We can be heroes

Pub date May 15, 2007

› annalee@techsploitation.com

TECHSPLOITATION Imagine a world where your genome isn’t just the result of long-term natural selection and random mutation. Instead, its composition and expression actually mean something — not just about you, but also about the fate of the world.

No, I’m not talking about a genetic engineer’s utopia with humans made by design. I’m talking about the driving fantasy behind hit TV show Heroes, now heading into the homestretch of its first season on NBC. I was a doubter when I first started watching this X-Men homage, which is full of ordinary people who suddenly start manifesting mutant powers (flying, telekinesis, superhearing, time travel) due to some genetic whatsit. Created by Tim Kring, best known for the medical melodrama Crossing Jordan, the show was uneven and slow for the first handful of episodes. We got the boring origin story of each hero and learned that they all have a genetic destiny via an irritating voice-over from the nonsuperpowered (so far) Dr. Suresh, who studies these "special" people to find out what makes them tick.

But then things got interesting. Unlike the mutants of X-Men, none of the special people in Heroes has a visible mutation that makes him or her look strange — there are no giant blue cat professors or women made of pure diamond. Instead, there are, among others, a flying politician, a superhealing cheerleader, a time-traveling Japanese comic book otaku, a comic book artist who can paint the future, a psychic police officer, and a villain who absorbs mutant powers by extracting and possibly eating the brains of heroes. The plot is typical comic book fare: our future-painting artist has predicted that New York will be blown up by one of the heroes, eventually resulting in the election of the corrupt flying politician as president. Somehow, these events will destroy the world. The time-traveling otaku‘s future self warns his past self that the fate of the cheerleader is bound up with all this by using the show’s cult tagline, "Save the cheerleader, save the world."

I’ve gone from being a skeptical watcher to a rabid fan of this show for two reasons: one, the hero team that forms around the wacky time travel plot manages to capture what’s so seductive about comic books generally; and two, I think the TV show is an interesting fantasy about terrorism.

So: the seductions of the comic book. One of the benefits of comic books over, say, movies is that they last for decades and thus have plenty of time to evolve complicated relationships between characters whose powers are foils for their personal vulnerabilities. A superhero team is like a cast of characters in a speculative soap opera — they have bang-pow adventures, but the best writers and artists in the medium force them to grapple with the human cost of being a hero. The Hulk is a good example: over the years Bruce Banner and his green alter ego have fought, gone to therapy to reconcile their warring impulses, joined and then been expelled from superhero teams that couldn’t trust the Hulk, and generally played out the drama of what it means to be a high-functioning manic-depressive.

Heroes offers us the bizarro soap opera pleasures of comic books and at the same time sets up the collective power of the heroes as a foil for the problems of the world. There are no terrorists in Heroes — only heroes whose powers go wrong and destroy New York in the process. In other words, the only menace to the United States is its own citizens. In the show’s fantasy reenactment of 9/11, the al-Qaeda bombers are recast as misunderstood heroes who are hunted by shady pseudogovernment agencies and go mad, or as power-hungry politicians who see destruction as the best route to power. I’m intrigued by the implication, in this season’s plot arc, that the destruction of New York is a deliberate effort to ruin the world on the part of US politicians and businessmen. There’s a strong dose of social criticism in that simple idea. Our heroes aren’t trying to stop terrorists from outside the country — they’re trying to stop forces working on the inside.

Sure, you can watch Heroes just for the bang-pow, and I definitely recommend it for that. At its best the show is action packed and edge-of-your-seat thrilling. But it’s also, like great comic books, about the real world. Best of all, it’s about fixing the real world and making it safe for geeks, cheerleaders, and regular people. *

Annalee Newitz is a surly media nerd who thinks the Planet Hulk story line should be the basis for the next Hulk movie.