Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Kudos to Heroes

Kudos to Heroes, the NBC series where a group of super powered individuals save the world, while the series itself has pretty much saved the network from a complete ratings catastrophe (here's their official site). What is the secret of their success?

Well, it's not that Heroes is part of the same trend toward quality, complexity, and mystery that characterize shows such as 24, Lost, and Battlestar Galactica. It's not that this trend is a bad thing, but it's no guarantee of ratings success, a fact that I bemoaned in a recent post entitled Audience Abuse. Even taking into consideration the fact that these shows tend to do best in their first season, being more likely to lose viewers than to pick them up in the subsequent seasons, anyone monitoring the video field for the past nine months would find it littered with the bodies of dead, canceled programs--the dreaded televisionus interruptus!

Neither is the success of the show due to the fact that it is part of the superhero genre, a genre I have some familiarity with, as I mentioned in a recent post about Spider-Man 3. Sure, filmmakers have had some success in adapting comic book superheroes to the silver screen in recent years, but the same can't be said of television, and what's more, this is not an adaptation, but an original made-for-TV super-scenario.

Original, but still derivative, in that it takes its premise pretty much from Marvel's popular X-Men series. The X-Men debuted in 1963, about half a year after DC Comics (then called National) introduced the Doom Patrol, a group of misfits whose powers were in some way linked to accidents resulting in a kind of disability (although they didn't use that language back then)--there was a Robotman, a human brain with an entirely prosthetic body, Negative Man, a pilot all wrapped in bandages who could become catatonic and release for a brief time a negative energy being, and Elasti-Girl, who was able to grow to gigantic proportions or shrink to tiny size, and was viewed as a freak. The Doom Patrol was lead by Dr. Niles Caulder, otherwise known as, The Chief, a genius but also a paraplegic in a wheelchair--the growing awareness that Franklin Delano Roosevelt had been elected to five terms and saw us almost entirely through the Great Depression and the Second World War gave rise to a new icon of the wheelchair as a symbol of leadership and intelligence.

And so we find that the leader of the X-Men, Professor Charles Xavier, was also a genius in a wheelchair, with superpowers to boot, suitably all in the mental realm, as the world's most powerful telepath. Xavier gathers a group of young mutants, teenagers born with powers derived from alterations to their DNA, one with wings (Angel), one shooting force blasts from his eyes (Cyclops), one with the strength and agility of an ape (Beast), one able to generate ice (Iceman), and the lone girl with telekinetic powers (Marvel Girl). It may be that Stan Lee and Jack Kirby saw the Doom Patrol comic and decided to create their own variation, or that DC somehow got wind of what Stan and Jack was doing and beat them to the punch with their own version, or maybe it was just a coincidence, a case of parallel development. In the end, it doesn't really matter, as both books have their merits.

The important point is that Heroes clearly owes much to both comic books, beginning with the fact that the series features a leader type of character trying to gather people with amazing/freakish powers together. In this case, rather than being confined to a wheelchair, the genius Dr. Chandra Suresh has been murdered. His son, Mohinder Suresh, has followed in his father's footsteps in becoming a geneticist, but whether he too is a genius remains to be seen. The fact that his father was viewed as a crackpot for insisting on his radical theories concerning genetic mutation and human evolution has lead to friction and conflict between father and son, a typical motif for American popular culture, significantly less so for that of India, the home of these two characters. Making them Indian, however, gives them a suitably exotic flavor and adds to the overall diversity of the program, as well as suggesting the mystical and cosmic bent that we associate with India and its religious traditions--superpowers as superkarma! While attending to his father's affairs, Mohinder reluctantly finds himself taking over his father's work, and role.

