SPARE THE CHEERLEADER

 On the Dangers of Heroes Nostalgia

By Comic Geek Punk

I know you are excited that Heroes is coming back.

Maybe not you. Or you. Or even you. But apparently, it seems like somebody out there is really ecstatic that Heroes is returning to network television.

I know that after a five-year hiatus, two network flip-flops, a rebranding, and no call for return, if social media is to be believed, somebody, somewhere, is really excited about Heroes: Reborn. Social Media told me you are all excited. And we all know Social Media never lies, right? Social Media really wants me to be excited to watch a network television show. But therein is the weird kicker: I’m only hearing this from paid social media ads.   

Speaking of Social Media, let’s Hiro-Hop back to 2006…

photo source: http://brad-ricca.com/category/superman/page/15/

Man, Hiro-Hopping always looks so freaky…

What a time to be alive! The Doctor Who revival was airing on Sci-Fi and no one was watching!  Superman Returns was the blockbuster event of the summer! We listened to Shakira on our Zunes! 2006 doesn’t seem like that long ago, however in retrospect we’ve come a long way.  Heroes was NBC’s fall breakthrough hit, premiering in September of that year. Fresh on the cusp of the superhero film dawn, at the time Heroes felt fresh, daring and innovative. It utilized a season-long story arc, something typically unique to paid cable subscription dramas. And while it definitely kept some people hooked, the fact is the average NBC station viewer doesn’t watch more than five or six episodes a season. Coupled with a Monday night, 9 p.m. prime time slot, Heroes always seemed to be on the cusp of cancellation.

At some point, in an attempt to minimize the losses on such a big-budget show, it was decided that Heroes would also be shown on nerd-centric gaming channel G4. This cross-pollination of Universal-Vivendi networks running a show, coupled by G4’s fledgling innovation of Social Media – back when all of us thought we were Web page designers, thanks to MySpace – led to something truly remarkable in pop culture: 2006 was the year that television and online media presence became an intermingled promotional juggernaut. And Heroes was the first intellectual property to truly benefit from this.

Skip ahead nine years in Doc Brown’s DeLorean, and we’ll find in the year 2015 that we are oversaturated with this hybridized self-promotion. I can’t watch an episode of SmackDown without Booker T telling me to hashtag my surprise during a mid-card wrestling match. We can thank Heroes for that. Even as early as 2007, we were almost overfed a massive electronic hype train of Heroes hoopla.  I say almost, because fortunately the 2007 Writer’s Strike helped us dodge multiple bullets of the abysmal second season, the haphazard spin-off Heroes: Origins, spearheaded by Kevin Smith AND pay-to-view online comics.

photo source: http://spaceballs.wikia.com/wiki/Spaceballs:_The%E2%80%A6

Sadly, we were denied Heroes: The Flamethrower.

I can continue lambasting Heroes for its social media legacy, however that’s not what bothers me about it. What really doesn’t sit well with me is just how bad it has always been in terms of the writing and lack of real brain. I have talked with folks who are passionate about this show over the years, and the biggest constant in all of their testimonies is that the show was only truly exceptional in its first season. I’ve caught episodes beyond the first season, but the bulk of my experience with Heroes was watching the first season in its entirety. Twice. And as far as network television goes, it certainly is decent. Heroes gave us both Hayden Panettiere and Zachary Quinto, two of my favorite actors in the last 10 years. In a subversive way it helped my parents—people who never read or appreciated comics—come to love common tropes and existing stories I have grown up loving. One of the problems with Heroes is how dumbed-down its dialogue, presentation and themes are, even by network television standards. The dialogue lacks any real depth or logic. For instance, you have a show where a professor of biology is constantly rambling new-age concepts of “destiny” and “faith” as part of his intellectual discourse. On several occasions, there were instances of stock Wilhelm Screams used. Couldn’t actors making a hundred K an episode have easily mustered some genuine emotion? And even at this show’s happiest, there’s an unnecessary amount of gloom that hangs above characters’ heads. We’re years away from the DC Cinematic universe, and already we can see in a constructed universe of characters that there are inherent problems with basing everything around ominous brooding.

As someone who games, reads comics, and watches anime, I have consumed entire volumes of some of the greatest sagas revolving around individuals dealing with unnatural abilities and their struggles to uphold and protect the civilized world. Now, when the writing talents for Heroes include the likes of Jeph Loeb, I’d like to think that maybe this show could stand on its own originality and merits.  However, those years of enjoying various pop culture mediums have left me with a lasting comprehension of the various stories. With that in mind, looking solely at that first beloved season of Heroes I can’t help but wonder if that entire story wasn’t clearly an act of blatant plagiarism at the expense of other intellectual properties.  

The most obvious, of course, would be Marvel Comics’ X-Men, in that the show treats their subject matters as a minority class who develop special powers due to the same mutual derivative source (X-Men being the X-Gene; Heroes, an eclipse) and live secretly on the outskirts of a society that fears and hates them. There is an obvious two-part homage to the iconic Chris Clairemont/John Byrnes story, “Days Of Future’s Past.”  Season 2 even goes as far as to introduce an ancient “gifted,” very much akin to X-Men villain Apocalypse. Even viral promotion for the upcoming Heroes: Reborn seems to shamelessly use iconoclast and atmosphere that were made famous in Alan Moore and Dave Gibbon’s Watchmen.

