Who Wants to be a Superhero?

Michael Abernethy

Being mere mortals, contestants are not expected to leap tall buildings, stop bullets, or outrace locomotives. Instead, they are tested on the human qualities of heroism: compassion, intelligence, attentiveness, and selflessness.

Who Wants to be a Superhero?

Airtime: Thursdays, 9pm EST
Cast: Stan Lee
Network: Sci-Fi Channel
US release date: 2006-07-27

We want our heroes to be super. But even if we don't want to believe they struggle with mundane issues, they do. Comic book heroes teach us the value of right and wrong, but they spend as much time battling internal demons as they do external ones. You can't be a superhero without some dire, secret weakness or a memory that haunts your every waking moment.

This is especially true of Stan Lee's superheroes, usually humans afflicted by a freak accident that grants them remarkable powers, in addition to "senseless tragedy" that robs them of loved ones and motivates their crime-fighting careers. Relying on this formula, Lee became the premiere name among comic book creators in the '60s, but now he appears to be running short on ideas: his latest creation, LightSpeed, is a rip-off of The Flash, with a blue suit instead of red.

And so Lee is asking for help, via Sci-Fi's new reality show, Who Wants to be a Superhero?. Superhero wannabes compete to be the subject of his next comic series. Being mere mortals, they are not expected to leap tall buildings, stop bullets, or outrace locomotives. Instead, they are tested on the human qualities of heroism: compassion, intelligence, attentiveness, and selflessness.

The contestant who best demonstrates those qualities not only gets to be immortalized in comic book form, he or she also gets to star in a Sci-Fi made-for-tv movie. Though, considering Sci-Fi's track record with movies (Frankenfish and Mansquito), that may not be much of a reward. Nevertheless, thousands auditioned. The series fortunately steers clear of a protracted montage of the losers, instead offering brief glimpses of those not picked, such as Ice Bitch (catch-phrase: "Freeze, Motherfucker") and an unnamed contest whose power consisted of flashing her bare breast.

The pilot episode then introduced to the 12 contestants who made the cut. These include an obese 42-year-old black woman (Fat Momma, who derives her powers by eating donuts), a 32-year-old gay man (Levity, who fights for those discriminated against), and a 19-year-old student (Nitro G, who runs on adrenaline). Only a few of the contestants are stereotypical superheroic types, such as the muscle-bound Iron Enforcer and cover-boy handsome Feedback.

The game includes some tricks. Rotiart (Traitor spelled backwards) is actually Lee's spy, secretly taping the chosen dozen's introductions to one another. Lee communicates with them all via teleconferencing, and his first view of the contestants found them dancing and partying, which, combined with Rotiart's videos, left him with a bad impression. He singled three out for possible elimination: Iron Enforcer, for revealing how much he wants to kill, kill, kill; Creature, for coming on to all the male contestants; and Levity, who plans to make millions selling action-figures of himself. Levity got the boot.

The remaining 10 (Rotiart left also) received a first challenge: dressed in their street clothes at a downtown park, they had to find a place to change secretly into their costumes and race to a finish line. They were told the fastest time would win, but the real test was something else: at the finish line, a young girl began crying she lost her mommy. Would they help her at the risk of losing the time challenge?

Fat Momma, Cell Phone Girl, and Lemuria escorted the youngster to a nearby security office, and Major Victory, the only male contestant to stop, comforted her and took her to Park Security. Fast-paced and amusing, the challenge sequence appeared in split screen, to show three contestants changing at once: Monkey Woman crawled up a tree, while Creature dove ass first into a trash can. Nitro G was eliminated, for not only bypassing the child, but also for changing in a public courtyard, in plain view of midday lunchers. Lee's dismissal was gentle: no Simon Cowell snarkiness here.

Which is not to say there isn't room for snide comments: Creature seemed a hormone-driven bubblehead, offering little comfort as a rescuer. Cell Phone

Girl's assertion that she can be diverted from her mission by a hot guy didn't make her seem so reliable. And Fat Momma's catch-phrase -- "Saving the world, one donut at a time" -- is a nutritionist's nightmare. I genuinely liked her, but her "character" hardly seems a good role model. Still, I found myself rooting for Fat Momma as well as Major Victory, in real life a former stripper seeking to redeem himself in the eyes of his young daughter.

I was surprised that the first episode was so engaging, with both humor and intrigue. I was also surprised at the detail each contestant put into his or her persona. Costumes, backstories, catch-phrases, superpowers and weaknesses had all been carefully plotted out (and are available on the website).

Previews of upcoming episodes indicate that an arch-nemesis is forthcoming, as well as costume upgrades for those still competing. Despite their efforts in establishing their identities, Lee will be molding the eventual winner into his own brand of superhero. It's clear the contestants have a lot to learn. Who

Wants to be a Superhero? is working with changing perceptions of what is heroic. The challenges Lee and the show's writers have designed deal less with displays of physical prowess and more with moral fortitude.

Among the extensive catalogue of reality competitions, Who Wants to be a

Superhero? won't be remembered as a classic. Still, it is an imaginative diversion and pleasant alternative to the sound-alike singers and backstabbing housemates. Even if you aren't a fan of comic books or science fiction, Who

Wants to be a Superhero? offers some laughs and a chance to think about what heroism means to you.


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