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Reviews » Blu-ray Reviews » Black Lightning: The Complete First Season (Blu-ray)
Black Lightning: The Complete First Season (Blu-ray)
Warner Bros. // Unrated // June 26, 2018 // Region Free
List Price: $29.99 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by Adam Tyner | posted July 7, 2018 | E-mail the Author
"Justice, like lightning, should ever appear to some men hope and to other men fear."

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The people of Freeport already know Jefferson Pierce (Cress Williams) to be a hero. He is, after all, a former Olympian, making for one of the few voices in this predominantly black community that those in power will bother to listen to. As principal of Garfield High School, he's seen graduation rates soar to 90%-plus. What's less known in Freeport is that, up until nearly a decade ago, Pierce wore the mantle of Black Lightning. His wife Lynn (Christine Adams) pleaded with him to stop playing superhero after returning home broken and bloodied one time too many. The thought of their two young children growing up without a father was just too much to bear. The argument goes that Pierce has saved more lives as a principal and community leader than he ever did as a metahuman vigilante. Whatever truth to that there may have been, those days are gone. The organized crime of The 100 has overtaken Freeport, and Garfield is no longer the safe haven it once was. While there are still good men on the police force, racism and corruption run far too rampant to rely on them. A designer drug by the name of Green Light has infested the city, resulting in bursts of supercharged violence and a slew of overdoses. When Pierce's children are caught in the crossfire, no choice remains but for Black Lightning to strike again. Little does he know that this isn't just a crimewave bearing down on Freeport but a far-reaching conspiracy, and at the heart of it is Tobias Whale (Marvin "Krondon" Jones III): the man who murdered his father.

Though Black Lightning airs on The CW and is based on a DC superhero, this series stands very much on its own, existing outside of the Arrowverse or any of its established alternate realities. That's just as well, seeing as how it far outclasses the most recent seasons of Arrow, The Flash, and Supergirl. In fact, Black Lightning's inaugural season immediately cements itself as one of the most exceptional superhero series on television, broadcast or otherwise.

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Black Lightning is the first black superhero to lead a network series in primetime since M.A.N.T.I.S. more than twenty years ago. Whereas its sister DC superhero series are all shot in Vancouver, Black Lightning is produced in Atlanta, predominantly with people of color on both sides of its cameras. As is made clear throughout this set's extras, essential to Black Lightning is an honest portrayal of the black experience. It celebrates black excellence while acknowledging class struggles and resentment even among people of the same color within this community. Freeport's drug dealers are by and large black, yes, but they're not just faceless fodder for Black Lightning to zap. The series takes care to infuse them with humanity when the opportunity allows. While not excusing those who are on the wrong side of the law, at least several of them have gone down this dark path because this is what they feel they must do to survive...or that if all one has ever known is violence and rage, it's a mighty challenge to steer away towards any other direction. And, sure, some are just impulsive, insecure, and use the threat of violence to compensate for their own inadequacies. Still, it means something when the powers unleashed by vigilantes to take them out wind up spiraling out of control. Racism and prejudices are inescapable, with the achievements of those in Freeport only amounting to as much as those in power will allow. At the same time, not everyone in a position of authority is portrayed as the enemy. In fact, one of Black Lightning's closest allies proves to be Inspector Billy Henderson (Damon Gupton).

Its Arrowverse counterparts trade in scale and spectacle. Entire metropolitan cities are threatened to be reduced to rubble, if not the world or time itself. Black Lightning, by comparison, is so much more grounded. Freeland feels like a real place struggling with a complicated set of problems in a way that the likes of Star City and Central City never really do. Eschewing the badnik-of-the-week formula, the closest thing to a costumed hero versus a cackling supervillain arrives as the season has nearly drawn to a close. Make no mistake: there's no shortage of action, spectacular fight choreography, or metahuman powers throughout the season. The primary nemeses throughout Black Lightning are corruption, oppression, and street-level crime, not badniks in domino masks and capes. The action is propulsive, including a great many electrified punches and kicks rather than just zaps and blasts. The season continually finds inventive ways for Jeff to harness his powers, from energy fields to something close enough to flight. (I just try to focus on those and ignore the LED bolts on Black Lightning's chest, which I wind up disliking more every time I see them.)

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Can anyone honestly say they've felt emotionally invested in, say, Oliver attempting to reclaim his family's corporation or Barry's working life at the CCPD? It's a very different story on Black Lightning. Jefferson Pierce's role as principal truly means something. A far cry from the surrogate families of most superhero series, the Pierces are a family in the most literal sense. Though metahuman powers are very much in the fray, that's neither the most interesting nor most important thing about them. In fact, many of the season's best scenes revolve around the family's interactions and don't involve superheroics or Berlanti-verse soap opera drama. The Pierces are a tightknit family, they support one another, and their faith is showcased in a way rarely witnessed on this sort of series. Jefferson's family is as exceptional as he himself is, among them his neuroscientist ex-wife Lynn, politically active med school student Anissa (Nafessa Williams), and track star Jennifer (China Anne McClain). Their children have inherited more from Jeff than determination and athletic prowess, but I'll leave that for you to discover. Their excellence does lead to some level of estrangement within the community, as not everyone is so fortunate as to hail from such a background. I love the depth and dimensionality to so many of these characters, including how matter-of-fact the series is about Anissa's sexuality rather than treating it as some seismic revelation or celebrating how progressive Black Lightning is for featuring a superpowered lesbian. That's just who she is, and that's just how it's presented. Similarly, Jennifer wants to lead as normal a life as possible, and while that at times includes behavior her parents would frown upon, Black Lightning doesn't condemn her for it.

