When Black Lightning first premiered on Netflix, it had two big factors that made it interesting. The first was that it was a show about a black superhero. Although this has technically been covered before with Luke Cage and Black Panther, it is an area that can and needs to be explored further. There’s already plenty of films and TV shows that focus primarily on white people – hence why it is so important to have more TV shows and films with highly diverse casts and crews.
The second reason was the creators’ decision to not link the show with other DC programmes, such as those in the Arrowverse. The whole DCU is a confusing and tangled mess and it was nice to watch a show that still paid respect to the original source material, but didn’t feel the need to connect with other shows and characters. It makes minor references to other DC characters in general, such as a picture of Jefferson Pierce in a Superman T shirt. But apart from that the show is self contained, it has its own unique style and executes it well.
The main aspects that stood out for me in the first season were the awesome fight sequences played out to a mixture of catchy, funky, and hip tunes, the racial and political subtext and the dynamic of the Pierce family. Most shows that return for a second season improve upon the first due to an increased budget, the creative team settling into their style, and actors and characters developing and improving. The season two intro has had a bit of a makeover, with fancier opening credits accompanied by catchy songs. In fact, much of the season oozes confidence.
Part of this confidence lies in the fact that the main characters have developed and grown since the last season. They still have doubts and question certain decisions they make, but they also feel more capable. Although Jefferson is still facing issues, having had his principal title revoked, the pressure of being a superhero has let up slightly. This is due to his eldest daughter Annissa accompanying him as his sidekick, Thunder. Annissa feels more driven and determined, as she has a purpose in using her powers. Even Lynn feels she has meaning, by using her knowledge of medicine and science, to help those suffering from the Green-light disease.
Jennifer Pierce, on the other hand, is a character struggling to come to terms with who she is. Her powers are a lot more volatile than Annissa’s, plus she’s a teenager in the throes of puberty. Her inability to control her powers is influenced greatly by her emotions and it is an effective way of exploring the superhero transition process in a different way. Although Jefferson and Annissa share similarities, the fact that they are not the same age and face different issues allows for variety in the show. It resembles films like The Incredibles, where each family member has their own unique power, perspective and purpose.
Jefferson Pierce was a strong and interesting character during the first season, but in some of the later episodes, his constant preachiness had become a little irritating and repetitive. There are moments in the second season where he puts on his teacher cap and lays down the rules – but there are other times where his authority is challenged and he has to accept that his way is not necessarily the right way. Having been demoted as principal, he no longer holds the same power and influence in Garfield School. Within the family he also has to accept that Annissa has her own superhero purpose and Lynn wants to help out despite not having powers. Although he has more control over Jennifer, he has to seek out help from a friend to deal with his daughter’s tendency to lash out with her abilities.
Although the show is a great watch, it isn’t flawless in it’s execution. Despite not being connected to the other DC TV shows, it has that same cheesy style with its use of tacky costumes, slightly over-the-top performances, and occasional instances of corny dialogue. Unlike shows such as The Flash and Supergirl though, it doesn’t go overboard with it. A lot of the later fight scenes in season one and the majority in season two have good choreography and camerawork, but some of the earlier ones are a little weak. However because it has a thumping soundtrack, good acting and an interesting plot, this can be easily overlooked.
Black Lightning’s suit is a little tacky, as is Thunder’s but the use of funky fresh tunes and epic slow motion, make it too entertaining to query. Certain aspects, such as the fact that nobody can recognize Jefferson as Black Lightning with his tiny goggles and slightly deeper voice, is pretty ridiculous. Additionally, anyone who isn’t able to identify Thunder is in serious need of a good optician, but these sorts of blind spots have existed in comic book films and TV shows since well before Black Lightning.
The story and universe, although fictional, contain a certain amount of realism and relatability that stops the show from becoming too much of a cheese-fest. In fact, there is a nice balance of dark drama and light humour. The racial politics that Greenland faces gives the show an emotional voice and depth. It is topical, relevant and important. Some of the most powerful parts of the show focus on the difficulties young black men and women face in the school system and, on a larger level, in society in general.
