Looking back on the essays I’ve written in the past year, it seems that I have created a rather constrained definition of the Superhero genre. Yes, the core films within the genre are those that fit all of the various requirements of having a superhero protagonist and the various supporting characters that follow a more or less set plot line. But, just like any other genre, there are many films and TV shows that don’t quite fulfill all of the requirements, but still earn the label of “Superhero”. There are many different shows and movies that fall into this hybrid category. This week, I will be discussing some of those TV Shows.
As I’ve said before, there are a LOT of Superhero TV Shows and they exist on such a wide spectrum that it becomes hard to discuss them as a whole. Most Superhero Shows center around one main hero or a group of heroes that go out each week and save their town, city, or planet from whatever threat happens to be looming that week. And then there are those other shows about people with superpowers that just sort of deal with having superpowers. Chief among this latter type are Heroesand Misfits. Each features a group of core characters that, yeah okay, sometimes do end up saving people every so often, but mostly spend their time just keeping their heads down.
Let’s start with Heroes. Despite its title, Heroes features very few actually heroic characters (although they do manage to have some spectacular villains). Peter Petrelli and Hiro Nakamura come closest to being superheroes, especially in their future incarnations, but they do a whole lot more bumbling and whining than rescuing. Each does have a sense of duty and feels that they have a responsibility to use their powers for good, but they are a far cry from Superman or Spider-Man. And they are merely two characters in a cast with dozens of other superpowered characters who just sort of go about their business. The show’s original tagline, “Ordinary people discovering extraordinary abilities” sort of says it all.
Now, Misfits isn’t all that different from Heroes. A group of young offenders gain superpowers during a freak storm that also grants strange powers to others in their community. The kids all but ignore their powers for the most part. Only one of them, Simon, thinks to become a superhero and yes, ultimately does. Although, in a particularly Heroes-y twist, he only does so in the future. Also like Heroes, it is the nerdy character who decides to become a superhero, suggesting that only people who read comics and science fiction are likely to actually use their powers selflessly.
Another strange similarity between these two shows that should be noted is their reliance on time travel and precognition. The first season of Heroes(and several later storylines as well) was based entirely around the characters finding out that there were several catastrophes in the future that had to be prevented, namely saving Claire Bennet from Sylar and stopping the exploding man incident. Similarly, the second series of Misfits revolves around the revelation that the mysterious masked man is Simon come back from the future to save Alisha. Future Simon also helps the characters in a number of other situations, using his knowledge of the past timeline. Future Simon does all this, of course, so that his past self will become a kind of superhero. It seems strange that in these kinds of shows, the writers feel that the only way to push their characters towards becoming superheroes is basically by having their future selves come back and tell them to go put on a cape.
Now, both of these shows have been sold as “Superhero Shows,” yet they clearly bare little resemblance to cohorts like Smallville or Buffy the Vampire Slayer. So does that mean that any show featuring superpowered characters is automatically in the Superhero Genre? Of course not. Both The 4400 and Carnivale feature characters with powers, but are firmly outside of the superhero category. While, yes, neither Heroes or Misfits feature superheroes in the strictest sense, they do have ordinary people eventually accepting the responsibility of having super powers. In addition, the very act of defining themselves against other Superhero Shows means that they still have to deal with all the same issues; the characters just make the opposite decisions. The Misfits firmly acknowledge that they could become superheroes, but actively choose not to. In doing so we are shown exactly why it is important for heroes to use their powers responsibly. When they don’t, bad things happen. Remember, these are TV shows. Things don’t always happen quickly. Some characters immediately rise to the challenge, others need a few pushes before they’re ready.