Plot Dmitrii ‘Dima’ Maikov is a Moscow student, who is in love with his classmate Nastia Svetlova. His father gives him an old Soviet Volga car for his birthday. Working as a flower delivery man, Dima finds out that his car is a secret Soviet military experiment that can fly. After escaping from people who are after the car, Dima finds two of the scientists who built it and they tell him how it works, and that it is fuelled by a powerful nano-catalyzer. Later, Dima sees a man stabbed on the street, but decides not to help. The man turns out to be Dima’s father. Following this wake-up call, Dima decides to use his car to help people and becomes a superhero, ‘Black Lightning’. The villain Kuptsov finds the two scientists behind the flying car and forces them to make an armed version of ‘Black Lightning’ using his Mercedes. He lures Dima into a trap and hits ‘Black Lightning’ with a rocket. Kuptsov takes away the Volga’s nano-catalyzer, which he needs for his evil plan. Using emergency back-up nanofuel, Dima flies to Kuptsov’s lair, saves the scientists and recaptures the nano-catalyzer. He rushes back to Nastia, but Kuptsov has kidnapped her. Dima and Kuptsov fight in their flying cars. Dima wins.
Film Note When mapping national cinemas it is important to look beyond the critically acclaimed arthouse films that perhaps yield the most rewarding textual, and intertextual, analysis. In many cases less experimental genre films make up the majority of a nation’s cinematic output, and attract the largest audiences within that country’s borders. Brat/Brother (1997) stands as a Russian example of such a film. It was the greatest financial success Aleksei Balabanov had made thus far, with his previous movies having been less accessible arthouse pieces. In some respects, the superhero film Chernaia Molniia/Black Lightning stands as a similar example of a genre piece that may not have achieved great worldwide critical acclaim, but is more representative of Russia’s consistent cinematic output than the award-winning auteur films that gain international recognition. Black Lightning only received one award nomination, which was for MTV Russia’s Best Trailer award (IMDb). It did not win. In this essay I am going to describe where this film fits in the context of the Russian film industry, cover its relationship to the American superhero genre from which it draws inspiration, and analyse how its themes relate to Russian culture.
Russo-American cinematic dialogue While the film is decidedly Russian, there are heavy US influences, notably the use of a US genre tradition the fantastical and individualistic traits of which would have been unheard of in Soviet Russia. Additionally there’s the involvement of the American studio Universal in the film’s production. This begs the question of how, if at all, Black Lightning fits into the larger patterns of Russian national cinema. Following the fall of the Soviet Union, Russian cinema underwent a crisis: the country’s cinematic output dropped from 300 films in 1990 to under 30 in 1996 (Larsen 192). As a response, several filmmakers and theorists called for a more commercially directed film industry. The prominent producer, Sergei Selianov said that “In the past, Russian cinema was greater than life, now, Russian life is greater than cinema”, and called for a return to larger-than-life cinema with focus on entertainment (44). Influential critic, Daniil Dondurei complained that Russian filmmakers “still act as their own clients”, and should make more optimistic films (47), and the director Nikita Mikhalkov wrote that “[Russian] Cinema has betrayed its audience” (50). When Brother entered cinemas in 1997 it represented a different direction for the Russian film industry, as it was a financially successful commercial genre film made by a former arthouse director. Timur Bekmambetov built on this approach with films such as Nochnoi dozor/Night Watch (2004) and Dnevnoi dozor/Day Watch (2006), and ultimately it carries on to Black Lightning. This is an optimistic commercial film that borrows from American genre traditions much in the way Brother and Night Watch do. Essentially, Black Lightning can be understood as being a Russian reinterpretation of Spider-Man (2002), replacing the hero’s spider powers with the flying car from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (1968) and setting that story in Russia’s capital.
While the directors of Black Lightning haven’t as of 2016 made any further films (which would seem to render an authorial analysis impossible), looking at the film’s producer, Timur Bekmambetov, and his works as director is helpful in contextualising the film. Bekmambetov not only directed the aforementioned Night Watch and Day Watch – films that employ American genres in a Russian context – but also Wanted (2008) and Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter (2012), which are both set in the US. Black Lightning fits neatly among Bekmambetov’s commercially aimed, special effects-driven genre films inspired by Hollywood. Like Night Watch and Day Watch, Black Lightning takes a narrative and aesthetics traditionally associated with Hollywood filmmaking and adapts them to an urban Russian setting, demonstrating that while effects-driven fantasy films may be associated with the US, they are not exclusively American. Both Wanted and Black Lightning have heavy comic book influences, with Wanted being adapted from a comic book of the same name, and Black Lightning owing narrative and stylistic inspirations to comic book films such as Spider-Man and Iron Man (2008). Additionally, both Wanted and Black Lightning were co-produced by Universal Studios, which means that although one was set in Chicago and the other in Moscow, they did share somewhat similar production circumstances.
