I’m sure by now we’ve all heard the big news out of the Sochi Winter Olympics. That’s right,
Russia topped the leaderboard with 33 medals Heroes is returning to our TV screens! It’s been just over four years since NBC’s superhero show was on the air, and a good few years longer since it was actually any good. Approaching something of a phenomenon back in its heyday, it was hard to find someone who couldn’t complete the show’s slogan (Save the Cheerleader…) never mind wasn’t full-on glued to the weekly adventures of Super-nurse Peter Petrelli, evil villain Sylar and toe-clipping Claire.
Well, for the first season, anyway. The quality swiftly nose-dived as we headed into season two and beyond, with meandering storylines and the constant dangling of what was to come without ever actually getting it (seriously, when was Hiro going to stop being such a dumbass and grow a goatee?).
But perhaps enough time has passed for NBC to dust off its old superhero show and give it a new lease of life. It’s a very different TV world now – we’ve been from Smallville to Alphas, Arrow and Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., not to mention the upcoming Gotham and The Flash. Superheroes are hot, and it’s not surprising that the studio is eager for a second helping of the costumed crime-fighter pie. If Heroes Reborn is to survive, however, it’s going to need more than a catchy slogan this time around. So here’s my adamantium-lined, kryptonite-powered, five point plan for superhero success.
Take A Fresh Start
We’ve already been told not to expect the old guard to return, albeit they’re keeping the door open for the occasional guest appearance, and this is definitely a step in the right direction. The fact that Noah or Matt could pop their heads in at all means it’s not a total reboot, but hopefully it’s still a clean break from what came before. I don’t know about anyone else, but the storyline got incredibly convoluted towards the end. There was an ongoing series of incestuous twists whereby every character slowly discovered they were a member of the Petrelli family, Nathan, Sylar and Matt were caught in some kind of bizarre body swap loop of hell, there was tension-evaporating magic blood that brought Noah back to life and then was never used again because hello it’s magic blood that can bring people back to life, and Hiro spent four years dicking around with his best mate, travelling through time and stealing paintings instead of buying a sword and learning Matrix.
Leave all that behind and start fresh. New characters, new powers. Keep it simple, and for the love of God, plan it out fully. It’s only thirteen episodes, so there’s absolutely no reason not to have the entire beginning, middle and end completely mapped. And if you’re going to tease future events, bloody well deliver on them!
Have A Proper Baddie
Look, Sylar was great. A guy who slices people’s heads open, takes their brains and learns their power? That’s deliciously macabre. It’s Hannibal Lector meets Magneto. But he was completely wasted after the first season; the constant switching sides was one thing, but to become increasingly side-lined by the likes of Adam Monroe and that guy from Prison Break was too much to bear. If you’re going to have a core group of heroes, they need to have a villain to rally against. Loki, Zod, Joker – a superhero is only as good as his arch nemesis.
Don’t Overpower Anyone
Pretty self-explanatory, this one. By the end of the first season, Peter’s ability to take the powers of others had turned him into the Swiss Army Knife of superheroes. He could fly, freeze time, become invisible, control objects, time travel, paint the future (lame), read minds, heal any injury… I mean, really? Now, this actually makes sense when you realise the original plan for Heroes was to have a totally new storyline and cast each season, American Horror Story-style. Peter was meant to gain all these powers because he would need them to save the world in the season one finale, and die in the process.
That last part was pretty important.
Once the show got going and smashed NBC’s ratings into the stratosphere, showrunner Tim Kring realised he had a bit of a problem on his hands. People loved the characters – too much to let them go, he said. And so we had to endure three more seasons of Peter (and Sylar, and Hiro…) continually being depowered in order to stop them being able to pretty much dominate any situation. Peter’s amnesia, Hiro’s brain tumour – just two examples of the horrible plot devices used by the writers.
Luckily, this is a problem that’s easily sorted by a little forward-thinking. Don’t give too many abilities to any one person, and if you genuinely have a solid, narrative reason to do so, then don’t lose your nerve at the last minute! Viewers will respect a show that has the balls to kill off a major character far more than one that keeps them alive so they can be dragged repeatedly through mundane storylines.
