Archive for December, 2007

(extremely pretty) ordinary people


 Heroes interrupted: Volume One in retrospect
 1.01 Genesis

Where does it come from—this quest, this need to solve life’s mysteries when the simplest of questions can never be answered? 

Inadvertently postmodern

The superhuman hero genre has historically existed in pulp comics and camp tv and film aimed at a preadolescent audience.  Saving the bulk of screen time for use and abuse of powers and the epic battles that spawns, backstory and motivation only had a place in Very Special Episodes/Issues that made little sense.  I have fond memories of an 80s Superman cartoon that revealed Lex Luther had been a farmer with red hair who somehow caught fire in his field, and when Supes blew out the fire with his super lung capacity, he blew away all of Lex’s hair as well.  Psychotically angered by his baldness, he swore vengeance on all superheroes, and, I assume, earned several scientific and engineering degrees on special vendetta scholarships to make the jump from man of the plow to genius supervillian. Ah, revenge: the best reason to better oneself.

Whether intended or a side effect of a skimpy FX budget, NBC’s Heroes takes the opposite tack.  Ordinary people discover that they have extraordinary abilities, but find reasons not to use them.  Plots often turn on the practical and psychological reasons why most people would fight to remain ordinary, not immediately abandon the mortgage, squeeze into spandex, and start looking for a chance to show off.

Split hitmen

For instance: Niki Sanders, the single mother under a lot of stress.  One of her many pressing issues is the friendly representatives of organised crime threatening both her knees and her virtue.  There are people who might welcome a psychotically violent invisible protector in such straits, but she isn’t one of them.

For reasons that become more obvious later, Niki is terrified of violence, particularly if she’s the instrument.  In fact, for reasons that become clearer in a later episode’s flashback, she’s resistant to being in conflict with other people at all, attempting to flirt and cajole her way through disputes.  When she does come close to losing emotional control (when insulted by Ando via, when afraid that Micah’s in trouble, and when the headmaster of Micah’s snobfest refuses to refund her donation), she sees ‘someone else’ in nearby mirrors, a separate person to make the dangerous actions.  When she is finally unable to escape, she is only able to defend herself by sprogging a separate personality to do so, and like most repressed impulses, this one bursts forth grotesquely out of proportion to need.

While her life gets no less dangerous, particularly in her association with the mysterious Mr Linderman, Niki will only continue to resist the physical strength she needs, and see her amoral alter-ego Jessica as only another enemy.  Post-Volume 2, it seems that she’s only able to act heroically as herself, or at least beat up a bad guy, when she’s been relieved of her inhuman strength.

Stoned hands are the devil’s playthings

Similarly, the artist Isaac Mendez is first shown destroying his own work, a painting of a masculine hand clutching a glass of boiling liquid.  He painted it while high on heroin, an addiction he’s been struggling with for some time, and is convinced it and others foretell the future—or perhaps plant the seeds of destructive events that otherwise would never have come to pass.

Isaac is another character who could desperately use something like his gift.  His heroin addiction threatens to send his promising career spanning the commercial and fine art worlds into a tailspin, along with his relationship and grip on reality.  By rejecting his graphic foresight, Isaac not only loses the sustaining joy of creating but also the potential for clarity.

Unknowing, Isaac has been recording bits of the future for some time, possibly for his entire artistic career.  Perhaps his increasing heroin use strengthened the ability or made it unstable, focusing only on the immediate future and just on senseless, destructive events.  In the first of many misapprehensions, he sees this as an effect of the drug, and therefore just as dangerous, poisonous, and damning as street-quality heroin.

It’s not overly surprising then that he should end his introduction trying to overdose on both and escape the entire mess, discovering instead a horribly future he’ll risk damnation to fight.

The flying shark and incredi-boy (go home, Buddy)

Nathan Petrelli, we discover in the episode’s final moment, is another hero in denial.  He can fly—or possibly, hover—and not very well.  He saves his brother’s life after repeatedly squishing Peter’s enthusiastic insistence that he’s special: “Do not pull a Roger Clinton on me, man.”

Nathan hides his ability—and his brother, when possible—to avoid tarring his election run with more scandal, but also because he just doesn’t need it.  He’s an admitted shark, a magnificent bastard with a brilliant political career ahead of him, not to mention his own family and a bottomless checking account.  The gift of flying is a useless attribute that would only interfere with perfection.

The only characters enthusiastic about ubermench abilities are those without obvious traits, like Peter Petrelli.  Peter has fantastic dreams of flying that convince him he’s meant to be more special than the rest of humanity, and craves a thumbs-up from his successful big brother to support that.

