noticed movie at the time (for some stunning and brutal martial arts).

        After I watched it I stayed up late and watched the last five episodes of The Expanse, season five, which I thoroughly enjoyed. Watched the first five two weeks ago, and I’ve been divided between wanting to see the rest and regretting that that will be it until season six. Which will probably take forever.

        (I also have mixed feelings about Alex. Do you know, did they film that later? Some aspects felt a bit bolted on, and how it was done was weirdly sudden. Alex and Bobbie to the rescue and then, oh, BTW, Alex stroked out. And now Bull is the pilot. I remember you regretted that he was written out of season four. He was a good character there, and I’m not sure they’ve taken more than the name here.)

        I thought I’d read that Drummer got killed and was very glad she wasn’t! 🙂

      • SelfAwarePatterns

        I don’t know when Alex’s death got worked in, but I’d imagine it was after the scandal. You might notice it was done in a manner that required no additional footage with that actor. But yeah, working Bull in made me wonder how much of the Holden sequences were filmed after the scandal. Bull does seem a lot more acerbic than I recall from the book version.

        The authors only acknowledged the scandal on Twitter and then went completely silent about it, I’m sure for legal reasons. Unfortunately, I didn’t see them say anything about how it effected production.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        Yeah, I totally noticed. That final shot of him stroked out at first had me wondering if he was just speechless with the joy of having rescued Naomi. That it was a stroke felt kinda bolted on and weird. Apparently it was supposed to have happened due to the extreme maneuvers rather than during the extreme acceleration.

        I suspect season five Bull is in name only. IIRC, the book four Bull worked for that corporation as a security guy. This Bull was some kind of tech on Tycho. He wasn’t even really presented as a pilot, but him drinking out of Kamal’s coffee mug made it pretty clear that’s his new gig. (Hmmm… I don’t recall anyone else in the background of that shot.)

        Cas Anvar, now we’re hearing about Joss Whedon (am I required to now hate Firefly?), and the Governor Cuomo story gets worse and worse. Damn these fuckers. One more reason humans can’t have nice things.

      • SelfAwarePatterns

        Bull in the book also worked for Fred. (Unless I’m getting my characters confused.) He was the security officer on the Behemoth. (I think it was actually book 3.) He was a viewpoint character who died in that book. They pretty much replaced his role with Drummer, and played with those of us who’d read the books, making us think she was going to die in the associated season.

        I definitely didn’t think their adaptation of book 3 was done very well. It felt rushed and abbreviated.

        I hadn’t heard about Whedon. Sounds like he’s an abusive asshole of a boss, but not in a sexual manner. I personally think we can assess the art separate from its creator, but it’s always a personal choice. I still watch Tom Cruise movies despite not caring for Cruise himself. Or Naked Gun movies despite knowing what OJ Simpson is. Not sure how I’d react if any of Bill Cosby’s old stuff came on though.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        I’m the one that’s confused. I’m thinking of Dmitri Havelock in book four. He also didn’t make it into the TV show.

        Season three had a lot of ground to cover. So much happened in those first three books. And they were so good. That’s, I think, why books four and five were such a disappointment to me. They’d set too high a bar. Once I readjusted, I liked six, seven, and eight, just fine. Looking forward to nine!

        Whedon isn’t the classic #MeToo type, but from accounts his issues do seem focused on women. Supposedly he wasn’t allowed to be alone with any of the female cast members from Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and he was apparently very mean to the female writer on the series (liked to make her cry).

        It shocked me when I realized how much some men really do hate women. It’s on par with the hatred of racism in some cases. Weird and sickening to me; I’ve always really liked women. Nearly all my best friends have been female.

        Buffy was one of those shows I’d heard SF fans rave about for years and finally gave a try. I think I managed to get as far as season two before a weird kind of general squickiness drove me away. The female leads are all high school age, 16 or so when the series starts, and far too sexualized for my taste. There was just something kind of creepy about the series, and I don’t mean in the horror sense. When the stories started coming out, somehow I wasn’t surprised.

        I agree about separation of art and artist, but it is hard sometimes. I don’t have issues with Cruise and see him as a pretty good actor. Most I have is some head shaking over his habits and beliefs. He doesn’t seem evil to me. OJ is a whole other matter, and so is Cosby for that matter. (Fortunately I’ve seen the Naked Gun movies enough times I have no need to ever watch them again.) Kevin Spacey, who I really liked, probably could have redeemed himself, but he kinda went off the deep end and got very weird, so everyone was, like, um, no thanks, have a nice life. It’s as if he turned out to have the characteristics of some of his more evil characters.

  • Wyrd Smythe

    I finished season three, so I’ve now seen all of what’s available on Netflix. There is a fourth season on the CW, but it hasn’t passed to Netflix, yet.

    Based on this chart, interest in the show has been consistently waning. Certainly mine has. (But then, Superheroes bore me.)

  • Wyrd Smythe

    Season four appeared on Netflix, and I finished watching it last week. It wasn’t any worse (or better) than the first three. The show itself isn’t any worse (or better) than most superhero TV shows.

    It’s just that superhero TV shows, as I’ve said before, are just stupid AF. For me they’re so stupid I find them very difficult to watch.

    Superhero comics are modern fairy tales for children. The love adults have for them just confirms to me the severe infantilization of culture and thought.

And what do you think?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: