Today, we live in a world of superheroes. When cinemas are open, the biggest hitters are invariably the usual Marvel or DC heroes fighting evil, overcoming the odds and showing off their derring-do as audiences pack the multiplexes.
And even without the usual glut of superhero movies this unusual summer we’ve still seen the likes of The Umbrella Academy and the Old Guard giving a very different take on the genre on the smaller screen, with Netflix’s Project Power and Amazon’s The Boys coming in the coming weeks for more offbeat, satirical takes on superpowers. And that’s not to mention the long-running TV heroes from the CW’s Arrowverse, cartoons like Harley Quinn and Marvel’s upcoming Disney+ shows starring their MCU heroes.
To sum up, superheroes on screen – even the small screen – are big business. But back in 2006, things were very different. Sure, the likes of Batman Begins had recently been released, but the world-beating Marvel media empire was still a couple of years away from its nascent beginnings – and yet there was a sprawling story with a host of interconnected (and superpowered) individuals playing out week by week.
Yes, of course I’m talking about Heroes, the superhero-themed TV show that returns to BBC iPlayer this week. Starring Masi Oka, Milo Ventimiglia, Hayden Panettiere, Greg Grunberg, Zachary Quinto and many more as a motley collection of individuals who suddenly developed powers (a little like mutants from the X-Men universe) across the world, the series ran for a little under four years, ending in 2010 under something of a cloud.
The series had lost its way after the first season, everyone more or less agreed, devolving into endless backtracks (characters keep losing and regaining their abilities) and increasingly absurd challenges as the cast-iron premise – what would happen in the real world if someone developed superpowers – was left behind.
But was Heroes just ahead of its time? If the series was launched today, would it have found its feet better in a more superhero-friendly market?
Well, possibly. Certainly the special effects possible just 14 years later dwarf those available to the creators of Heroes in the mid-noughties, with shows like the aforementioned Umbrella Academy able to unleash some serious superpowered carnage in its second season that Heroes could only dream of.
Meanwhile, the US network TV model – long seasons of 20 or more episodes, all stuffed with mini-arcs and subplots – has faded in relevance, with the rise of shorter, more serialised storytelling now often chosen to tell these kinds of stories (for example, The Boys, The Umbrella Academy or Disney+’s upcoming six-episode stories) in a more focussed manner that seems to fit the subject matter.
And of course, the sheer number of superhero stories around nowadays on TV have laid a certain groundwork that possibly makes it easier to tell these caped crusader tales. With the dominance of the Avengers et al, there’s no need to spend time covering the basics of superheroics – people have a base awareness of this stuff in a way that they didn’t before. A show like The Boys is a great satire that plays off our perception of superheroes – but arguably, it couldn’t have existed a decade or more ago, when that perception was a lot more muddied.
Looking back at Heroes, the “rules” of superheroes onscreen were still being written, the show slightly obsessed with paying tribute to graphic novel stylings and formats in a similar way to Ang Lee’s 2003 Hulk movie. Today, a lot of those techniques have been left behind in favour of just following characters and telling a story, with comic-books’ ability to tell longer stories and cross over between heroes becoming the main holdover from print to screen.
For me, there’s no doubt that if you made Heroes today, it would be a different show – but you also have to wonder how much was learned from shows like Heroes, paving the way and making the mistakes needed for superheroes to cross over from comics and standalone movies into the dominating force culturally they are now.
Despite a miniseries return in 2015, Heroes couldn’t save itself. But maybe, down the line, it did help to save the (superhero) world.
Heroes seasons 1-4 are available to stream on BBC iPlayer now