The initial success and, subsequently, the over-saturation of the superhero genre has brought us two distinct schools of thought: that of a hyperbolic superficiality that revels in its camp comic-book world or an approach directed towards realism (as close to realistic as the supernatural can conceivably be). The former has had its share of utterly forgettable fiascos—Daredevil, Elektra, The Fantastic Four—films and franchises that will continue to be made because, the sad fact is, money talks above all else. But it has also had its tongue-in-cheek successes in the likes of Iron Man and Spider-Man. They can work when they don’t take themselves too seriously and play their cards just right.
The latter category, however, has explored the human aspect in the genre, from man’s ability for good to its many flaws. This is the path explored by The Watchmen, The Dark Knight, and, to a much lighter extent, NBC’s Heroes, a show that tried to tread both paths or was confused to which group it belonged. With the show’s descent into disappointment and, finally, cancellation, there is now room for a new show to take over the superhero mantle on television, maybe one that can prove to be a little bit more brave.
I’m not talking about No Ordinary Family, the forthcoming ABC show that looks to fill this niche next fall. Instead I’m turning my attention towards the other side of the pond for the latest (and brilliant) addition to the canon—Britain’s The Misfits.
With a light debut season of a mere six episodes on Channel 4, The Misfits approaches the superhero angle with that uniquely wry, British twist. Like a tasteful concoction between teen coming-of-age drama and dark sci-fi, head writer Howard Overman has penned a series that focuses on five troubled youths as they learn and develop their powers in an age of alienation and self-examination. We are introduced to the five seemingly-at-odds delinquents as they are forced into community service together. Each character hides shameful secrets and insecurities and they are forced to band together, whether they like it or not, the fateful day they learn of their powers and brutally murder their community worker.
Like any story in the genre, pivotal to the narrative is the way they receive their powers and why. In this instance it is a mysterious and powerful storm that takes the city by surprise. It requires a leap of faith but once you decide to take it, profound character studies unfold as they struggle with their new-found powers alongside their passage into adulthood.
What I soon realized was that I’ve known plenty of characters like these growing up. As Overman wrote, these are the “unlucky ones”: the kids who got caught with drugs on them, doing graffiti, or getting into fights. And yes, I guess you could say that they are from the lower echelons of the class structure and the result of their environment, but Overman never revels in this fact. It is not meant to be social commentary but it provides the show with reality and removes it from caricatures and cliché. And it is not just the writing that brings these characters to life; it is also due to the magnificent acting. Each character experiences a new-found power for a specific reason: their powers stem from their main insecurities and fears as young adults. So what do you do when your super-power is also your greatest fear?
Kelly, the first to discover her powers of telepathy, struggles with low self-esteem and constantly worries what people think of her. She had dealt with this insecurity through aggression and violence but with her power, she is incessantly and uncontrollably in people’s minds when she’s around them.
Alisha’s powers are unleashed from her overtly sexual demeanor. Afraid that it is the only thing she has to offer, her lightest touch sends any man or woman into an orgasmic rage. Imagine Rogue, except that Alisha’s touch sends any person graphically lusting after her until they have to have (or rape) her.
Curtis carries a world of regret on his shoulder, having blown his blossoming athletic career as a runner when he was caught with cocaine. It is a tale we’ve heard and known many times before, the young gun whose head just got a bit too big and paid dearly for it. After the storm Curtis begins to manipulate time, traveling to and from the past, an ability that once again stems from his own life. However, his inability to control his power leads him to frustrating, and sometimes comical, results. This provides the show with one of its cheekiest moments; a little playful jab at the genre. After being unable to break up with his girlfriend (everytime she cries or starts screaming at him he goes right back to the moment right before he broke up with her) and after an infinite amount of tries, he finally tries the old Spiderman adage, in all seriousness, “With great power comes great responsibility”. Her ensuing reaction is nothing short of hilarious.
Simon and Kelly
Kelly’s, Curtis’ and Alisha’s powers are all revealed in the first episode. I’ll try not to give too much away with the other guys, you’ll have to watch it find out (I might have given away too much already). Simon, the oddball social outcast we all knew of growing up, gains his power from his feeling of alienation from the rest of the group as well as from his peers in general. And, lastly, the obnoxious slacker Nathan, generating quotable one-liners throughout the series, well, we don’t really know what his powers really are.
Not only do we watch these characters and their inner-turmoil unravel, in this world we learn that the storm has made tons of people around the city gain powers and as their paths cross with that of the protagonists, we learn just why it was forced upon them. Powers can stem from a memory, a deep desire, or fear. Why does one girl make everyone a virtuous new-found Christian while another can only make people bald when she’s angry? Why does a man act like a Jack Russell every night and just who the hell is this Super-Hoodie guy?
Nathan and the mysterious Super-Hoodie
The six episodes that were produced are over way too quickly but provide a deep insight into the adolescent psyche. Like another personal favorite of mine, Freaks and Geeks, the writing and acting remain top notch throughout. There is plenty of sardonic humor, drama, great special effects and amazing cinematography and, yes, plenty of grisly violence that critics and viewers in the UK alike have demanded a second season. It is in production right now so it might be a while before season two is ready, which gives anyone with any interest in television at all plenty of time to catch up this summer. What else are you going to watch this summer anyways?
We all know how critical it is to keep independent voices alive and strong on the Internet. Please consider a donation to support our work as an independent publisher devoted to the arts and humanities. Your donation will help PopMatters stay viable through these changing and challenging times where advertising no longer covers our costs. We need your help to keep PopMatters publishing. Thank you.