BINGE-R # 74: Black Lightning + The Cloverfield Paradox
BLACK LIGHTNING S1
Streaming Service: Netflix
Availability: All 13 episodes now streaming
The sparks fly, often literally, in Black Lightning, a superhero series that’s grounded in the political and social concerns of black Americans. The titular costume may be pure fantasy and the fight scenes could have done with some expert choreography, but whenever Salim Akil’s adaptation of the DC Comics character threatens to peter out real life vehemently butts back in. “They will shoot your black ass for fun,” high school principal Jefferson Pierce (Cress Williams) tells a hot-headed young gangster when the police are on their way to a disturbance, and the show clearly presents racist policing as one of many damning givens.
Jefferson has turned his school into an oasis of learning and advancement in the majority black city of Freeland, but outside the 100 Gang runs rampant in the streets. Jefferson’s anger over the situation gives hint to his unexpected abilities, and when the younger of his two daughters, teenager Jennifer (China Anne McClain) gets into trouble he returns to his youthful persona of Black Lightning, a superhero to the community (but a wanted vigilante to authorities). Defying middle age he zaps thugs and delivers volts, surreptitiously enjoying the experience and trying to explain to the separated wife he wants back, Lynn (Christine Adams), that he hasn’t returned to the dual life he gave up at her request nine years prior.
An ageing superhero, who is far from invincible, is more interesting than a young cape, and Jefferson is often caught in the middle instead of acting decisively. His habit of quoting Martin Luther King is bluntly thrown back at him in the second episode by an angry parent – “and they shot Dr King in the head,” Jefferson’s rebuked – and his initial adversary, Lala (William Catlett), is a former student who also believes he’s passing on lessons to the city’s youth. If the environment wasn’t so middle-class – even the 100’s sex trafficking den looks neatly presentable – the show could get at more systematic failings, but the realism only extends so far.
Netflix has all the Marvel superhero television series, the best of which is Jessica Jones, but Black Lightning is the first from DC (the likes of Supergirl and Arrow are found on Foxtel). It has some superhero shorthand, including Gambi (James Remar), the Alfred to Black Lightning’s Batman (a ridiculously tech savvy senior citizen with a big hidden basement), but the clipped storytelling keeps turning up interesting connections as it moves forward. The best may well by Anissa (Nafessa Williams), Jefferson’s forceful older daughter, a lesbian starting to realise that she has a high voltage of her own. If Black Panther has you rightly excited for superhero diversity, Black Lightning is a decent next step.
The Cloverfield Paradox (Netflix, 2018, 102 minutes): Great back story, bad film. Hollywood studio Paramount, fearing a flop in cinemas, sold this science-fiction thriller to Netflix, who promptly put it online after announcing the upload via a Super Bowl commercial. Any connection to the previous Cloverfield films is clumsy and retrospective, with an Earth nearly devoid of energy turning to a particle accelerator so dangerous it has to be operated in space. When it finally works something goes wrong, and soon the Earth is missing, there’s a stowaway enmeshed in the engineering, and someone’s used the 3D printer to make a gun. Director Julius Onah shoots with assurance, and he has an overqualified international cast – including David Oyelowo, Elizabeth Debicki, Daniel Bruhl, Zhang Ziyi, and as the story’s emotional anchor Gugu Mbatha-Raw – but the dialogue is boilerplate and the plot barely bothers to be comprehensible. Best served is comic actor Chris O’Dowd as a nonplussed technician, which just reinforces the notion that the joke is on us.
New on Netflix: Leonardo DiCaprio as the fur trapper who refuses to die in Alejandro G. Inarritu’s frontier drama The Revenant (2015, 156 minutes), where the landscape is as epic as the portents; Kathryn Bigelow’s Iraq War study of obsession, The Hurt Locker (2009, 131 minutes), with a never better Jeremy Renner as a bomb disposal expert.
New on SBS On Demand: The movie so bad it’s worth seeing (and the real life inspiration for The Disaster Artist), Tommy Wiseau’s The Room (2003, 100 minutes); Kelly Reichardt’s sparse, unsettling feminist western Meek’s Cutoff (2010, 104 minutes), featuring Michelle Williams, Zoe Kazan and Shirley Henderson heading west.
New on Stan: Margot Robbie, Chiwetel Ejiofor, and Chris Pine in the post-apocalyptic chamber-piece Z for Zachariah (2015, 98 minutes), which acutely dissects bias and need; the Coen brothers inscrutable study of artistic inspiration (and cats) Inside Lleweyn Davis (2013, 105 minutes), with Oscar Isaac as a faltering folk singer.
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