Unfortunately, I find myself disliking the lesser Petrelli, even though I was completely with him as the centre of the journey at the time.  Despite Simone’s exposition that he’s “got a real gift” for nursing, his actions reveal a terrible medical professional far more interested in his own navel-gazing than his dying patients.  In his first conversation, he brushes aside the grieving daughter’s concern for first her father and then her boyfriend to first hit on her, then abandon both patients to spend more time obsessing about his longed-for destiny. 

It feels more like narcissism than empathy, caring for others only in hopes of validation.

The strength of a thousand expositions

Thus I remain amused by Mohinder Suresh’s first line, directly following Peter’s introduction: “Man is a narcissistic species by nature.”  He’s in his element, pontificating knowledgably to a class (ignoring his reiteration of the disproven trope than man uses only 10% of his brain), championing the superiority of the cockroach, and so obviously waiting for something incredible to happen.

In retrospect, it’s obvious why Sendhil Ramamurthy has the voiceover duties—Mohinder will lecture anyone, anytime, on a vast range of subjects from genetics to evolution.  In this episode alone, he jumps to illuminate bored grad students, a friend of his father’s, and a random black hole of emotional need who flags down his cab.  There’s no chance the captive viewers would be spared.

Mohinder is an early parallel to Peter, yearning to be special and earn the approving attention of his family idol.  I’m curious now how their decisions will line up through the rest of the episodes, if Peter’s more obvious right and wrong decisions will illuminate Mohinder’s ambiguous paths.

Yatta ftw!

Finally, there’s the early favourite, Hiro Nakamura, who takes an inkling of ability and spins a fantasy world of heroics around it—then proceeds to live up to his expectations.  In one day, he moves from struggling to hold back one second to transporting himself across the world.  And, he’s chuffed with himself, unconcerned for the many potential consequences.

Later, Hiro will live up to the prevalent attitude to his powers all too well, but for now he’s fun.  Here’s the thing, though—in retrospect, Hiro’s a really odd duck, nearly a self-hating Japanese person.  All of his references are to Western, specifically American, archetypes, Star Trek and Superman and X-Men.  Given that his cultural background is so rich in contemporary super-human heroes, why wouldn’t he and Ando reference Sailor Moon or Steam Detectives?

On one level it’s obvious that much of a US audience wouldn’t recognise the name Tuxedo Kamen, for example, the way they would Mr Spock—but it does odden up his cultural coding.  Aside from a childhood fondness for Takezo Kensei, he focuses on western Baby Boomer-era fantasy culture.  Is there a Japanese equivalent for the otaku kid who rejects the ‘inferior’ fantasy worlds of western culture, and, if so, would they also lose in a fight with any given goth child?

Ripe for retcon

Angela Petrelli: daffy recently widowed mother jumping in where Winona Ryder left off in the rich white girl shoplifting finals, or spider at the centre of a Big Bad web?

Given spoilery spoilers spoiling the unspoiled, I’m really looking forward to the inevitable flashback episode, and fearful it’ll resemble a goofy Philip K Dick adaptation.

AU pilot

Heroes interrupted: Volume One in retrospect
DVD Extra: Original Heroes pilot (72 minutes)


A fascinating glimpse into what might have been, the original ‘Genesis’ includes one major subplot and character mercifully excised from the first season, along with some outer onion layers of characterisation.Terror by numbersThe subplot involves beat cop Matt Parkman and a 24-esque terrorist plot.  The character that evolved into radioactive caveman Ted Sprague was originally a member of a Middle Eastern terrorist cell that caused a train accident in Odessa, TX to hijack some plutonium and use it to threaten Mom, apple pie, and other innocent American metanarratives.  He attempts suicide after inadvertently causing his wife’s death from cancer, but is rescued by the rest of the cell and seems to decide to use his powers for good.  ‘Good,’ in the sense of very inconvenient for those in the target zone wishing to remain non-irradiated.  Parkman, controlling non-existent crowds outside Molly Walker’s suburban house set, finds anther cell member under the stairs, and after briefly establishing his schmoe-hood with a terrifically miscast LA twinkie as his wife, quickly parlays his ability into a promotion onto the SWAT team.  In his hero moment, he breaks in to the main terrorist subplot as a black-clad operative, only to realise the leader is proto-Ted, with whom he shares some never-explained history.I might be the only American citizen who finds terrorism fiction painfully dull and inevitably ham-handed, but even if I were a fan of 24, I’d have breathed a sigh of relief that this plotline only survived as the train wreck in which Claire Bennett tests her fire-retardant properties. While it would have been great to have another Middle Eastern lead, making that person a terrorist with radioactive powers wasn’t really the subversion of audience expectation the writers may have thought.  As the first season continued, the threat of terrorism became a background threat, the investigators not the heroes or villains but one more element that keeps potential heroes from using their abilities, for fear they’ll be misinterpreted.  The potential terrorist was re-cast to be reminiscent of Timothy McVeigh, the white, Middle-America Oklahoma City bomber, a character that allowed the plotlines to explore the potential danger of powerful people without also seeming to question the danger of Arabic people in the US.

