Heroes Hits the UK

Two contrasting views in the Times, keeping up the standard we expect. Caitlin Moran is (slightly incoherently) for:

Many of my acquaintances have been “fat-piping” this off the net for weeks — mainly, I thought, for the thrill of being 43 years old and otherwise fairly respectable, but then being able to say “Whoo-wee, I’ve been fat-piping Heroes off the net” and making it sound like hot drugs or something. But, of course, Heroes is drugs. The tape I was sent had the first two episodes on, and even though I had had four hours’ sleep the night before, and didn’t finish watching the first episode until 1am, I didn’t hesitate for a moment before putting on episode two. Frankly, if they’d sent me the whole series, you’d be sitting here looking at a blank page, and my emaciated children would now be in care.

[…]

But the big news is that this is big news. Heroes is going to ruin your life (and if not now, then certainly when it comes to BBC Two in a couple of months).

You have now been chosen.

You’re going to find yourself interlinked with a shadowy brother-ship of “special” people across the world — geeks with fat tubes. You could be Heroes, just for the next couple of years.

Kevin Maher is (snarkily, and in the end somewhat tiresomely) against:

Holy creative inertia, Batman! Not more crypto-fascist fantasies of omnipotence disguised as mainstream entertainment and peddled by an increasingly decrepit and, frankly, comic book-obsessed popular culture! If anything, the much-hyped Heroes (Sci-Fi Channel) proved conclusively that, given the right flashy production values and cod-philosophical Weltschmertz, there are no subjects and no areas of modern life that cannot be infected by the inane juvenilia of comic-book lore.

Here the set-up was achingly familiar. A group of anodyne mostly white American catalogue models discovered that they had hitherto unexplored superpowers. “Tiny variations in man’s genetic code are taking place at rapid rates,” explained the show’s Indian, and thus quasi-spiritual, narrator Sendhil Ramamurthy before introducing us to a quintet of protagonists who could variously walk on air, stop time and live for ever — although noble-hearted internet stripper Niki (Ali Larter) clearly drew the short straw here by being lumbered, it seemed, only with the ability to see a sneering, slightly smug version of herself every time she looked in the mirror.

Naturally, ever keen to reveal its own genetic heritage, Heroes repeatedly treated us to scenes of characters reading comic books, painting giant comic-book pictures, and discussing comic-book stories — you just know you’re in a Geek Tragedy when X-Men and Star Trek are referenced in the same line of dialogue. Which might, in theory, have been fine if Heroes had stayed within the kitschy world of fantastical narratives established by the likes of X-Men and The Fantastic Four. But, no, this show had bigger thematic fish to fry.

Hence, before the first 20 minutes were up Heroes had invoked the political crisis in the Middle East, bus bombings in Israel and, of course, September 11. All of which were going to be solved, the show announced in its opening title crawl, by a handful of modern mutants with special abilities.

Now, personally, I find it both morally and artistically repugnant that the most urgent political crisis of our time, one that’s currently claiming thousands of lives every month, can be denuded of all context and cheerily coopted by the wish-fulfilment fantasies of some insular adolescent jerks. It is, surely, a sign of growing American political apathy when the cultural response to the Iraq crisis is simply to send Magneto into Baghdad. What’s next? Spider-Man for president? Wonder Woman at the UN? Or would that just be silly?

13 thoughts on “Heroes Hits the UK

  1. I have to wonder whether Mather and I have been watching the same show. The Heroes are going to “solve” the problems of the Middle East? What?

    And to characterise the main cast as:
    “A group of anodyne mostly white American catalogue models discovered that they had hitherto unexplored superpowers”
    seems unreasonably harsh for a show with a core cast of eleven, six of whom are something other than default white (Mohinder, Hiro, Isaac, Simone, Micah, DL). There’s not many shows on the air with a better mix than that, surely?

    Obviously he’s entitled to dislike the show; I’m just confused that he chose such apparently random criteria on which to hang his complaints.

