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Sunday, October 2, 2016

Panel Vision - 6 Questions About Fox's Black Lightning

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As the superhero genre continues its absolute dominance of the media landscape of the 21st century, we’re finally starting to get more diversity in the genre.  Obviously there’s always been some diversity in our offerings so far, Marvel, in particular, has made an effort to give all of their heroes a black best friend (War Machine in Iron Man, Heimdall in Thor, Falcon in Captain America) and DC’s Suicide Squad featured a shockingly diverse cast of supporting characters, but now we’re starting to see diversity in the headliners as well.  

Wonder Woman is finally getting her own movie, Aquaman in Polynesia, Black Panther, and Captain Marvel are both headed for the big screen, and Black Lightning will be getting his own TV show on Fox.  Black Lightning’s show is a pretty major achievement, going hand-in-hand with Luke Cage on Netflix as the first black superhero shows since Blade.  Given that, and the revelation that it will be a Berlanti produced show airing on Fox, I’ve got six major questions about the Black Lightning show.

This was my biggest question as soon as I heard the new series was going to be on Fox.  So far Gotham has been the only foot Fox has in the superhero series aesthetic, a subgenre that’s only growing in popularity and impact.  Even if we broaden the label to “comic book shows” Fox doesn’t have anything to compete with the likes of The Flash, Walking Dead, or Daredevil aside from Gotham, and that series has been floundering since season 2.  

Given how much Gotham has been struggling to redefine itself for the era of big ideas and big weirdness ushered in by The Flash and Supergirl, it’d probably do the show well to crossover with a full on superhero series like Black Lightning. 

A lot of this will depend on the details of Black Lightning’s series, but he’s worked out of Gotham City on numerous occasions if Fox wanted to frame the series as a spin-off instead of a separate stand alone series.  Most people forget this but Black Lightning has a long history under the umbrella of the Batman mythos and he could open the door for Gotham to include actual superheroes among its cavalcade of watered down Batman foes.  

I’m not sure how much benefit the crossover would afford Black Lightning’s series, given how different it would have to be from Gotham, but linking the two together would at least afford the series a host of worthwhile bad guys for Lightning to throw down with.  

That’s kind of the big problem with heroes like Black Lightning- his unique origin and cool power set lack the bad guys to back-up an ongoing series while also negating the threat of normal criminals.  There are only so many times you can have BL zap muggers and mafia goons before you start longing for something more substantive. 

Aside from airing on Fox, Black Lightning will be produced by Greg Berlanti, the guy behind Flash, Arrow, Supergirl, and Legends of Tomorrow.  While that will make for a heavy load (one studio, five superhero shows), it does open the possibility of a cross-network crossover ala the Supergirl/Flash crossover from last year.  

Obviously, any kind of crossover would be predicated on Fox’s cooperativeness, and they are notoriously uncooperative about sharing their toys, but it could still be useful if they ended up needing a ratings bump. 

If there was a crossover, it’d almost certainly have to feature the Flash and another parallel worlds jump.  However, given that The Flash Season 3 will introduce Wally West as Kid Flash, there’s no reason we couldn’t have him jump over to Earth-5 and team-up with Black Lightning.  

It’d be cool to see a black superhero duo on screen in a more meaningful way than the clash of the sidekicks in Civil War.  Finally, it’d be a good way to address the elephant in the room that modern superhero content demands more than one hero running around (pun intended.)  There are a few other options on that front though.

This is what I was alluding to earlier about how Black Lightning is part of the Batman mythos.  After his initial series, BL became a prominent member of the Outsiders, Batman’s team of superheroes that operated during the ‘70s.  While I’m not sure who owns what rights to the team, there’s definitely enough wiggle room to bring them to the Black Lightning show.  

They’re a cool crew, with the original team boasting folks like Geo-Force, an Eastern European monarch with gravity control and geo-kinesis, Halo, an alien force with laser light powers, Metamorpho, a man able to transform himself into any element, and Katana, a modern samurai whose sword drinks the souls of the innocent and guilty alike. 