In the comics, the initial motif of the gathering is dealt with quickly, the point being to get the team together already and get right into their adventures. As I mentioned in that recent post about Spider-Man 3, origin stories for individual superheroes tend to be the least interesting part of their ongoing adventures, and traditionally the creators try to dispose of the origin as quickly as possible--in recent years, there have been attempts to turn origin stories into mysteries that unfold over time, but the bottom line is that there is no easy way to explain how someone can fly, or be impervious to bullets, or run 200 MPH, or lift 500 times his or her own bodyweight, etc. There are no rational explanations, we're in the world of fantasy, but superhero stories, while sometimes incorporating supernatural elements, largely rely on science fiction scenarios, and such powers and abilities defy rational analysis or scientific explanation. So, the trick is to dispose of the explanation as quickly as possible, hope no one pays too much attention, and then move on to the adventures, which was the whole point in the first place.

In movies, however, where there's an impetus to tell a story with a beginning, middle, and end, there's a tendency to make the origin a substantial part of the film--this is why the sequel, at least the first sequel, is usually better than the original movie. One exception is Batman Begins, but Batman isn't really a superhero, so there is more of a story to tell there, and anyway that was a prequel, following four earlier Batman movies. With Heroes, creator Tim Kring splits the difference. He drops us in medias res-into the midst of things--in one sense, as many of the super powered individuals have already used their powers (and as we learn, they are not the first generation of genetic anomalies), and Chandra Suresh has already discovered the presence of mutants and been murdered. But the main characters are mostly isolated from one another, and the story that unfolds over this first season follows the motif of a gathering of heroes--they don't all come together in the same place until the very end.

Of course, this gathering of champions is a kind of origin story, as is the gathering of reluctant heroes (and some combination of the two is also possible). These kinds of stories can be very effective, as at least part of the question is, how will these already existing heroes act when they first meet, how will they get along, will they be able to work together, and how will they do it? Heroes has drawn on exactly this kind of appeal in its first season, as some of the characters form friendships, some find themselves in conflict with one another, some change sides and therefore alliances, and one character discovers she's related to some of the others.

Whether the gathering motif in Heroes will result in some kind of continuing affiliation remains to be seen. Mohinder Suresh has an interest in connecting to them all, but this is not like the mainstream superhero comics where the superpowered individuals come together and agree to form a team to combat crime, fight evil, and the like. Instead, this is an exercise in trying to create a more realistic story about what would happen if regular people suddenly acquired powers. Some feel a sense of responsibility, some withdraw, some use them selfishly, some turn to evil, some try to manipulate and control others, some simply don't know what to do. Comics have experimented with this type of approach here and there, Marvel added a touch of it to their original superheroes, and more so with their failed New Universe project from the eighties, it was developed more fully with the collaborative science fiction literature series, Wild Cards, edited by George R. R. Martin, and experiments have continued over the years.

As an origin tale, the gathering is much more interesting than the origin story where the team members all gain their powers at the same time and in the same way--the Fantastic Four pioneered this latter approach, which was fine for the quick telling found in the original comic, but made for a dismal first film (made even worse by unnecessary changes to the story). As for the X-Men, they also had a similar origin, all were mutants discovered by Professor Xavier and enrolled at his special school "for gifted youngsters." Actually, hardly any individual origin story was necessary, as the designation mutant was considered sufficient to launch the adventures. No need to explain how the powers work, how they came to be, it was just the mutation that made it happen, the power of positive DNA. How convenient! When the series began, the X-Men had almost no origin story to speak of, and just went straight into the action.

The X-Men series was not the most popular of the comic books put out by Marvel, and during the early seventies was only published as reprints. All that changed in 1975 when a set of new characters were introduced in Giant Size X-Men #1, and new stories featuring the new team began to appear shortly thereafter, written by Chris Claremont and drawn by John Byrne. By the eighties, the series had become the most popular in the comics industry, and Marvel was looking to capitalize on its success by launching spin-offs such as The New Mutants, X-Factor, and a solo series for the most popular X-Man, Wolverine. Along with further proliferation of X-comics, Marvel also caught mutant-mania, and started to play the mutant card wherever possible, not only for its popularity, but because it provided a quick and easy explanation for any character's powers.