  2. Holy journalistic cliches! Starting an article on anything superhero-related with that particular trope has to be one of the laziest gambits around.

  3. Curious. A positive review that doesn’t actually talk about any of the positive qualities of the show, only about the hype that surrounds it, and a negative review that, as wychwood says, doesn’t actually talk about any of the negative qualities of the show, only about apparently random unfounded observations.

  4. There is a somewhat better piece in The Guardian; not more favourable, but it makes a slightly better case for the juvenile aspects of superhero stories. That said, it manages to casually spoil various connections up to something revealed in ep 14, which I think is pushing it a bit.

  5. I do love reviewers who bring so much baggage to the table that they end up taking personal offence at some obscure inference.

    It’s not that I disagree about the cod-philosophy or dodgy science in Heroes, but it’s a fallacy to reduce all superhero comics to “inane juvenilia” rooted in unthinking wish-fulfilment. Even if it weren’t, the TV series is not necessarily the same animal as the genre it references. Some of the characters even view their own powers through the lens of superhero comics. For my money Heroes is not (only) a typical wish-fulfilment story, and the ways in which it *is* typical of modern superhero comics are precisely the ways in which those comics don’t fit Maher’s easy stereotype.

    I also agree with wychwood that this is one of the least “white” TV ensembles going, if only in relative terms compared to other television.

  6. Mather’s rant reminds me of the time when I was a student and sitting (a little the worse for wear) through a very dull seminar on industrial relations. The seminar leader asked me a question about IPM standards but I heard IBM and went of on a rant about the Nazi-collaborating, union-busting history of Big Blue.

    He sat looking at me, the rest of the group sat looking at me and no one stopped me or corrected me until I stopped ten minutes later, and then the lecturer turned to someone else and asked them the same question for a textbook answer…

    Mather, I think, has been asked for a piece on Heroes and somehow misheard, thinking they said 24 or The Unit or something.

    Boy is he gonna be embarassed when he realises his mistake!!

  7. >>Naturally, ever keen to reveal its own genetic heritage, Heroes repeatedly
    >>treated us to scenes of characters reading comic books, painting giant
    >>comic-book pictures, and discussing comic-book stories — you just know
    >>you’re in a Geek Tragedy when X-Men and Star Trek are referenced in the
    >>same line of dialogue. Which might, in theory, have been fine if Heroes
    >>had stayed within the kitschy world of fantastical narratives established by
    >>the likes of X-Men and The Fantastic Four. But, no, this show had bigger
    >>thematic fish to fry.

    You know I bet he was really pleased with himself with that “geek tragedy” quip.

    Still, he must be crediting Heroes with some serious philosophical chops if its thematic fish are bigger than the X-Men (racism, homophobia and all sorts of intolerance) and the Fantastic Four (family, friendship, cosmic exploration and clobberin’).

    He seems as angry that a superhero story should dare to try to address big issues (in which case he clearly hasn’t read a comic book since the early 80s – The Authority spend the early 00s as both American government and the UN, Mather would have loved that) as he is with the way Heroes goes about things.

    >>I find it both morally and artistically repugnant that the most urgent
    >>political crisis of our time, one that’s currently claiming thousands of
    >>lives every month, can be denuded of all context and cheerily coopted
    >>by the wish-fulfilment fantasies of some insular adolescent jerks.

    Presumably he’d be happier if it was left to the half-arsed wish-fulfillment of insular, middle-aged, jerks – because the artistic and literary mainstream have been doing a bang-up job of nailing the political crisis so far, haven’t they? I mean the liberals have ended up bemoaning the overthrow of a fascist dictator and cheering on murderous thugs who want to create an even more oppressive regime. While the right just keep repeating the same old “bomb them back to the stone age”mantra that worked so well in Cambodia as they cream off money for “reconstruction” to their pals in business. So thank god everything is working as usual in the mainstream.

