Saturday, 20 October 2007

Holding Out For Some Heroics

If you've had a look at the Heroes talkbacks on pretty much most blogs and nerdsites throughout the internet, massive concern is being expressed about the second season. For my part, I think this season started off from a bad position, continued that lacklustreness, added some really really bad plots (Peter Petrelli and The Hoirish Ghangsterrs of Ineptitude is this show's menacing mountain cougar plot, though sadly it's been going on much longer than that memorable misstep) and has seemingly settled into a not very exciting groove. This week was okay, in that it's neither getting better or worse, though the odd moment struck a nerve. Nathan's SuperPhantom of the Opera moment with his mirror was great, but otherwise things were set to Uninspiring. (Man, Pasdar really should have kept the Beard of Depression. This shit is just wack.)

I've figured out part of what bugs me about the second season. In the first, even when the show was bumbling along with scene after scene of set up, there was some little moment each episode that was fricking cool. Nathan eluding Noah and The Haitian by rocketing into the sky, Peter and Matt's telepathy setting up a painful feedback loop, Claire's autopsy, Niki and DL fighting in Jessica's bedroom; all of it was TV gold. This season, hardly anything has happened that has grabbed the audience by the genitalia like that. West flying a lot? Seen it. What else you got? A painting featuring a major character lying dead on the ground? Yawn! The only thing I can think of is Ma Petrelli putting the shouty brain zap on Matt. That made me laugh. Other than that, nothing.

Another thing has been bugging me, but it's as much a criticism of all superhero movies and TV shows as it is about Heroes specifically. Tim Kring said he started this series thinking about making something about people who are heroes, and using the superhero genre to explore that made sense. But what heroic things are they doing? It's all a bunch of internecine squabbling and assassinations between ill-defined factions within the superpowered community. Last year they saved New York, and I gather this year will be about saving New York from Maya's DoomGoop, but other than that, these chumps are the opposite of heroic. By the way, Kring? Your Not-Wonder Twins? Brian Michael Bendis called. He wants the plot from Ultimate X-Men #41 back, thanks.

There were a few little heroic moments last year: Hiro and DL teaming up to save a car crash victim from an explosion; Hiro pulling someone out of the way of a crashing car; Claire saving someone from a burning train (in the first episode; you'd have thought that would have been part of the show template). Now it's a bunch of secretive stuff about shadowy organisations, with the odd burst of power-usage. I get that it might be due to budgetary restraints, not just because of the effects stuff but just because having the heroes outed would lead to bigger stories involving a larger cast of non-heroes, but it still chafes.

It's the same with other superhero shows or films. Some of them get it right, most notably Spidey's nerve-wracking battle to save the train in Spider-Man 2, but also, for example, the Fantastic Four saving the London Eye (good work, Fantastic Four!) in Rise of the Silver Surfer, and Superman vs. the San Andreas Fault in Superman (or Superman vs. an underwater earthquake threatening to destroy Metropolis in Superman Returns). Superhero stories should revolve around more than just heroes battling villains. I mean, I love that, but if all you've done in creating an superhero world is have a hero/villain dynamic (because that's the classic antagonist/protagonist struggle taught in writing classes), then the whole thing seems pointless, even if the villain has a plan to endanger the populace. It's insular and dull, even if you occasionally have someone flying his girlfriend around the Hollywood sign (a pointless scene, but nicely done).

Daredevil, Elektra and Ghost Rider are all about the hero battling the villains, and you rarely, if ever, see them helping the common man. Even Batman Begins skimps on that. It's not disastrous for the movie to lack this; Batman Begins and the first two X-Men movies are still great despite that flaw. It's just something that seems to get ignored when writing superhero tales, perhaps because McKee says we're supposed to focus on the antagonist and not extraneous miscellaneous characters. Sadly, those extraneous characters serve a specific purpose in superhero stories, and losing them because you've decided to slavishly follow the detail of a manual and not the spirit, (or you have no time left in your script to add this important detail) will just damage your movie.

As much as we like watching the uber-mensch beating the shit out of each other, it's also nice to see heroes doing heroic things for others. The Spider-Man 2 scene is one of my all-time favourite film moments precisely because it does two things really well. It has Doc Ock and Spidey kicking the crap out of each other and using their powers creatively, and Spidey doing everything in his power to save the bystanders. Man, I choke up thinking about that scene.

Heroes, however, has totally lost sight of that. I'm sure the season arc will involve a threat so large that thwarting it will save many many people, but other than that the show is mostly about the plague threatening the heroes. I like some of the characters, and yes, a threat to the next stage of evolution is serious, but I'm more concerned with humanity. The masterstroke of X-Men 2 (possibly my favourite superhero movie, along with Batman Begins and The Incredibles) is that for the majority of the movie the threat is against the mutants, and a lot of energy is spent explaining what a bad thing that would be. Then, right at the end, the plot twist kicks in, and Magneto grabs the opportunity to try to wipe out humanity. It just comes out of nowhere and yet is totally in character. Awesome. I <3 Magneto.

The main arc in Heroes is about the heroes being threatened, and while that's engaging, it's not enough (see also X-Men 3, until the added-on peril of Dark Phoenix kicks in). We need to see more than just an arc where a minority of humans are in trouble, or a season-long arc where humanity is tangentially in peril due to out of control powers such as Peter's, Ted Sprague's, or Maya's; we need our heroes to be heroes on a regular basis. Right now they're just superheroes sitting around fretting about themselves and moping. That doesn't sound like what Kring had in mind, and though it's absolutely not a showkilling problem now, it will be eventually. And no, I'm not one of those people who complains that post-Watchmen superheroes are too dark. If they're dark, let them be dark. That's fine by me, but at least let them do some good while they're feeling all Emo.

Still, I'm not going anywhere yet. Even a malfunctioning Heroes has its charms. Plus, this week did introduce the most entertaining new hero yet; Micah's cousin Monica, plagued by Katrina montages and looked after by Uhuru, who has a seriously crappy family if the whiny nonsense she has to put up with in this episode is anything to go by. "Grandma, you're stupid!" "Grandma, give me money!" "Grandma, open a com-channel to the Romulan vessel!" Poor Nichelle Nichols. Nevertheless, I remain psyched to see a living nerd legend onscreen again, just as I was when George Takei was on, and hey, it's better than being stuck on Babylon 5, eh, Walter Koenig?


CJ said...

Excellent post. I gave up on Heroes early on, but I've never been able to articulate exactly why, and I pride myself on being able to identify what's wrong with the stuff I don't like. (I'm sad like that.) Your analysis hit the spot. Why, I'd almost call it a heroic act... Cheers!

Admiral Neck said...

Thank you, CJ. You'll be glad to know your decision to avoid it looks to have been a good one. All the good will I had towards it in the first season was worn out by the end of the truncated second. And yet, I will keep watching, hoping some magical writer will be drafted in to pick the show apart and put it back together again with some new ideas. Stranger things have happened.