DC followed suit with the idea of a metagene, a special bit of DNA that some individuals have that gives them the potential to gain superpowers (often some additional event like a lightning bolt is needed to trigger the gene). And outside of the DC and Marvel Universes, in various new superhero universes being created over the past few decades, the tendency has been to provide a single explanation for all superpowers. In Marvel's New Universe, it was the "white event," energy of an extraterrestrial origin bestowing powers on a limited number of individuals. In the Wild Cards books, it was an alien virus. In Heroes, its evolution via mutation.

The appeal of these unified field theories of superpower acquisition is their rationality and consistency. It is easy to attribute a series of impossible events to a single source than it is to multiple sources. But what's lost is the pastiche or mosaic quality of the traditional superhero universe. Both DC and Marvel universes evolved organically, as ecologies involving different editors, writers, artists, characters and stories. The result is that some characters have superpowers because they come from other planets, some gain them by taking a serum or pill, or being exposed to a ray or radiation (or bitten by a radioactive spider), some are basically human but undergo special training or have special skills, some use some kind of technology such as a gun, jet pack, suit of armor, etc., some us a magical object instead, some are magicians, some have powers given to them by magic beings (Shazam!), some gain them from supernatural beings or are supernatural beings themselves, such as the Greek, Roman, Egyptian, or Norse gods, some even get them from God Himself, and some are born with them as mutants (and combinations of these different elements are possible). The fun is that these different elements co-exist in the comicbook universe, so that the scientific superhero has to fight the magical villain, or one hero who depends on technological gadgetry must team up with another who is a god out of mythology. This is what is lost in order to gain a coherent universe. Not that there's anything wrong with coherence, and a single television series such as Heroes would have trouble managing the complexity that emerges out of a multitude of separate series such as can be found in the DC and Marvel universes.

So, Heroes does well with a universe that is pretty much like our own, with the single addition of genetic mutation making possible all sorts of different powers and abilities. Again, this allows us to get right into the middle of things, where the action is. And with an ensemble cast and a series of parallel story lines that eventually start to intersect and finally all come together, what's needed are established character types that are immediately recognizable, and can get the plot moving without the need to establish much about personality or mindset. We have in Mohinder Suresh a scientist type, and the estranged son trying to come to terms with his father's work. There's Claire Bennet, the perky, popular blonde high school cheerleader, shades of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, who is all but indestructible having the power to heal from just about any injury. Her father, Noah Bennett, appears to be a nerd with his defining look as the man with the horn-rimmed glasses, but secretly is a sinister company man in conflict with his role as a family man, the latter winning out.

There's the good cop Matt Parkman, who's not too bright and pretty much of a shlamazel (Yiddish for someone who has no luck), but has the power to read minds (and played by Greg Gunberg who played Eric Weiss on Alias). There's Isaac Mendez, the tortured artist, a heroin addict with the ability to paint the future. There's Niki Sanders (played by Ali Larter from the delightful Legally Blonde movie), a hooker with a heart of gold type, in this case doing internet porn to support her young son while her estranged husband is in prison, and with a split personality/evil twin that unleashes her superstrength. Her husband, D. L. Hawkins, a secondary character, can become a phantom and phase through solid objects, and her son Micah, has the ability to control technologies to some extent.

Another major character is Nathan Petrelli, a candidate for a New York Congressional seat, a stereotypical politician who has a nice family, although his wife is in a wheelchair, and he has affairs and has an illegitimate child, is ambitious and compromises his principles to get ahead, but is a good person deep down, and oh yes, he can fly. His mother, a minor character named Angela Petrelli, is a dominating mother and a kind of female Joseph Kennedy. His brother, Peter Petrelli, is a sensitive, caring individual who is a bit of a slacker, but turns out to be arguably the most important of these heroes, with the power to absorb the powers of others he comes into contact with (although not necessarily able to control those powers).