Keep The Numbers Low
A big problem with Heroes was the simple fact that the cast grew larger and larger each season. Each episode would introduce another character with powers, which meant more time had to be spent fleshing them out as we learnt what their ability was. Towards the end of the show, things got even worse with the development of a serum that gave ordinary folk powers too. Because what the show really needed was people like Ando becoming a dynamo (worst power ever) or Mohinder doing his best Jeff Goldblum impression.
The point of Heroes was to see how people with abilities impacted the normal world. If every character has powers, that entire aspect of the show is lost – not to mention the Powers Barrel gets well and truly scraped. If Heroes Reborn is only going to be thirteen episodes long, don’t clog up those precious hours trying to flesh out too many superheroes. Trim it back, and don’t be afraid to let the humans be human.
Surround Kring With Strong Writers
Tim Kring is an ideas man, certainly, but I don’t think he’s that great a writer. As a concept, Heroes is pretty solid. Very X-Men, sure, but remember this came out back in 2006, when superpowers were still relatively low-key in the media. His last show, the Kiefer Sutherland-starring Touch suffered from a similar fate as Heroes: strong idea, poor execution.
As it’s already been confirmed that Kring will be returning (as he should, it’s his baby), NBC need to make sure he’s got a solid team working with him. And I’m not talking about Jeph Loeb (what that man did to Ultimates 3 was a crime) or any of the previous writers – with perhaps one exception: Bryan Fuller.
Fuller was a major reason that the first season didn’t suck, and when he left to make Pushing Daisies (along with half the writing staff, to be fair), the show really suffered. He did briefly return during season three, and the two episodes he penned were easily the best of the bunch. Obviously he’s busy working on the fantastic Hannibal right now (also for NBC) but it would be a shot in the arm for Heroes Reborn if he was able to help out at all.
So there you have it. The five biggest problems with Heroes and the five obstacles Reborn needs to overcome. There’s absolutely no reason why it can’t succeed – you only need to glance at the top grossing films of all time to see how successful superheroes can be – but this is a show we’ve been burned by before. I’ll be keeping a wary eye on it over the next year, and take solace in the fact that no matter how bad it ends up, it can’t possibly be worse than Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., can it?
Homelander is humanity’s most accurate superhero
Amazon’s hard-hitting, irreverent take on superheroes is a painfully accurate takedown of humanity
If you haven’t yet seen Amazon Studios’ hard-hitting, irreverent take on superheroes, proceed at your own risk. But if you haven’t seen The Boys yet, why not? It’s not-so-quietly the best television show of 2019 and its painfully accurate depiction of what superheroes would really be like in our world is gloriously funny and poignant. You best get on it.
With that said, The Boys IS 2019’s best television show, and while it may not be the most easily digestible show (if you prefer your superhero television to be Supergirl type corny, you’re probably in for a bit of a shock), those who venture through its visceral 8-episode first season will no doubt be left in awe. Based on the 2006 graphic novel of the same name, The Boys tells the story of a group of nogoodniks led by Karl Urban’s brute Billy Butcher, who takes the seemingly hapless Hughie (played by Jack Quaid) on a vigilante mission to avenge the death of his girlfriend. Along the way “The Boys” set out to expose the fake news facade of the superheroes in the series’ world. These so-called heroes, backed by mega-corporation Vought International, are Earth’s premier team of superheroes. On the surface, they act like the Marvel Avengers / DC Justice League team, but in reality, are just a colossal mess of frail egos and giant assholes whose appearances are kept up to keep the money-making wheels spinning.