Though Black Lightning boasts the fewest episodes of any season of The CW's DC superhero series to date, that ultimately proves to be a strength. This first season is heavily serialized and devoid of filler, helping to give it a focus that the network's other series often struggle with, and it also makes bingewatching especially appealing. I appreciate that it starts in medias res, chronicling the rebirth of a hero rather than leading with Black Lightning's origin story – though that tale does soon come, with ample room for expansion in future seasons. The series is perfectly cast almost entirely across the board, beginning, of course, with star Cress Williams. Black Lightning strikes an ideal balance of humor, drama, and action, and so much of that is owed to Williams' talent and versatility. While he certainly still boasts the good looks and chiseled physique that viewers have come to expect from a CW superhero, it's also welcome to see that Pierce is a man well into his forties.

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Having been so familiar with Tobias Whale in the comics, where he's often been portrayed as a cartoonish, second-rate Kingpin, I wasn't sure how he'd translate to live-action. Marvin 'Krondon' Jones III doesn't merely pull it off – Tobias Whale stands strong as the most menacing figure in any of these series, steals every scene he's in, and leaves me thankful he's such a fixture throughout the season. It's additionally intriguing that, as an albino, Whale doesn't feel as if he's a part of any race in particular, sneering down at essentially everyone save himself and his sister Tori (Edwina Findley). I'm impressed by how Lady Eve (Jill Scott), who's even higher on the food chain, can simultaneously be sugary sweet and intimidating. Will Catlett also deserves to be singled out for praise as local crime lord Lala. I just can't take my eyes off him, especially the way Catlett radiates such strength, fury, and, eventually, anguish. I only wish the season had better utilized him overall.

If there's any misstep in Black Lightning's casting, it'd be James Remar as Peter Gambi. This tailor with a shadowy past has long served as a sort of surrogate father to Jefferson Pierce, and he supplies Black Lightning with a quasi-futuristic secret lair, serves the go-to hacker/Oracle role, and plays the armorer/weaponeer that you can't really have a CW superhero series without. (Oh, and speaking of which, there is the obligatory episode where Pierce is jailed and the rest of the team has to find a way to convince the authorities that someone else is Black Lightning: the same scenario you've seen played out on The Flash and Arrow over and over, only executed so much more effectively.) Anyway, Remar is a picture-perfect look for the part, but he struggles to sell his dialogue as convincingly as the rest of the cast. It doesn't help that while it's established early on that Gambi isn't entirely to be trusted, the season is well underway before I felt any real investment in that subplot.

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I became a Black Lightning fan decades ago, courtesy of Mike W. Barr and Jim Aparo's various Outsiders comics. It's a thrill to see several different eras of this underappreciated superhero team in some way reflected here. The American Security Agency continues their '80s-era obsession with creating metahumans. An issue from the '90s run is literally showcased on-camera, and I'm lucky enough to live in a world in which two characters talk about a vampiric Looker on national TV to an audience of millions. Who is Anissa having that conversation with? Grace Choi (Chantal Thuy), whose comic book counterpart was introduced in the pages of Outsiders back in 2003...and I'm pretty sure she's cosplaying as Infinite Crisis-era Halo, a character who is Nobody's Favorite but mine. I really liked Grace here, and it's kind of a drag that she quickly vanished. Hopefully she'll play a greater part in season two.

While nods to the Outsiders may only appeal to a handful of aging geeks like myself, Black Lightning's wildly eclectic soundtrack is certain to hold a much greater appeal. I can't get enough of how all-encompassing the music is, spanning many decades and encompassing everything from hip-hop to soul to reggae to rock. If I hadn't already been in love with the series pretty much from its first frame, that funky clav when Black Lightning storms the penthouse alone would've sealed the deal. Quite a few scenes in Black Lightning seem to have been written with some of these songs expressly in mind, and I'm a sucker for the way it marries specific lyrics with the action unfolding on-screen.

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There's so much more that I'm aching to say about Black Lightning, but this is already threatening to read more like an essay rather than a review, and I don't want to spoil any more of the season's surprises than necessary. It's just that so many of the other superhero series on television are compromised by bloated episode counts, marching in lockstep with stale formulas, or heaping on more for the sake of more. Black Lightning emerges fully realized. It's a passion project with an intense focus and a crystal clear image of what it sets out to accomplish. The end result stands on the brink of perfection, from its focus on family to its grounded setting to a sensational licensed soundtrack. Here's hoping that lightning will strike twice with an equally exceptional season two. Highly Recommended.