Black Lightning has an interesting relationship to superhero films, as it came out the year after one of the most important years for that genre. 2008 saw the release of The Dark Knight, arguably one of the most critically acclaimed superhero films of all time. It was nominated for nine Academy Awards and won two, and has achieved a 94% rating on Rotten Tomatoes’ compilation of reviews (Rotten Tomatoes). With its dark tone and critical acclaim, it seemed to solidify the view established by the preceding Batman Begins (2005) that superhero films do not have to be camp or silly, but can be taken seriously as works of cinematic art. Additionally, it was in 2008 that Iron Man and The Incredible Hulk arrived in cinemas. These two films were to start the wave of Marvel Cinematic Universe blockbusters that has subsequently seen 12 superhero films released from 2008 to 2015. With the recent financial success of Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015), Ant-Man (2015) and Captain America: Civil War (2016), and the upcoming releases Doctor Strange (2016) and Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017), it’s clear that this wave still hasn’t subsided. While 2008 marked the turning point for an increased surge in superhero films, that surge was merely an amplification of the already existing superhero trend in American cinema (Dittmer 114). The 2009 release of Black Lightning must in part be seen as a reaction to this trend.
Generic narrative and style The superhero genre manifests itself in Black Lightning‘s narrative, visual style and thematic underpinnings. Starting with narrative, Black Lightning follows the same narrational pattern of conventional superhero origin stories that are in Iron Man, Batman (1989) and Superman (1978), although its similarities to Spider-Man are the most striking. Both Black Lightning‘s Dima and Spider-Man‘s Peter Parker are university students who have a crush on a girl that they don’t have the social status to date. Through a coincidental exposure to technology, namely the radioactive spider or the nano-catalyzer-powered Volga car, the dorky student gains powers of great mobility with the potential for violence. This mobility is “a crucial element of the superhuman” and “the most characteristic and coveted form of freedom in America, the ability to transcend space and time” (Jewett & Lawrence 40). Both heroes refuse to listen to the moral teachings of a compassionate father figure (Peter’s uncle / Dima’s father), and choose not to help someone attacked by a mugger. In both cases the victim of that attack turns out to be the very same father figure who advised them, who then dies because of the protagonist’s failure to come to their aid. This serves as a wake-up call for the protagonist, who finally takes on his role as hero and starts fighting crime and saving lives. The now more confident protagonist enters into a dual flirtation with the girl he has a crush on, both through his real self and his superhero alter-ego. Eventually the film’s antagonist, whose gradual rise to power has predominantly been a sub-plot throughout the film, confronts the protagonist and kidnaps “his woman”. The protagonist wins the ensuing battle, is able to save all the innocent people threatened, and gets the girl. Notably, the third act of Black Lightning has a stronger resemblance to that of Iron Man than Spider-Man: the antagonist has built a piece of technology that is similar to that which the protagonist uses, but bigger and more heavily armed. The protagonist’s ultimate solution to this is to fly the antagonist up beyond the atmosphere, which is something the antagonist’s piece of technology isn’t able to deal with because he didn’t account for it in its more aggressive design, and thus only the hero makes it safely back down.
As for visual style, Black Lightning largely remains consistent with the conventions of the superhero genre. The main feature of superhero mise-en-scène is the spectacle of action set-pieces that are impossible outside of that film’s universe. These scenes are crucial to the genre, as they put the hero’s unique powers on display, and form the basis for the genre’s commercial appeal. It is important for the genre’s continued audience appeal that these set-pieces are tailored to each individual hero, as that serves the dual purpose of giving the audience a reason to watch that specific film (namely that it has action scenes no other film can have), and allowing the genre to reinvent itself continually through the introduction of new heroes. Examples of this are The Amazing Spider-Man (2012), where Spider-Man uses his web powers to trap and confuse enemies, Iron Man, where Tony Stark’s technological prowess and ability to fly takes centre stage, and Ant-Man, a film that constantly plays on the hero’s ability to alternate sizes, using this for comedic effect in a final battle that takes place amongst children’s toys. In Black Lightning, it is the flying Volga car that is the hero’s power. The film’s story and stock characters are not different from other superhero films. It is the flying car that makes the film unique, and as such this car is at the core of the film’s marketability. Naturally, then, it is the car’s ability to fly that is put on display in the film’s action scenes. The car picks up enemies and carries them away, it flies away from them when Dima is threatened, and is able to surprise them by attacking from the air. The final battle of the film takes place between two flying cars in the skies above Moscow, and as such is entirely focused on that unique aspect of the film.