The really surprising thing for me, as a long-time follower of acclaimed manga writer and artist Akira Toriyama, is that Heroes’ first season almost hits the exact same notes as one of Toriyama’s most critically acclaimed works: his dynamic shifting “Cell Saga” from his long-running martial arts superhero epic Dragon Ball. Revered by manga fans for its darker tone, throwbacks to the series roots, and emotional string-pulls, “Cell Saga” shifts the narrative focus so effectively from one character to another, that in future volumes it permeably impacted the story’s focus in a way that it actually made headlines in Japan, much like “The Death of Superman” did in the States.

Let me give you a summary: A young time traveler comes to warn of an impending apocalypse spun out of the machinations of an old power magnate, whose machinations have left a small family of augmented petty criminals in his employ on the run and a mission to turn against their controller. Other interests are forced to step up their game and seek out their opponents across the land, while a serial killing cockroach is left unchecked to operate in the shadows, dispatching his victims in bizarrely disgusting manners to add their collective experiences and abilities to his own. And after being underestimated, the killer manages to gain a substantial upper hand, forcing our good guys and anti-heroes to set aside a feud in order to stop a man seeking a level of perfection unmatched by taking the essence of a young girl. Time is literally brought to a standstill so the protagonists can train and maximize their potential to counter this threat. Once the killer is in place to set forth his challenge, it is up to our heroes to collectively take down a monster whose power dwarves their own in a climactic showdown. Our villain’s plans are cut short by a young naïve optimist who, in his travels, has grown his own abilities through love, hard work and dedication. And in the end, there’s a surprise presumed character death, when the last person anybody would expect has to fly an exploding man going nuclear away to prevent unfathomable casualties. A character who’s called out by the supporting cast for his careless obsession with power—and for being an awful father.

If I told you to read that last paragraph to somebody you didn’t know on the street, there’s probably a very good chance that they would think you were talking about the first season of Heroes.  But, I totally wasn’t. I was describing that one particular story arc from Dragon Ball.  The similarities don’t even stop in that broad context. You know how cockroaches tend to signify Syler’s presence and legacy on Heroes?  Well, Cell, Dragon Ball’s equivalent to Syler, is a giant cockroach. Now remember, Sylar’s big plan can’t be completed without absorbing the powers of a young woman who will in turn allow him to regenerate from death and permit his explosive power to go unchecked. That totally happens in Dragonball too, as a vital plot point involves Cell seeking out Android #18 in order to reach his own state of perfection and grow back from a single remaining tissue cell.  

Speaking of which, Android #18 can easily be represented by two characters in this situation: Claire, the perennial Cheerleader of the series who totally ‘Wolverines’ when she’s injured and becomes a focal turning point in the first season; and Jessica/Nikki, the flawed internet stripper with super strength and a psychosis whose forced into doing the bidding of Linderman while on the lam. The characters of D.L. and Micah could easily be seen as perfect stand-ins for Androids 17 and 16, respectively, with Linderman being Heroes’ equivalent to Dr. Gero.  

Then, you’ve got Hiro. While our present iteration of Hiro is less in line with what I am about to say, it’s his future incarnation from the world where Syler’s actions have set him up as Monster-God that clearly is a reference to Trunks, a super-powered time traveler with long hair, a sweet jacket, and a mythical sword.  

Finally, you have Peter Petrelli. Petrelli could easily be viewed as Gohan, a young optimist whose power lies in his love for the people he encounters, and whose power may be the only hope in matching Syler’s. I know somebody is out there asking who might represent Goku.  Well, his role, while obviously important and striking the exact same notes in Heroes as it does in Dragon Ball, has been reduced significantly to Peter’s brother, Nathan. There’s a Vegeta, a Piccolo, a Krillin, an Android 19, and even a Mr. Popo. But at this rate, I think I’ve nailed the gist of it for the readers.

Once Heroes fans see this, they can never un-see it…

Once Heroes fans see this, they can never un-see it…

I’m not trying to completely rain on Heroes fans’ parades. As I mentioned before, it took stories I loved from comics and manga and packaged them in a way that my parents could enjoy. I’d much rather they watch Heroes than that despicable Big Bang Theory.  All I’m trying to illustrate is that objectively there were a lot of things wrong with Heroes from the get-go.  Heck, it stayed on air longer than it should have. NBC was disappointed with its numbers eight episodes into the first season and was threatening to kill it. I still don’t believe NBC has any faith in this franchise. That’s why people are only getting half of a season. Heroes: Reborn was passed up by both AMAZON and MICROSOFT as an exclusive show for their respective streaming services. NBC, at this rate, is only trying to compete with them, and it can almost be taken as a sign of a death gasp at this rate.

The show ran for four seasons. Only one season is remembered as good, and even that I’m obviously calling into question. If something sucks 75% of the time, then the product just flat-out sucks. Don’t believe the hype, true believers. Nostalgia can be blinding.

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Rick McDowell, AKA Comic Geek Punk, is a writer, blogger and gentleman adventurer. His credentials include being featured on an Adult Swim bumper at 2 in the morning, and capturing all 720 Pokemon through six game generations. You can reach out to him through any of Blueswade Cartoons’ various online media. Check out his stuff at facebook.com/comicgeekpunk.