The character find of the century is Hiro Nakamura of Japan, innocent and enthusiastic, and often quite amusing, a comics and science fiction fan himself--since the late seventies, science fiction filmmakers have realized that to be realistic they have to take into account the fact that people know science fiction, so for example, in E.T. Eliot shows the alien his Star Wars toys, and they run into a kid dressed as Yoda on Halloween, and later another kid asks why E.T. can't just beam up, and Eliot answers, "this is reality, stupid." So, Hiro has this postmodern, self-reflexive characteristic, and is constantly being self-conscious, talking about what a hero would do. Adding to the fun, it turns out that his father is played by George Takei, who we all recognized as Mr. Sulu from the original Star Trek series. Being Japanese, he adds an element of diversity, but much of the audience is also quite familiar with the massive Japanese contribution to comics and science fiction in the form of manga and anime, and Hiro embarking on his quest with much to learn is no doubt more than a little reminiscent of Ash, the hero from Pokemon. The motif of the hero having a helper who is of lower status and/or ordinary ability, the knight's squire, is included here with Hiro's co-worker, Ando Masahashi. Ando is the doubting Thomas, and lack Hiro's faith in and knowledge of the hero's quest, but he is a good friend and supporting character, and there is a sense in which he is Sancho Panza to Hiro's Don Quixote. Hiro has the power to manipulate the space-time continuum, which I would imagine would make him the most powerful hero of them all, but he has difficulty controlling his power. But it is his name that says it all: he is the Hiro of Heroes.

Both Hiro's power, and in a more limited way Isaac Mendez's power to paint the future, make time travel a part of the story. Hiro travels to the future to witness New York City devastated by a nuclear explosion--why do they keep picking on my hometown?!--and the goal is established to stop this from occurring. After 3 episodes establishing the scenario, the 4th ends with a future version of Hiro encountering Peter Petrelli, and telling him, "save the cheerleader, save the world." This simple formula drives the series, with the first arc being about saving Claire Bennet, and the second about preventing the destruction of New York. Good, serious, concrete goals resolved within a season, not dragging a mystery on forever like Lost. The pacing of the story arcs in this series has simply been excellent. Each episode moves the story forward, not going off on a tangent for unnecessary back story or character development, no padding.

The multiple story lines that the series begins with are not so convoluted as to make them hard to follow, they are complex but marked by clarity, they parallel each other effectively, and intersect at dramatic points in ways that make sense. The 20th episode of the season, 4th from the finale, "Five Years Gone," gave us a glimpse of the future if our heroes do not save New York City, as Hiro travels into the future. His future self has created a model of the intersecting chain of events that led to the disaster to help guide him in his attempts to travel back in time and change what happened. While idiosyncratic in appearance, it is a web of string with notes and pictures hanging, a networked depiction of time (the internet gives us a new metaphor for time, time is like the web, we click from one page to another, until the computer freezes? dies? becomes obsolete and is replaced by a newer model?). And it demonstrates in a visual and concrete way the coherence of the series' plot line, and the fact that this is a plot about plots, actually a plot about plots about plots--I made a similar point in a previous post about Paul Levinson entitled The Plotz to Save Socrates. Paul himself, having written some time travel stories, had this to say about Heroes on his blog:

Heroes Five Years Gone: Triumph of Time-Travel - May 1, 2007

For some reason, people who are supposed to know about fiction and narrative and what makes good storytelling have trouble taking comic books seriously. As recently as 1999, when I was President of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, comic book writing was not deemed a satisfactory qualification for membership. That's still the case. I never understood the problem - do pictures along with text somehow render the text invalid?

NBC's Heroes comes from the comic book tradition. In fact, a comic book, based on the visions of a character who can paint the future, animates the series. Monday night's episode - "Five Years Gone" - is about as fine a time-travel story as I've ever seen on television. Well, ok, maybe it's not quite as good as Harlan Ellison's "City on the Edge of Forever" in the original Star Trek series, or "Yesterday's Enterprise" from Star Trek: The Next Generation. But it's pretty close, and unlike those standalone episodes, it wove in elements of Heroes we have been seeing almost from the beginning of the series this past Fall.

Time travel's no easy cookie. If you do it right - if you respect the paradoxes of time travel as really happening - you're asking your readers or audience almost immediately to enter a realm in which headaches come along with the thrills, as people in your story meet their future selves, and your audience must struggle to understand how the future self isn't changed by the very meeting with the past self... (My time travel novel, The Plot to Save Socrates, took me three times as long to write as any of my other novels.)