Another distinct feature of the film’s relation to the genre, is its Russian setting, which contrasts with the conventional American superhero films. Moscow has a different look from New York, where the majority of American superheroes live. In Black Lightning, Dima repeatedly flies above the city, showcasing its skyline, and the film’s final confrontation between the hero and the villain takes place above Red Square. Beyond the cities’ architectural differences, there’s a social element in play. Dima is a working-class hero, while American superheroes are often upper class, such as Batman and Iron Man, middle-class, such as The Hulk and Captain America, or too alien to essentially fit neatly into the human economical paradigm, as is the case with Thor and Superman (although Superman did have a rural upbringing). Whereas this links Dima with Spider-Man, Dima is more explicitly working-class than Peter Parker is in the most recent incarnations of that character, both Sam Raimi’s trilogy (2002, 2004, 2007) and Marc Webb’s films (2012, 2014). When Dima drives around, he’s dressed in a hoodie, which is a lower-class superhero costume that is wildly different from the usually more flamboyant, and probably expensive, costumes American superheroes wear. Additionally, the car he drives is a second-hand vehicle, distinctly different from the villain’s Mercedes, and the house he lives in is somewhat shabby, and set in a much more worn down neighbourhood than the American suburbs Peter Parker lives in. Overall, Black Lightning is not as colourful as many American superhero films are. It’s more similar to the gritty, naturalistic Man of Steel (2013) than the flashy Superman of the late 70s. Another important part of the film’s mise-en-scène is its music, which is consistently Russian. The montage where Dima sells flowers is set to Russian hip-hop, characters listen to Russian pop music on the radio, and the film even employs classical Russian music in more dramatic scenes. Notably, both of the first two musical elements are styles that have been imported from the US, just like the film’s genre. This use of Russified American music is reminiscent of the use of music in Brother.
The superhero and the politics of post-Soviet Russia Thematically, Black Lightning operates at an intersectional level between the American thematic underpinnings that come with the imported genre, and the societal and cultural context of post-socialist Russia. In The Myth of the American Superhero, Robert Jewett and John Shelton Lawrence argue that the American superhero myth is an antidemocratic narrative, in which “impotent democratic institutions […] can be rescued only by extralegal superheroes” (8). Black Lightning‘s Dima stands as an example of a hero that “cleans[es] perilous cities with golden violence” (106), and as such he exacts extralegal justice. Unlike some American heroes however, Dima’s efforts are embraced by Moscow’s police. A police officer interviewed on TV in the film says that the “Black Lightning” just seems to be an ordinary citizen who has decided to step up and help fight crime. The film does not display the same reservations towards extralegal violence included (if ultimately rejected) in recent cinematic incarnations of Spider-Man. In Russia, however, the theme of the superhero as a reaction to impotent democracy is in line with the people’s understanding of their recent history. The chaotic decade that followed the fall of the Soviet Union – when oligarchs exploited the situation to gain immense wealth – is perceived as the failure of democracy. In that narrative, the rise of Putin and following relative stability in the country was the solution to democracy’s impotence. The tension that exists in American superhero films between the antidemocratic superhero and a country based on democratic institutions is not there in Black Lightning. To further its links to Russian society, the villain in Black Lightning is an oligarch who wants to destroy the literal foundations of Moscow in order to gain more wealth, and Dima is the hero that rises to combat the oligarch’s greed. Dima’s ties to Putin are emphasised when his father notes that Putin has a car just like the one Dima is given for his birthday. However, the working-class Dima is not a direct Putin allegory, but rather a wish-fulfilment character for ordinary Russian citizens. He’s an image of the people, not an image of Putin, although his actions and their consequences legitimise Putin’s way of ruling the country.