The story unfolds in glorious violence, capped by slow-mo gory deaths, shattered limbs, and enough sex and psychotherapy to make old “Skinemax” television blush. But what’s most telling about the series is the accurate characterisation of what it means to be a hero in the real world. “The Seven” (Vought’s Avengers) are led by the very Captain America/Superman-esque Homelander; a stoic, blond, barrel-chested hero for America that waves and kisses babies on camera, but away from it, is a fragile, colossal asshole egomaniac with severe Freudian issues. The latter become one of the focal points of the series’ narrative arc and are a small but telling dimension of the layers you find within this show. He’s surrounded by likeminded assholes; sexual deviant The Deep (if one of the characters from Gossip Girl ended up becoming Aquaman), sexual deviant Translucent (if Invisible Man was a chronic sex-pest) and murdering drug-addict A-Train (if The Flash was… well, a murdering drug addict). The only one who presents with any form of likeability are Queen Maeve and newcomer Starlight. The latter, integral to the story, is a good girl Christian superhero who discovers like most of us, The Seven aren’t who they make out to be.
Over the eight episodes of the first season, we come to the sad and painful realization that if superheroes were to exist in our reality, that this would be it. Intentionally or not, this commentary is one of the most compelling parts of this series. It’s beautifully cynical, but at the same, cuts right to the heart of the truth of our society. The Marvel Universe has spoiled us with dreams of heroic saviors, but in reality, we would get and deserve much less.
Superheroes in the Marvel and DC Universes are often too good to be true; cavorting around like false prophets. In times when humanity turns against them (Batman vs. Superman, Captain America: Civil War, Spider-Man: Far From Home), they react with some level of empathy for the reactions of the general public. Superman exiles himself in Batman vs Superman while The Avengers attempt to self-police in Civil War; all are actions of self-sacrificing their worth for the greater good. Their hope is that public opinion will turn once people realize the truth. Homelander is nothing like that, and often in The Boys, his good public persona will reveal his true self the moment he faces situations that harm his likeness, value, and/or monetary worth. It’s how most people would react no matter how much they tell you they wouldn’t. In all of Homelander’s inhuman superpowers, his most telling characteristic are his most human ones; selfish, egotistical, greedy, self-absorbed. They are not positive qualities, but they are very real.
You may be thinking that this is an overly cynical view on humanity, but the old adage of the truth hurting is ever present through the series. The Boys‘ socio-political commentary isn’t even about specific politics or people- even though you can equate it to them. It’s broader, more sweeping in its assessment that no matter your political views, no matter your race or creed, you are nowhere near as heroic or “good” as you think you are. “The Boys” themselves, of course, are a band of anti-hero criminals and outcasts that help confirm that even the people “doing good” aren’t all that good themselves. As the series points out, we are all just different sides of the same coin.
It’s all just a helpful reminder that in a world filled with liars, charlatans, hacks, and grifters, there are no real heroes and those looking to become one just end up getting burned. The Boys is a compelling look into the mirror of society; refreshing, invigorating, and painfully true. It is the truth we are all afraid to face wrapped in relatable costumes and transient power. I suppose we could keep telling ourselves that we’re nothing like the people and “heroes” in The Boys, but then we’d just be lying to ourselves. It’s in part, what makes Homelander humanity’s most accurate superhero. If that’s not enough for you, then watch it for Karl Urban calling everyone a “c*nt” for eight episodes.
The Boys is streaming now on Amazon Prime.
Another Case of Willed Amnesia: Bob Dylan and the Rolling Thunder Revue
Rolling Thunder Revue is a masterly addition to both Scorsese’s and Dylan’s steady work
At a concert in New Haven on the 1975 Rolling Thunder Revue tour, someone in the crowd repeatedly shouted “Bob Dylan! Bob Dylan!”, just as the artist was setting up for a reworked version of “Tangled Up in Blue”. Dylan, in character as ever, replied: “No, I don’t think so. I think you’ve got me mistaken for someone else.”
This story appears in Time Out of Mind by the late Ian Bell, Dylan’s greatest biographer. Bell wrote perceptively about that tour, its participants, and what it might have meant, if anything at all. It’s helpful to have a guide, as Dylan wasn’t especially clear on things at the time, and is even less so now. At least at first glance.
What, exactly, was that legendary tour all about? In an early scene in Martin Scorsese’s unmissable Netflix documentary, Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story, Dylan tells the viewer:
“It’s about nothing. It’s just something that happened forty years ago. And that’s the truth of it . . . I don’t remember a thing about Rolling Thunder. It happened so long ago, I wasn’t even born, you know?”