Parkman: made of fail

Unfortunately, Parkman loses his hero moment.  He becomes the poor schmuck whose ability only adds to his struggles, with more missteps and just plain bad luck than achievements.  His ambitions are lower—to use his brain as a detective rather than earning the sexy SWAT gear—and he nearly loses his place on the force entirely when he’s perceived as a crazy person by impatient superiors.  In both the original pilot and the first season (in which he doesn’t appear until the second episode and remains marooned from the other storylines past the December halftime), Parkman is both very dyslexic and ashamedly hiding it, rather than seeking the assistance he’s legally entitled to.

He’s the sweet guy with potential who comfort eats and insists on taking the path of most resistance, both to prove himself and to provide an excuse if he fails.  The unaired pilot affords him a moment of epiphany, listening to the cacophony of internal voices in a park, after which he confidently grabs hold of his dream and saves the day.  Unfortunately for Matt, the loss of the terrorism storyline (meant to culminate in an NYC terrorist attack rather than splodey Pete?) sent him on a season-long odyssey of humiliation, as the thoughts he heard not only reinforced his insecurity but destroyed his marriage and interrupted his career.  It has also left him tied with Mohinder Suresh as “Character Most Likely to Turn Bad Guy By Desperately Wanting to be the Good Guy.”

Oh, and he became my consistent favourite character on the show.  His bad decisions make sense, and his attempted heroics go awry, but he inevitably clears the path for those who can save the day and unglamorously supports the abandoned afterward.  That’s the stuff.

Micah: thieving wee shite

In another lost plotline, wee Micah Sanders loses patience with waiting on his mother, steals $300 from the purse of her floozy best friend, and hops on a Greyhound toward prison.  His last scene shows the small boy alone, at night, next to the high wall of a jail, assumedly heading toward his father, somehow.

It’s most likely, had this thread continued, Nikki would have shown up as Micah approached the gate, yanked him back by one arm, and given him a shrill lecture on the way back to her plotline of driving from rejection to rejection.  Micah spent much of the season sighing as he was moved from place to place like a cute checker, rarely causing much trouble.  Aside from one clever robbery of an ATM machine, which had no consequences—did DL keep the money to avoid having to fire up his wife’s old internet stripping camera himself?—Micah was just a darling kid whose only fault was demanding his mother and father do a better job of parenting him and maybe act like comic book heroes on the weekends.

I like this shadow on his character better—too young to have a strong grasp on abstract right and wrong, or at least not while fleeing mobster loan sharks, lying and stealing and ready to break out the father he’s sure can protect them.  That’s a boy who’ll grow up interesting.

Isaac and Peter: can we trade?

Isaac Mendez’s story is almost the same as was eventually broadcast, with one large difference—he’s so adamant about resisting both the devil heroin and the evil paintings of the future that come with it that he handcuffs himself out of reach of both needle and paintbrush.  Unfortunately, the sturdy saw is close, and when he gives in—to either his addiction or his need to create—he hacks off his left hand to get free.

Peter is much the same as well, still desperate to have some special destiny, endlessly sympathetic to his cold mother and brother, and generally neglecting his dying patient to make cow eyes at Shaft’s grieving daughter.  Isaac and Peter are parallels in terms of power—one wants, one rejects.  Several episodes later, Peter tries to use Isaac to get Mohinder’s attention, not realising he’s absorbed the ability to draw the future already.

The loss of Isaac’s hand, however, reflects badly on Peter, more so than the broadcasted overdose.  This ‘gifted’ young medic seems to be the pre-royalty Diana Spencer of nursing, ignoring both the frantic girlfriend and the patient bleeding out from a self-amputated hand (as well as dying from a heroin overdose) to stare gape-mouthed at a nearby painting resembling himself in mid-air.  Narcissus, eat your heart out.