Nov 4, 2021

This Is How The Contemporary Superhero Is Being Redefined By Black Panther & Black Lightning

Spoiler Alert: This article contains some Black Panther and Black Lightning spoilers.

Had you been telling someone about six-seven years ago about a Black Panther based film being made as well as shattering box office records and becoming a powerful cultural event, nobody would have believed it. Also, nobody would have given much credence to a show based on a C-grade character like Black Lightning being a smash success and creating television history.

Believe it you must, because this has happened.

Frankly, Black Lightning and Black Panther’s successes are not a shocker. They have not only caused an upheaval in the predominantly whiteness seen in the superhero movies and TV shows but, they have brought forward characters which are either ignored or considered back benchers for a long time. They have now been provided with fresh context and given them a meaningful position in the modern tales.

The biggest revolution has been ushered in by Black Panther; a film so eagerly anticipated that it remained one of the most discussed movies last year, despite releasing only a couple of weeks back. Once you watch the movie, you will know why there is such a hype about it.

The screenplay written jointly by director Ryan Coogler and Joe Robert Cole has put T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) at such a point where he is starting his reign as the Wakandan king as well as Black Panther (a timeframe generally ignored other than flashbacks before the arrival of the ongoing Rise of the Black Panther miniseries by Marvel). It has also picked up the difficult and tormenting aspects of the character and converted them into the main theme of the film.

What we wish to imply is that the movie highlights the facts such as T’Challa being a king, and that’s not ideally the best type of ruler, and also the history of Wakanda full of stunning technological superiority and hardcore isolation. Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o) repeatedly argued with T’Challa about the need to let go of the false, holographically created image of Wakanda being a third world nation and should support the others, especially the fellow African nations.

And also, T’Challa is conflicted about how to follow the footsteps of his father T’Chaka (John Kani) and to be a rightful king. T’Chaka who got murdered by Baron Zemo in Captain America: Civil War revealed to him during T’Challa’s vision of the ancestral plane that “It is hard for a good man to be king.” This is the concept which keeps bothering T’Challa throughout the film, and the story reaches its real emotional climax when he makes the declaration about his father and all other ancestory being wrong and he would do things, “my way!” That was an explosive rebuttal of irrelevant, ancient and harmful practices, and the shameful secret related to his family history, and it implies that T’Challa is not only going to be a different king but, a very different superhero.

On the other hand, we have Black Lightning (in terms of age and also the fact that it is a DC character). Jefferson Pierce (Cress Williams) is nothing like what we are used to seeing in contemporary superhero stuff barring the initial part of The Dark Knight Rises: a superhero in retirement.

In particular, due to the strain his ill-fated marriage faced due to it, Pierce retired and focused on working as a high school principal (an unusual position of authority, but, still quite powerful for the young audiences of this family-oriented show). However, as is the case with such stories, a criminal gang called The 100 kidnaps his daughters Jennifer and Anissa, forcing Pierce to come out of retirement.

Compelled to face Tobias Whale and the 100 after ten years away from the costume, turns out to be a challenge for Jefferson and it was intriguing to see how he depicted that struggle on screen. The show is also highly aided by it’s the fact that at least at present distinct from the “Arrowverse” comprising of other CW DC shows (such as Supergirl, which despite being in a parallel universe, has become intricately mixed with the casts from other shows). The fact that a superpower wielding black guy singularly has to deal with villains in a city infested by gangs is crucial, but, contrary to Black Panther, the message is not aptly delivered.

The other unique thing about the show is the depiction of Jefferson’s daughter Anissa (Nafeesa Williams) as Thunder, who happens to be the first lesbian black female superhero in the genre’s TV history and probably the most prominent representation of queers on broadcast TV ever since the ABC’s Once Upon A Time which had depicted Mulan as lesbian. By being clear about Anissa’s sexuality right from the outset, rather than something which gets revealed in due course, Black Lightning hits at the heart of the representation and also skips the ‘coming out’ angle, giving more substance and growth scope to Thunder’s character.

These two stories are such path-breaking due to their difference from the bigger corporate superhero genre that they are based in. Black Panther belongs to the biggest franchise of today, the MCU. Still, it is different at various levels, its cinematography is colorful and bright, rather than the standard grim, its cast is predominantly black, the music is sprinkled with hip-hop beats and African instruments instead of the strings. It has raised the bar greatly for Avengers: Infinity War and all future MCU movies.

In the same way, Black Lightning, which has odds stacked against it, has an odd costume for the main character, and similar to the other CW superhero shows, it features a lot of the dimly lit night sequences, which can confuse at times, and it prevails only due to its unique perspective. Pierce comes from a different background and locality than the typical wealthy Oliver Queen. However, his age gives him a weather-beaten touch which is appealing to see on the big screen.

In the years ahead, 2018 winter will be recalled as the start of the superhero genre’s evolution, with Black Panther being the best Marvel Cinematic Film ever and Black Lightning making a different impact on the superhero television shows.

The only thing left is for The  Flash to give due importance to Iris, and then it would be all hunky dory.