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, 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.
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.)
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.
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.