And threading paradoxes through the eye of a needle is just the beginning - especially for Heroes, which not only has a time-travelling Hiro, but Heroes with all kinds of other fantastic powers, like adopting the looks of others, reading minds, and, the most powerful of all, adopting all the powers of the other super heroes.

"Five Years Gone" dished out then dealt with these problems with style and logic, positing a world gone wrong, and all-too-humanly flawed heroes struggling against all odds to pull time and the world inside-out and perhaps back on track again.

If there were one or two tin notes - like a thread of this story a little too close to X-Men - that's ok, because the overall effect, and so many characters and plot twists, were so good.

And Heroes made good on some of its crucial implications from earlier in the year. That's not only good television, and all too rare in a TV world in which series sometimes spin irredeemably out of control, but good time-travel telling - in books, short stories, movies, comic books, or any realm.

Well said, Paul. I can understand how science fiction purists would not want to classify Heroes as true science fiction, as there is no real scientific basis for genetic mutation bestowing superpowers on individuals--by the same criteria, Star Wars is not really science fiction, by the way, and purists see it as more like a fairytale. Heroes owes much to the world of myth, including the archetype of the hero's journey that Hiro repeatedly invokes, and many have said that superhero comicbooks come across as a modern mythology.

I would be remiss, though, if I didn't note the importance of a good villain. In this case, it's been Sylar, not a classic supervillain type, but rather a serial killer who gains the powers of those he kills. As played by Zachary Quinto, I find the character vaguely reminiscent of the Anthony Perkins character, Norman Bates from Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho--not surprisingly, Sylar at one point goes home to mother, and ends up killing her. The fact that he is also a watchmaker is perhaps a reference to the debate between those who deny evolution in favor of intelligent design, arguing that life, the universe, and everything is like a fine watch (the clockwork metaphor for the universe was associated with physicist and occultist Sir Isaac Newton actually), as opposed to the scientific point of view which sees nothing more than the work of a blind watchmaker (to use the famous biologist and advocate for atheism, Richard Dawkins' favored phrase), that is, the result of natural physical laws and self-organizing systems. So, as the watchmaker, he is from the start opposed to the evolutionists, but also abandons that occupation, and therefore faith and morality, in favor of forcing a survival of the fittest Darwinian conflict. Additionally, my guess is that the watchmaker element is also a reference to The Watchmen graphic novel, written by Alan Moore, generally considered the best work ever done in the superhero genre, in any medium.

Sylar is not the only bad guy in the series, and Heroes gives us one of the all-time best in this sort of role, Malcom McDowell as the powerful and manipulative mobster, Mr. Linderman. Even though I have seen him play the villain over and over again, I just never get tired of him, although I will always associate him with the wild youth Alex from the brilliant Kubrick film, Clockwork Orange.

The season concluded with a final battle that some found disappointing, but the series is not about brawls and duels, it's about journeys. As such, the last scene is the first scene of the next season, the beginning of an entirely new story. We have a satisfying conclusion, but mysteries remain. Sylar was killed, it seemed, but there is no body, he appears to have crawled down into the sewers (where he belongs), and in good comicbook fashion we can expect that he'll be back. There was mention of a villain even more frightening then him, who we no doubt will see next season. There's a shadowy organization, the one that Noah Bennet used to work for, that's still after these extraordinary individuals. Matt Parkman appears to be in critical condition, but will no doubt recover and rejoin the others. Angela Petrelli is still around, and will be angry about the loss of her sons, and may seek revenge. But Peter Petrelli should have survived the blast up in the sky, and for all we know Nathan may have somehow made it as well. Mr. Linderman might also be back, since he has healing abilities as well, but I think it much less likely that Isaac Mendez or D. L. Hawkins will return.

And Mohinder Suresh will continue to find new mutants to bring into the fold. There is clear potential here for keeping the series fresh and exciting for many years to come, but for now its kudos to Heroes for a journey well begun.

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