The CW recently premiered its newest show in their DC Comics-themed lineup, Black Lightning. Apart from the social implications of featuring a predominantly black cast, which are far-ranging and deserving of discussion, the show may end up highlighting an issue the network has struggled with in bringing superheroes to the screen: formulaic shows that go stale.
Ever since Smallville, which featured the adventures of Clark Kent before his Superman days, the CW has followed a formula for superhero properties. Initially, they lay out the hero’s personality and abilities while still in a formative stage. They surround him with a supporting cast to interact with, and present a one-dimensional villain of the week, layering in hints at some overarching storyline the season will explore. Eventually, the protagonist masters his abilities but struggles with what it means to be super-powered in a mundane world, usually in the context of personal entanglements and frustrations. Finally, the hero perfects using his abilities, so the writers push challenges he faces in his civilian life to the forefront.
Just like they do it in comics, right? Not so much.
When Marvel Comics entered the cultural zeitgeist in the sixties, they were revolutionary not because of the inventiveness of the character designs, powers, origins etc., but because their heroes were human. They were fallible and struggled with mundane problems. Sometimes they did stupid things or even acted like villains. They had feet of clay, and this grounded them in a way that readers had never seen.
Decades later, several comics from the late eighties on would explore these themes more deeply; what would a superhero’s life really be like in an ordinary world? Many of these stories were thought-provoking genre changers that influenced the work of writers in other media. However, sharing an episodic format doesn’t make writing for comics and television interchangeable.
Viewers can change the channel at any moment and may have little or no emotional investment in these properties, so there’s greater pressure associated with TV shows. Audiences need a reason to come back for the next episode, let alone the next season. CW more or less follows an approach associated with soap operas, teasing viewers into watching by dangling happiness just far enough out of reach for the main characters. Although the CW shows feature action and conflict, the protagonist’s love life often takes center stage. Having connections to people without powers humanizes the superheroes, but it’s a trope the network overplays. It’s probably been misappropriated from comics.
Readers didn’t pick up Spider-man every month just to see how Peter Parker was doing with Mary Jane or Gwen Stacy. Presenting elements of Peter Parker’s social life enhanced our understanding of the character. It made him more relatable; but what truly made his stories compelling was his journey. He always strove to be better. We saw his struggles and failures more often than his triumphs. Spider-man was never totally secure in his powers, and they even failed him at times, therefore he was always vulnerable. That vulnerability further humanized him and connected with readers. Peter Parker was an open book, and he was one of us. He was never a Mary Sue—an overpowered, perfect protagonist we knew would always succeed.
Most comic book-based TV shows don’t present much of a hero’s journey. There’s a hurry to get the character to his ultimate state. Producers assume fans want to see the fully developed powers and all the trappings associated with them. They rush to portray the completed hero, even though in the comics these hard-won narrative elements build up over years. When the challenges, the development, are cut out of the story, you’re left with only two sources for conflict—antagonists or personal issues.
CW’s original show, Smallville, drew out the evolution of Clark’s powers, but still focused quite a bit on the Chloe versus Lana, “will they/won’t they” romance elements. Unfortunately, Clark himself wasn’t all that interesting or nuanced. Superman has always been a challenge for writers: He’s the ultimate Mary Sue. The creators thought portraying a young and still developing Clark would be more compelling; he wasn’t invulnerable, he didn’t have all his powers and Lex wasn’t his enemy yet. They achieved mixed results.
Arrow and (to a lesser extent) The Flash have relied on the interpersonal relationships angle to create and support narrative tension. Unfortunately, the overused storylines revolving around the protagonist keeping secrets or struggling to maintain a relationship despite the demands of a dual identity, get old.
Creating compelling antagonists for our heroes is a greater challenge on television than in comics. Shows often rely on plots featuring a boss villain with various henchman (with undefined motives) for the protagonist to fight week to week, like levels in a drawn-out video game. The holdover CW shows now feature nearly interchangeable boss villains; a genius hacker mastermind and a meta-powered thinker. Both the Green Arrow and the Flash are physically superior to most of their antagonists, so the contrast of a mental challenge is interesting—but two at the same time highlights how formulaic the approach seems…
Now we have Black Lightning, a reluctant hero with compelling reasons to avoid using his powers. Jefferson Pierce is a man who has tried to do as much good in his civilian role as principal of an inner-city school, as he did in a former life as a superhero.
It’s a sensitive time in our supposedly “post-racial” country. Being true to certain themes, without becoming an offensive parody or play to stereotypes, poses challenges. Despite, or perhaps because of, the risks involved, the effort is laudable. It also means that the show inherently has more to work with beyond the romance/interpersonal tropes of its fellows. However, three episodes in, there’s no clear hero’s journey for Jefferson to embark upon. He has already mastered his powers and is a mature adult. Episodes have instead focused on one recurring theme, the consequences of actions. That’s great—but given the cultural significance of the show, I’m hoping it doesn’t fall into the familiar CW rut.
The network is going for it with this one. A generation that’s been waiting patiently for a show like this is counting on them to get it right. They deserve a good reason to keep tuning in each week.