Here, separated by decades, are two amusing and obviously insincere denials of Dylan’s participation in his own tour. Not since Dylan growled “Must Be Santa” on the Christmas in the Heart album have so many fans been left scratching their heads. What the hell is he up to now?
With perspicacity, Bell described the tour as;
“a kind of erratic developing essay on identity, on disguises, on human contact. The concerts would also be, by turns, pretentious, acute, self-indulgent and enthralling. Rolling Thunder would become a piece of theatre, a radical artistic gesture, a travelling circus, a movable movie set, a gypsy caravan and the realisation, intermittently, of a superstar’s old dream of creative emancipation. That was the general idea, at any rate.”
Scorsese has brilliantly captured and expanded these ambitions. And it’s quite a clever setup. We’re introduced to the central cast: Joan Baez, whom Dylan memorably describes as looking “like she’s just come down from a meteorite”; Allan Ginsberg, the beat poet of piffle, whose empty philosophising hints that maybe the tour wasn’t really about anything serious at all; and the absolutely mesmerising Scarlet Rivera, whose allure and haunting violin steal the viewer’s attention in every scene.
The unknown Rivera, as the story goes, was exiting her building when Dylan saw her with a violin case. He invited her to an all-night rehearsal, and she eventually joined the tour and became famous. Even though it sounds like fiction, or at least imaginatively embellished, that story is actually true. Much of the rest of the film, the real stuff, anyway, is interspersed with some rather inventive bullshit.
Dylan and Scorsese begin to introduce some other characters and talking heads, and their participation should immediately cause the raising of eyebrows, as well as a wry smile.
Stefan van Dorp, a haughty European filmmaker who allegedly contributed to a behind-the-scenes look at the tour, appears frequently to offer insights, claim unrecognised credit, and disparage everyone else. His unused footage is what we’re watching, and he even seems to have been there, in 1975, chatting with Dylan, Patti Smith, and various concert-goers.
He’s an actor, though. They all are, even the real ones. At one point, the older Dylan misnames him as van Dorf. An underage and mischievous Sharon Stone was there, too, apparently, as well as the former Congressman Jack Tanner.
A number of guides have already arrived on the Internet, alerting viewers to what’s true and what’s fake. The giveaway, after all, was always in the title: A Bob Dylan Story. This was never going to be a documentary with a concern for historical veracity.
And nor should we expect it to be, really. A straightforward recounting of events as they happened would somehow seem, well, out of character. Dylan doesn’t do things twice. Bell called this willed amnesia – Dylan’s commitment to a performance in the moment, and then its abandonment. Despite its success, there was never a repeat of Rolling Thunder. Bell noted:
“Dylan had no patience whatever for the idea that he might, now and then, retrace his steps. The revue meant a lot to him while it was happening; when it was gone, it was gone.”
The French writer Paul Valéry claimed that an artist never finishes a poem; he merely abandons it. Dylan’s willed amnesia is a kind of rejoinder to that. At the Rolling Thunder concerts, Dylan began to reimagine and rewrite his own songs with new lyrics, melodies, and meanings. Bell observed that Dylan had been toying with this beforehand, but in 1975, it became a permanent feature. In the documentary, we see and hear the country ballad “Tonight, I’ll Be Staying Here With You” transformed into a blistering hard rock number. “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” receives the same treatment, and a new energy. In “Tangled Up in Blue“, a change of voice, from first person to third, also seems to change everything.
Willed amnesia allows Dylan to reflect, at the finish, on what remains of the tour now:
“Nothing. Not one single thing. Ashes.”
That’s true, in a sense. But it’s also true to say that Rolling Thunder Revue is a masterly addition to both Scorsese’s and Dylan’s steady work. It’s also a reminder, not that we really needed one, that no one, especially in what passes for music in today’s scene, does things like Bob Dylan. Despite his protestations, you certainly couldn’t mistake him for anyone else.
Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story is streaming now on Netflix.