    >>It is, surely, a sign of growing American political apathy when the
    >>cultural response to the Iraq crisis is simply to send Magneto into
    >>Baghdad.

    So wait, now it’s a bad thing that people are trying to make politically engaged drama that appeals to people outside the politica/literary elite? Why, because they don’t need to think about these things? Because they’re not capable? Or because it isn’t done in a gritty enough way for Mather?

    It’s not even that Heroes is particularly political, but Christ, if he ever stumbles across the suicide bomber episodes of BSG, he’ll go off like a nuclear bomb!

    And whatever you do, don’t mention Animal Farm. Talking animals + political allegory. He’ll have an anuerism

    And, you know, I’d be worried too if I though Heroes was the *only* cultural response to the mess in Iraq, but it’s everywhere. It even helped ruin the BBC’s Robin Hood series – it feels like everything, everywhere is a metaphor for Iraq at the minute.

  8. He seems as angry that a superhero story should dare to try to address big issues […] as he is with the way Heroes goes about things.

    Yes, that’s it exactly. If you want to criticise Heroes for how it addresses big issues (to the extent that it does), then go ahead; but don’t criticise it just for trying.

  9. I’d be more inclined to criticize the show for not addressing these issues at all. I hardly think centering the story, and its main catastrophe, on New York is meant to be a 9/11 reference – more a nod to the fact that most superhero comics take place in that city or in its fictional counterparts. The bus bombing mentioned in the first episode is just a generic disaster, not an oblique reference to terrorism, and anyway Isaac has long since stopped painting events that aren’t related to the main characters or the atomic explosion in New York. There hasn’t been even the slightest reference to the war in Iraq – none of the characters are veterans or know people who are in the military, and Nathan, a congressional nominee, doesn’t seem to have an opinion on the subject (or, admittedly, any other hot political topic).

    Thus far, and in keeping with its parent medium’s conventions, the show’s comic book heroes are being pitted against comic book villains, not the real-world kind.

  10. Holy journalistic cliches! Starting an article on anything superhero-related with that particular trope has to be one of the laziest gambits around.

    I’m looking forward to the day when that fades out of use. I’m hoping the reference will become meaningless entirely, unless re-runs of the Batman series are still ongoing.

    Also, who the hell says “fat-piping”?

  11. I actually have some sympathy for some of the points Maher is trying to make, in that I do think that events like 9/11 raise issues for the way superhero comics are done these days that they’re often not good at answering. It’s essentially a variant on the whole ‘Superman and WWII’ question – in a world where the Avengers or the Justice League exist, something like 9/11 would play completely differently. The planes might hit the Towers, but the death toll would be reduced to hundreds rather than thousands, as superheroes put out the fires and rescued people before the buildings collapsed. And yet these superhero universes (particularly Marvel’s) aren’t supposed to be that far removed from our own. So how does a superhero milieu deal with 9/11 without suggesting a supervillain was responsible (thus trivialising it)? The Avengers seemed to just ignore it, before recreating the form in a supervillain attack on Washington D.C. The less powerful Spider-Man did get to see it happen, thus establishing that the event took place in the Marvel Universe. Even so, questions should arise – “”here were the FF? Where were the Avengers?” As superhero comics have beome ever more ‘realistic’, such questions arise more and more often. (This is related to my preference for pre-1985 superhero comics over most of what is published today.)

    Having said that, Maher clearly began determined to hate Heroes, and clearly knows nothing about superhero comics – I doubt he’s ever done more than look at some covers.

  12. Tony: I can’t comment on comics/Heroes as such but it has been observed before now that US foreign policy (such as it was) has for a long time seemed to need the existence of a super-villain (or evil mastermind) such as Khomeini, Quaddaffi, bin Laden and so on. The implicit assumption has long been remove Saddam and Iraq will be fine, and we know how accurate that was. So is the existence of a comic universe where 9/11 happened but the FF etc couldn’t help a political statement in itself?

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