Video
All thirteen episodes from Black Lightning's first season – along with 75 minutes of extras – are spread across these two discs. That averages out to a little over five hours of high definition video per disc, and the strain can't help but show at times. Posterization occasionally creeps in:

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...as does some unfortunate artifacting:

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Depending on the size of the screen you're using to read this review, you may need to expand those images to full size to see quite what I mean. I do wish that this collection had one more disc to give the bitrate some breathing room, but at least these sorts of issues aren't persistent nuisances. The clarity and detail offered here outclass what I've seen on broadcast and on Netflix, and its colors hit the marks I'd hoped for, even if Black Lightning's powerset leaves me wishing for an HDR grade somewhere down the line.


Audio
By and large, I'm thrilled with Black Lightning's 24-bit, six-channel, lossless audio. Bass response is thunderous (no pun intended, believe it or not), bolstering the metahuman havoc as well as the phenomenal selection of songs. I frequently found myself impressed by the stereo separation across the front channels, and the rears are utilized frequently and effectively, with some caveats. The surround channels further flesh out the soundtrack, heighten the atmospherics, and feature some reverb to give certain locations that much more of a sense of place. While the action does spill over into the rears – say, the electric clash between father and daughter in "Three Sevens: The Book of Thunder", Tobias' trap that's sprung in "Equinox", or the shattering of a wall in "The Book of Revelations" – the bulk of it remains rooted up front. While I wish that the surround channels were a more integral part of the series' most high-octane sequences, that's the closest thing to a gripe that I can muster. Every element in the mix is rendered cleanly and clearly, never unduly struggling for placement. As expected, there are no issues with clipping, distortion, dropouts, background noise, hiss, or the like.

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There are no dubs, commentaries, or alternate soundtracks. Subtitles are limited to English (SDH) only.


Extras
  • Come Visit Georgia PSAs (11 min.; HD): These two promotional pieces are the only extras on Black Lightning's first disc. They're aimed primarily towards television and film productions that may be considering filming in/around Atlanta rather than viewers like us: marveling at the wealth of local talent, the varied locales nearby that are able to double for most anywhere the world over, the benefits for Atlanta-area businesses when series like Black Lightning shoot on location, and, of course, that legendary Southern hospitality.

  • Art Imitating Life: The Pilot Episode (5 min.; HD): Showrunner Salim Akil speaks about his own experience being pulled over for Driving While Black and incorporating that into the series premiere. It's grueling for Jefferson Pierce: debased and mistreated due to the color of his skin, certain that any action beyond complete compliance could result in his death or that of his young daughters, and that unleashing his powers could result in an altogether different world of hurt. Though that inaction keeps everyone as safe as possible, Akil notes that it comes at the cost of a bit of his manhood.

  • A Family of Strength (7 min.; HD): Jefferson Pierce is hardly some lone wolf of a superhero, and neither are his family mere supporting characters. The Pierces are a critical element of Black Lightning's success, and "A Family of Strength" shines the spotlight on each of them, from what makes them unique to how they each approach their abilities.
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  • Gag Reel (2 min.; HD): "I ain't ADR-ing this &#$%." Blown lines, bursts of laughter, impromptu dancing: yup, it's a gag reel, alright! This is an especially fun one too, even with its strangely tinny audio.

  • Deleted Scenes (33 min.; HD): It would've been nice if these dozens of deleted scenes had been divided by episode. Instead, an entire season's worth of excised footage is compiled into a single, massive reel, making it tougher for viewers to appreciate them in their original context. Among the highlights are several heart-to-hearts between the younger Pierces and their parents, Gambi pistolwhipping a pimp, the tailor actually tailoring, and the revelation that Alvin Pierce's murder is still actively being looked into by Henderson. There are a couple of extended sequences as well, including Black Lightning's siege on the Seahorse Motel and a childhood flashback to having witnessed his father's final moments.

  • Black Lightning: 2017 Comic-Con Panel (17 min.; HD): Black Lightning hadn't really started filming by the time this panel – moderated by NPR's Eric Deggans – was held last summer. It follows then that the conversation revolves more around what the series is setting out to accomplish: a more grounded show that aims to save a specific community rather than the world, transcending race while still showcasing an authentic, unfiltered black voice, and generally just being truthful.

A code for a digital copy – redeemed on Vudu – is tucked inside, as is a single-sheet episode guide. The first season of Black Lightning comes packaged in a slipcase.


The Final Word
Black Lightning is not just another superhero series. This is a thoughtful, inspired project from people passionate about a different type of superhero, a different type of community, and a different sort of perspective. Everything about this series just feels real – from its portrayal of racial politics to the tight bonds of family against the greatest of adversities. It's grounded without devolving into grimdark. It's fun yet substantial. Its gravity is tempered with optimism. There's such an onslaught of TV series based on comics that it can be overwhelming to try and keep up, but if you only have time for one, Black Lightning deserves your attention. Highly Recommended.
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