People all over the world love their cars and also love superhero movies. In 2009, a film combining both came from Russia: Black Lightning, the story of an ordinary young man in Moscow who finds himself with a GAZ-21 Volga with super powers. Usually compared by reviewers to the Spiderman movies, Black Lightning applied the plot elements, morality tale and special effects familiar in Hollywood superhero movies in a distinctly Russian context. Producer Timur Bekmambetov, best known to Americans for Wanted and Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, set out to create a Russian version of crime-fighting superheroes like Spiderman and in the process gave the movie a dose of The Blues Brothers, making the car a star of the film. The result was the closest look at a Soviet-era car that an American audience is likely to see on screen.
The story starts with a 1966 GAZ-21 Volga. This model was the natural choice of the film’s producers when they needed to choose a Russian car with classic style that was produced in large numbers and so is plausibly available widely and cheaply today. Produced from 1956 to 1970 in numbers totaling 639,478, the GAZ-21 Volga has become a collectible classic worth restoring in Russia but continues to serve as cheap wheels for many. The film’s Volga first appears as a dusty abandoned car found in a mysterious forgotten underground laboratory by construction workers digging in Moscow. Seeing the car as a way to make a quick 10,000 rubles (approximately $350 in 2009), they haul it out with their crane in the middle of the night and sell it instead of reporting it. Nothing suggests that the car is anything but an ordinary old Volga.
The Volga ends up purchased by a man as a gift for his son Dmitry (Dima for short), a college student at Moscow State University. The father is a modest working class man with a powerful sense of decency that he attempts to pass on to his son, lecturing him on morals and fearlessly leaping into action to rescue a woman on the street from a purse snatcher – a Russian Uncle Ben, but far less gentle when necessary. Dima, a young man still figuring out himself and life, is car crazy with dream car posters on his bedroom wall, but with no car and an old mobile phone. He has a crush on the prettiest girl in school, but his rich best friend who owns a Mercedes and an iPhone gets her attention first. The beat up old Volga is an immediate embarrassment to Dima, despite his father’s words of encouragement such as “Retro is now in style!” (shown here) and “Putin has one just like it!” (Fortunately, that line is the only one in the entire movie with anything remotely resembling a political reference, so there is no need to refer to politics again.) The relic of the Soviet era, which even has a “19 91” license plate number to tie it further to the Soviet past, makes him look so ridiculous to his neighbors that he parks it off-campus and rides the bus to school so that his classmates will not see him in it.
The Volga soon gets Dima into serious trouble, as it is being sought by a powerful organized crime leader who happens to be a part-time professor teaching one of Dima’s classes. Hidden inside the car is a Soviet-era experimental power source that the crime boss needs to carry out his nefarious plot to make a fortune that will kill millions of people in the process – typical superhero movie stuff. More insidiously, the gangster/professor influences Dima’s attitude and outlook on life, teaching Dima that acting selfishly is the way to become as successful as him. Pursued by the mobster’s minions, who of course ride in a Mercedes G-Wagen, Dima proves to be no mean driver of his slow old clunker, powershifting the Volga’s balky three on the tree and executing four wheel drift after four wheel drift on narrow and convoluted Moscow side streets.
Dima unexpectedly finds that his old Volga is no ordinary car. It takes off and flies without warning, with rockets firing and wings deploying and an aircraft-like gauge cluster appearing on the dashboard. He has accidentally come into possession of a Soviet-era experimental flying car with a one-of-a-kind power source made from material discovered in space. Suddenly, ordinary Dima has a superpower.
Just like Peter Parker with his newly acquired web slingers, Dima at first must fly out of control and crash as he learns how to use his unexpected new powers. His first flight has perhaps the longest scream captured on film since Fay Wray starred in King Kong and ends as shown here. He gradually masters the flying car with the assistance of the aging Soviet scientists who built it decades earlier, who turn out to be decent and kind people who try to help him.
According to the filmmakers, 10 Volgas were used in the making of the film, and most were wrecked performing stunts. The losses are sure to sadden fans of the GAZ-21.
Dima at first uses his Volga’s powers in small ways. He has a part-time job as a delivery driver for a flower shop, and in Moscow’s constant bumper to bumper traffic, the flying Volga makes him the best delivery driver in town and makes him his first real money. With newly found confidence and a newly purchased iPhone, he becomes more popular with his peers, including his attractive classmate, who during their first date turns out to be a modest and honest girl who is not from the big city, just like Peter Parker’s Mary Jane.
Dima masters his supercar but also experiences a great loss, as his father gets killed in the street — just like Uncle Ben — and he fails to save him. Driven by his father’s death to redeem himself by selflessly rescuing people, Dima spends day and night in his Volga flying into life-threatening situations to save lives, such as those of this mother and child with an armored truck driven by bank robbers bearing down on them. He soon becomes a legendary mystery figure in Moscow called “Black Lightning.”
As one would expect of a flying superhero, Black Lightning spends considerable time with his Volga on high rooftops, looking out at the Moscow skyline. These scenes feature many of the city’s main old and new landmarks, from its Stalin-era “wedding cake” buildings to the new Moscow International Business Center. These scenes and those on the ground provide a fine sample of the sights of Moscow, from famous places such as Red Square and Moscow State University to the large but modest Soviet-era apartment buildings where most people in Moscow live.
The Volga does not survive Black Lightning’s final life and death struggle with evil, ending up much like the Bluesmobile at the end of Jake and Elwood’s final ride. A sequel is therefore unlikely, but movie producers make sequels out of anything these days, so a Black Lightning 2 is not completely impossible.
Black Lightning delivers exactly what its makers intended, a distinctly Russian and well-executed superhero story, and in doing so it provides a unique homage to the GAZ-21 Volga. The hero car is one of the stars of the movie, and almost every part of its exterior and interior is featured on screen, including the beautifully detailed leaping-deer hood ornament that gets to play a key role in one scene. In addition to providing a thorough exhibition of the GAZ-21 and its place in Russia, the movie also displays a host of other classics commonly found in the streets in Moscow, from Russian classics such as the GAZ-24 Volga, Lada and Moskvitch (but no Zaporozhets, which gets no respect anywhere) to foreign cars such as the Ford Crown Victoria P71s that have been used by traffic police in Russia since the 1990s. Black Lightning is certain to please anyone looking for a superhero movie or a look at a noteworthy classic car of another country.