Tobias Whale is an antagonist that is both intimidating and unique. Some of the other foes Jefferson and Annissa face don’t quite have that sense of danger and unpredictability. Whale on the other hand, is a force to be reckoned with. At the start of the second season it seems that he might finally be weakening, but he soon finds brutal and cunning ways to one-up both Jefferson and the law.
There are several different narrative and character arcs that run throughout this season allowing for a variety of content that is mostly investing, interesting and entertaining. One of the best plot arcs of this season comes during the episodes which focus on a new antagonistic group known as the Sange. This freaky cult have their own superhuman powers which pose a new threat for Black Lightning and Thunder. The whole storyline is original and unusual, and because the majority of it is undertaken by Thunder, it provides a decent amount of character development for Annissa. It also tackles racism head on, weaving it cleverly into the storyline in order to address real-life racial issues in a fictional universe.
Jefferson and Annissa take a more prominent role in the second season due to the fact that they have now become a crime fighting duo. Lynn and Jennifer, on the other hand, are still trying to figure out their purpose and how that factors into the bigger picture. In the first half of this season, their character arcs are investing as we see Lynn utilizing her knowledge of science and medicine to help understand what the rest of her family are going through. For Jennifer it is the tough process of learning how to control and harness her powers effectively. However, I lost a little interest with them in the second half, as Lynn spends most of the time crying on the floor and drowning her woes in wine – and the sections focusing on Jennifer and Khalil became a tad vomit-inducing. Plus the whole Romeo and Juliet star-crossed lovers storyline is too overused to be enjoyable. It is a shame because there are moments throughout the season where these characters are really strong and well developed. Unfortunately there is not enough of these moments to always keep their stories gripping.
To be brutally honest, season two of Black Lightning just isn’t up to the same standards as season one and there are a number of reasons why. The first noticeable one is the amount of episodes: season one had thirteen episodes in total, whereas season two has sixteen. Thirteen episodes is a Netflix standard for many of their original TV shows and for good reason. It is long enough to develop an extended plot and explore characters in depth without falling into the trap of dragging out the storyline too much. Season two seems to have bitten off more than it can chew. While there needs to be multiple narratives to cater for all four family members of the Pierce family, the balancing and allocation of each story isn’t equal and results in an awful lot going on but not all of it is seen through to completion. Anissa’s hunt for Grace is quite a prominent narrative during season two, but it never amounts to anything and other weaker narratives end up getting in the way of this more interesting storyline. It suffers the same fate as shows such as Gotham and Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D, by feeling the need to have lots of episodes and cram as much content into the season as possible. This isn’t the best approach and I feel it would have worked better if they had picked a few choice storylines and focused on them in more depth.
Although Black Lightning has gone for a slightly cheesy style, the special effects do come across as a bit shaky, particularly near the close of the season. It isn’t as noticeable in the first season as there aren’t as many superheroes in the mix, but in season two the special effects are used much more frequently – and, sad to say, they look like they were made by a film student rather than a professional. This is a particular disappointment since, being the second season, one would expect the production values to be a little better than the first. There are some really good ideas, concepts and styles presented here, but the later episodes in the season let it down. For some reason the plot, writing, and acting become a lot weaker, which is a shame, as some of the earlier material in the season looked very promising. The whole storyline with Anissa locating and dismantling gang operations is a prime example: her Robin Hood escapades of taking the money from these crews and giving it to the deserving instead was a great addition to the show, and provided a good dilemma for her character, as she was doing it alone without consulting her father or her superhero partner.
The other issue with season two of Black Lightning is that it doesn’t seem to know what style it is trying to go for. There is the cheesy superhero element with funky music, cartoony costumes and a good level of humour. On the other hand there is the darker main narrative involving Pierce and Whale and the political subtext that permeates the season. A certain amount of both can work together but it seems to chop and change a bit too frequently, leaving the season feeling a bit mismatched in its tone. Marvel have taken a better approach as they have the blockbuster films that are more light-hearted, cheesy, and amusing, and the Netflix TV shows which are far darker and serious. Black Lightning doesn’t entirely decide whether it wants to be cheesy or dark and the resulting mix isn’t quite right.
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