For better or for worse, Heroes is a TV series which draws its roots from superhero comic books. In book 2, the influence definitely became “for the worse.” Comics are a rich storytelling medium easily translatable to the moving picture, but they come with a lot of pitfalls that writers must avoid if they are to make a show that is good in its own right. Good writers know where the pitfalls are and stay away from them. Bad or mediocre ones embrace the pitfalls under the mistaken belief that it’s what people want.
To understand what I’m talking about, consider the current state of comic books. Now, most of you haven’t read any comics recently. Sure, you may know who the characters are (there’s Batman and Spider-Man and Superman and Wolverine and Wonder Woman etc.), but did you read last month’s issue of Marvel Knights or Ultimate Fantastic Four? Some of you, I’ll bet, don’t even know that Marvel comics has been split into a “regular” universe and an “ultimate” universe. The vast majority of you probably have no idea what happened during “Infinity Crisis” which was supposedly the biggest event in DC Comics recent history (but truth be told, most comic fans don’t really understand what happened either). I’m a bit like you. I know who many of these characters are, and I know their histories better than the average person on the street. But I haven’t read any recent comic books, and the reason I haven’t done that is the same reason I’m so disappointed in the current season of Heroes.
The superhero genre is a bit unique in that it exists primarily to tell stories about itself. Superhero comics by their nature cannot change very much. Batman is never going to die (permanently), but at the same time his war on crime in Gotham is never going to end — that would be the end of Batman just as surely as his death. So with that restriction, what comic writers do is tell stories that riff on the themes that make up Batman: the crusader struggling against superhuman enemies using only his wits, the avenger acting out the trauma of seeing his parents murdered before him, the lonely man who sacrifices his personal happiness every day so that others can be happy instead. These tropes are what makes Batman a great character for they are ideas we can identify with and relate to. And it’s the same for all the other great superheroes. Spider-Man represents our struggle to balance the need for a personal life with our responsibilities to the world. The Hulk is a personification of the ugliness within us when we let anger control us (not to mention a callback to Jekyll and Hyde). The X-Men draw a parallel to those times when we feel isolated because the world demands a conformity we cannot give.
The best comic book stories play on these themes, but there are plenty of other stories that don’t even try for that goal. Sometimes the stories are just action pieces in which the hero’s role is basically to figure out the best way to punch the other guy into submission. There’s little, if any, examination of anybody’s soul or motivations and very little attempt to tie in recognizable themes that make the story human for us. I would argue one recent example is the ongoing Sinestro Corps War storyline that DC comics has going on. It basically involves a villain creating a counterpart to the Green Lantern Corps and the two forces engaging in a universe-wide war. Lots of people die, basically every hero in the DC Universe appears and stuff gets blown up real good. There’s nothing really wrong with the story. It’s exciting and tense and a great page turner, but it’s pretty much irrelevant to us. After all, none of us has any idea what it would be like to be a flying, laser-shooting superbeing fighting against other flying, laser-shooting superbeings. The Sinestro Corps War is not one of the great stories that is going to be remembered decades later. It lacks the necessary elements. It’s simply a good comic book story, and to be fair, it has never tried to be anything else.
On the other hand, I don’t read comics these days because most of them seem to have lost any drive to tell a story that’s meaningful and relevant to me. They just hope to be entertaining. These days, it’s not worth my money.
Which brings me to Heroes and its uneasy relationship with comic book storylines. As a TV series, Heroes doesn’t have the same constraints as comics. It must necessarily come to an end some day, and there’s no reason everything must be kept the same throughout. Characters can and do die permanently. It also seems to have aspirations to become one of the great comic book storylines instead of just a fun action romp. It certainly takes itself seriously enough what with the cryptic, somewhat pretentious monologues at the beginning of most episodes. And right at first, things are off to a promising start as all the characters are relatable and have ingeniously appropriate powers: the policeman whose failing marriage is saved (almost) because he can read his wife’s mind, the ambitious politician who can fly, the cheerleader who survives the high school and can heal from all wounds, the convict on the run who can walk through walls, the sci-fi nerd who can instantly travel to any place he wants to. These are not superpowered cyphers who show up to deliver a few punches and then walk off to enjoy their well-earned rest and the adulation of the masses. Mostly, they are just regular people trying to cope with a world that has seemingly gone crazy, and that makes them recognizable as one of us. Hell, Sylar got an entire episode to examine what makes him tick and why he uses his powers the way he does. Not many TV shows would bother. This is what got the Heroes named as some of Time’s People of the Year.
But in the transition to Volume Two, this connection got lost. I can’t say whether it’s because the writers were rushed or whether it’s because they didn’t understand what made their own show so appealing to audiences. I suspect it’s some combination thereof. In any case, the stories which were once just this side of relatable have veered off into the realm of sheer fantasy. In Volume One, it was a plot to blow up New York City in order to rally the people behind a future President — far fetched, but you can’t help drawing parallels to the real world. In Volume Two, it’s a plot to kill 97% of the world basically because an immortal guy got tired of trying to improve it — Hitler never dreamed so darkly. Hiro used to be the guy who embodied our wish to go back in time and do things differently. This time, his storyline in medieval Japan was basically his own personal fan service: whee, I’m hanging out with a legend from history and romancing a princess! As for the twins Maya and Alejandro…well, I suppose for me personally it sort of relates to that one time I accidentally released mustard gas at my cousin’s bachelor party and killed two hundred people, but other than that I’m not sure how I’m supposed to see myself in them if at all.
It all represents the aspect of comic books that I and many others grew tired of: writers presenting us with characters in almost random situations and just kind of leaving them there as if to say, “See? Don’t you just love watching your favorite characters in a new setting?” For a very few characters, that kind of pitch is good enough for me, but for the rest, there has to be something compelling and human for me to grab onto. It just wasn’t there in Volume Two, and it’s terribly disappointing.
Heroes, in its own way, used to be a show about us. I’m hoping it will be again in the future. But right now, Heroes is a show about itself, and that’s not what I originally tuned in to watch.