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'Black Lightning' adds spark to CW superhero lineup

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'Black Lightning' brings an African-American lead to the CW's superhero-laden lineup. Pictured is Cress Williams in 'Black Lightning.' 'Black Lightning' brings an African-American lead to the CW's superhero-laden lineup. Pictured is Cress Williams in 'Black Lightning.'
By Brian Lowry CNN

(CNN) -- Joining its story not just in the middle, but after the end, "Black Lightning" brings an African-American lead to the CW's superhero-laden lineup. Despite a somewhat slow pace at the outset, the show steadily builds a promising framework, throwing off some sparks, without quite catching you-know-what in a bottle.

Cress Williams stars as Jefferson Pierce, a committed family man who had once been the vigilante known as Black Lightning. When we meet him, he's been retired for the past nine years, spending his days as a mild-mannered high-school principal raising two daughters.

Inevitably, a threat to one of his children forces him to pull the costume out of mothballs and power up his fists, which are equally effective pummeling his foes as firing lightning bolts at them.

The idea of a reluctant hero is certainly nothing new. Ditto for the rather stock bad guys, a collection of thugs who, Gotham City style, are gradually overwhelming the authorities, though the police are nevertheless hostile to the notion of receiving help from a self-appointed crimefighter.

The fanciful elements notwithstanding, the producers distinguish the show in part by leaning into its racial component, including a scene in which Pierce -- a middle-aged guy, wearing a suit -- gets pulled over by police for, essentially, driving while black.

Williams (whose well-traveled resume includes a stint on "Grey's Anatomy") brings an appropriate gravity and weariness to the role, with his estrangement from his wife (Christine Adams), who prompted him to hang up his gloves, weighing on him. It's also nice, frankly, for the youth-oriented network to build a show around a protagonist on the wrong side of 40.

Introducing obscure comics heroes is always fraught with some peril, even in an age where Marvel has turned "Ant-Man" and "Doctor Strange" into hits.

Those who aren't steeped in the comics, admittedly, might feel a tad disoriented in the early going. They'll have to remain patient, because even after James Remar shows up as the guy who devised the suit and knows Jefferson's secret, his origins are referenced in only oblique terms.

Produced under the Greg Berlanti-led team that oversees DC Comics' TV exploits, "Black Lightning" does muster some intriguing twists surrounding Jefferson's daughters (Nafessa Williams, China Anne McClain), the tradeoff being that the more time the show devotes to them, the higher the risk of turning this into a slightly sparkier version of "Riverdale."

Pairing the series with "The Flash," CW is launching its latest costume-clad warrior at a time when the black superhero's moment has seemingly arrived, with Marvel's big-screen "The Black Panther" due in February.

"Black Lightning" bears symbolic significance in that context, but ultimately, has to work as a TV show. In Williams, fortunately, the CW has a hero worth watching, albeit one who will appear to require some time for him, and his vehicle, to settle into the job.

"Black Lightning" premieres Jan. 16 at 9 p.m. on the CW.

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