Another theme in American superhero films that Black Lightning transfers to Russian culture is that of national exceptionalism. In his essay on the recent superhero boom, Jason Dittmer argued that a substantial component of American filmic representations of superheroes is “the capacity for superheroes to articulate a particularly American geopolitical vision and sense of self, which is often shorthanded as American exceptionalism” (114). In the case of Russian exceptionalism, Olena Nikolayenko finds a striking compatibility between “Soviet nostalgia and national pride among Russian adolescents” (256). In Black Lightning, Russian exceptionalism, intimately tied to nostalgia for the Soviet Union, is embodied by the Volga car. Black Lightning puts a piece of fantastical military equipment on display, much in the way Iron Man does. In Iron Man, “the hero himself serves as an icon of American technological innovation and the hierarchies of domination it permits” (Dittmer 2011: 122). Black Lightning, however, is a film about Russia’s loss of technological supremacy. The Volga is an archaic piece of technology that has been inherited by Dima, although contemporary Russians are not able to produce its equal in the film. The oligarch’s version ultimately loses its battle against Dima, and unlike Iron Man‘s Tony Stark, Dima is not the inventor of the war machine he uses. The only inventors in the film are older people who worked for the Soviet military during the Cold War. The film thus displays a Russia that is unable to live up to its Soviet heritage.
Technology forms a significant part of the film’s thematic articulation. The most notable piece of technology is of course the flying Volga car. Sergei Siegelbaum writes that, during the two decades following the collapse of the Soviet Union, “through it all, the Soviet Automobile has survived and lives still”, also noting that Putin himself owns a 1956 Volga (258). In contemporary Russia, Soviet automobiles are still popular, standing, as they do, as a symbol of the fallen Soviet system. As in Lilya Kaganovsky’s account of Karen Shakhnazarov’s Ischeznuvshaia imperiia/The Vanished Empire (2008), Black Lightning “stages […] ‘only the good things’ about the Soviet past” (2008), although in the case of Black Lightning, the only aspect of the Soviet past that is included at all is the technological supremacy of that era. The Volga also comes to represent the Russian side of a culture war against the West, with the antagonist’s Mercedes embodying foreign cultural influence channelled through the country’s wealthy elite. However, this message is somewhat muddled by the fact that Dima readily acquires an iPhone, an ultimate symbol of Western consumerism, as a status symbol.
Muireann Maguire writes in her review of the film that “The film’s moral message remains, to say the least, confused. […] Black Lightning attacks market capitalism, but it offers no replacement morality besides sentimentality, and no social alternatives except nostalgia”. This fails to account for the fact that the nostalgia for the Soviet Union apparent in Black Lightning might contribute to legitimise the antidemocratic message that is embedded in the film, as well as the superhero genre as a whole. As Nikolayenko writes of adolescent nostalgia, “one-fifth of young Russians would vote for Stalin if he were running for president. An additional 20% were not absolutely opposed to the idea of voting for an authoritarian ruler. These results do not bode well for a democratic breakthrough in Putin’s Russia” (244-245). This means that in the Russian context, nostalgia for the past carries with it clear political connotations. However, Black Lightning does not completely reject capitalist consumerism. As Maguire writes, Dima’s “new eleemosynary ethics [don’t] prevent him from thriving in exactly the same capitalist system as before. […] He woos Nastia with his iPhone as well as his altruism”. While Black Lightning embraces the antidemocratic themes of its genre, it doesn’t reject capitalism as fully as a film nostalgic for the Soviet era would perhaps be expected to do. This aligns it with Putin’s Russia, where capitalism has been somewhat accepted.
In conclusion, although Black Lightning imports an American genre and some of its thematic connotations, it is still a distinctly Russian film. Not only does it fit in neatly with an overarching commercial trend in Russian cinema, as well as the body of work by its producer Bekmambetov, but it also has a Russian iconography, sense of humour, and thematic underpinning. The Volga car is an iconic part of Russian history, while Moscow’s skyline stands as a symbol of modern Russia. The vodka-drinking alcoholic who, after seeing the car fly past at different points throughout the film and mistakes them for hallucinations, decides to quit drinking and starts jogging, fits with a recognisable Russian stereotype. The militaristic, undemocratic implications embedded in most superhero narratives are not challenged by the film, but embraced as something that belongs to the Russian context. This is emphasised by the film’s implicit nostalgia for the Soviet Union and ideas of Russian exceptionalism. Black Lightning may not fundamentally challenge any facets of contemporary Russian society. However, it still stands as an expression of the cultural trends and tensions within that nation.
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Written by Johannes Fauske Aschim (2016); edited by Jeremy Hicks & Nick Jones (2016), Queen Mary, University of London
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