“Every story has a beginning,” asserts the Star Wars-like text crawl at the start of NBC’s inaugural episode of Heroes. “Volume 1 of the epic tale begins here.” And, with those few lines of text, the show makes clear that its scope is broad, its storyline complicated, and its tone just a little melodramatic.
Heroes is born of and indebted to comic books. If the title doesn’t make the point clearly enough, two characters appear reading the same comic in separate scenes, another quotes the X-Men for backup on his theories about the space-time continuum. Indeed, the heroes here are quite like the X-Men before they find their ways to Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters. They play their roles in day-to-day life — a popular cheerleader, corporate drone, romantic dreamer, single mom — but discover within themselves secret abilities that make them feel increasingly isolated, confused, or targeted. Their powers are untested and untrained, and they have to learn how to cope with these new skills without the help of a Professor X.
Not all of the comic book elements make a smooth transition to television. Take the abundance of expository dialogue, in the first episode, aptly titled “Genesis.” While it makes sense for comic book characters to say exactly how they feel in concise, articulate sentences, it’s annoying in Heroes. “I have to stop living for other people,” said Peter Petrelli, the neglected brother of a candidate for Congress. “I have no idea what I’m supposed to do, who I’m supposed to be. Will I have a destiny of my own?” Geez, you think that was possibly some kind of foreshadowing?
Hiro Nakamura (Masi Oka), the Japanese drone who achieved teleportation (and is named Hiro, get it?), spelled it out even more plainly. “Every 10-year-old wishes he has powers. And I got them. Me, of all people,” he said. “I’m not a loser anymore.” When his friend suggested he was deluding himself, Hiro actually said, “I want to be special.” Subtlety is not going to be a strong suit in the series.
The match-up between characters and superpowers was also laid on a little thick. Single mom Niki Sanders (Ali Larter) had no control over her life: she couldn’t get ahead of her bills, her son was expelled from his private school, and she was in a bit of hot water with the mob. Her “power” is a nasty, sneering reflection that “takes care of business” when she’s too weak to do it herself. This was on display when a pair of nasty-looking henchmen arrived, intending to abuse her physically and sexually. Not only did her reflection murder them, leaving a bloody mess behind, but it did so while Niki was blacked out, so she could seem not quite responsible for her savagery. Peter’s change also emerged from frustration. “I cast a big shadow, I know that,” his brother Nathan (Adrian Pasdar) admitted not-so-humbly. Peter dreamed about being able to fly, allowing him to escape Nathan’s hulking shadow at last.
Lacking radioactive animal bites or alien births, the origins of these extraordinary powers seem a matter of thematic necessity, without explanation. In his novel The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, Michael Chabon, attempting to explain the most attractive aspect of comic-book heroes, writes, “How is not the question. What is not the question… The question is why” (NY: Random House 2000). Heroes didn’t even begin to answer this question in “Genesis.” Why are these losers, debtors, dreamers, and cheerleaders given these special abilities? The only motives close to explained were those of Mohinder Suresh (Sendhil Ramamurthy). Son of a famous but eccentric geneticist, Suresh is drawn to the heroes because he believes he is carrying on the research of his father, who was close to uncovering the mysterious truth behind supernatural goings-on. It is fitting, then, that Suresh offered the only speculation as to the “why” for the others. “It’s natural selection… They carry inside them the genetic code that will take their species to the next evolutionary rung,” he said. “It’s destiny.”
The exploration of that destiny may give the series more weight than it’s shown so far. Sure, it was exhilarating when Nakamura closed his eyes in Japan, then opened them in Manhattan. It was even more exciting, however, to see the shadowy man who snatched Suresh’s father’s research turn up as the father of Claire Bennet (Hayden Panettiere), the cheerleader who can heal her own injuries in seconds. Even as the heroes learn to use — or abuse — their suddenly bestowed gifts, the most compelling aspect of Heroes remains relationships, not superpowers.