While some of those folks might be off limits (Metamorpho and Katana both might be part of the Arrowverse, it’s hard to tell) there’s still enough variety and cool ideas to be worth adapting.  As I said, superhero shows nowadays have a hard time getting by on just the one character or comic book element.  

Even Marvel had to bow to this principal, adding Luke Cage and Nuke to Jessica Jones and Ghost Rider on Agents of SHIELD, so it’s pretty clear Black Lightning will need some super powered buddies to back him up.  The versatility of the Outsiders does get into the looming question of what kind of show Black Lightning will be.  If the series is a Luke Cage-esc exploration of superhero life on the streets, it would be difficult to fit in literal kings and aliens.  However, there is another option.

Aside from his time with Batman, Black Lightning’s role in the Luthor Whitehouse is one of his character defining moments.  He served as Secretary of Education and was one of the key forces that led to Luthor’s impeachment, an achievement that landed him a spot on the Justice League in the mid-2000s.  

While I don’t think Fox could swing a show about Lex Luthor’s presidency, even though that’d be an amazing series, setting Black Lightning in the Whitehouse and the world of politics would be a pretty bold and creative move.  At the very least it’d be a much easier launch pad for introducing other heroes like Geo-Force and Halo given they’re the kinds of heads of state Lightning would be rubbing shoulders with. 

More than that, though, it’d afford Black Lightning a greater uniqueness and definition than just “superhero show.”  The great thing about the superhero genre is how much it’s come to define a huge medley of genre elements from Kung-Fu to comedy.  

That vastness has already informed most of the superhero shows currently on the market, like Supergirl’s position as a space-based sci-fi series compared to Daredevil’s gritty crime aesthetic.  Framing Black Lightning as a blend of political thriller and superhero operatics would instantly mark its unique place in the comic book pantheon.  

This is Black Lightning’s third major definitive element- his role as a dad.  This is a pretty common role for DC heroes, given their superhero structure favors families of heroes, but Black Lightning has a unique element.  In Black Lightning’s case, his family is quite literal as opposed to the adopted families of Batman or the Flash.  Both of Black Lightning’s daughters developed super powers and adopted the identities of Thunder and Lightning.  

His eldest daughter Thunder, one of the only queer women of color in comics, gained the power of density manipulation and actually followed in her father’s footsteps by joining the Outsiders, albeit a different version of the team.  His younger daughter became the hero Lightning, with the power to drain the electrical energy from anything she touched, and joined the Justice Society of America for training. 

Both characters are interesting women worth developing and would afford the show a major achievement for super women of color.  If these really are going to be times of diversity in superhero media we’d do well to remember all groups deserve representation and that one size doesn’t fit all.  

Sure, between Luke Cage, Black Panther, and Black Lightning this is a good time for black men in the superhero genre, but that’s not excuse to stop progressing.  This is especially true given how many of the cool women of color superheroes of the summer like Psylocke, Storm, and Katana ended up completely wasted in their respective films. 

This is the final option for how Black Lightning could address the question of other heroes in his universe, and it might be the best option overall at that.  The DC Universe may still need more diversity on and off panel, but it’s also crawling with interesting black superheroes that are definitely worth bringing to the small screen.  

This approach would very much define Black Lightning as a “black show,” in that it would feature at least three black characters, but honestly, it’s well passed time we had a full on black superhero show.  Luke Cage is already completely embracing its blackness and looks to be all the better for it; there’s no reason Black Lightning shouldn’t do the same. 

Aside from a strong statement of definitive identity, this approach could be a great launch pad for the scores of cool black superheroes in DC’s library.  A lot of these characters probably won’t be making it to the big screen and there’s only so much room in the CW so giving folks like the Manhattan Guardian, Amazing Man, Nubia, or Steel a shot on Black Lightning would be a great way to get their brand out there.  

While I fully agree that DC needs more diverse heroes, their other big problem has long been marketing.  I mean, most casual audiences probably have no idea who Bloodwynd or Dr. Mist or Sky Rocket are, but that doesn’t make them bad characters, just under-promoted. 

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