The Nexus of Pop-Culture Fandom

My Heroes: NBC’s Monday Night is Looking Pretty Unbreakable

Written by: Rob Van Winkle, CC2K Staff Writer

(Click HERE to read a Season One re-cap of Heroes) 


Is this really what we want from our Super Heroes?

Already in these pages, a lot of time has been spent discussing the modern fascination with dissecting our super heroes . It’s no longer enough for us to see them kick ass and fight crime, now we need to know exactly how they came to have these abilities, and what demons they’re exorcising by using them. Some have argued that this is a bad thing, and that prescribing “realistic” motivations to iconic characters is just our modern societal need for self-actualization and relevance destroying a perfectly good story. I would fight this assertion both by saying that I don’t think this trend is particularly timely (as evidenced by the increased value given to any comic book that tells a hero or villain’s “origin story,”), as well as by pointing out that, no matter WHAT the reason, this recent trend has led to some very good entertainment, including M. Night Shyamalan’s Unbreakable, and, most recently, the brand new NBC series Heroes.

Shyamalan burst onto the scene in 1999 with The Sixth Sense. What was so remarkable about that film was that he took a very common sub-genre of fantasy – the ghost story – and firmly rooted it in reality. By investing so thoroughly in his characters and the situations into which they found themselves, Shyamalan was able to keep us off balance for the entire film, even going so far as to announce the movie’s central secret to Bruce Willis while he was on camera full-frame, and no one even noticed.


They’re just discovering their powers, but they already have the heroic poses nailed!

  With his follow-up movie Unbreakable , Shyamalan used the same sincere and serious approach to make a super hero movie. This time, he gave us David Dunn (great super hero name, by the way: short, strong, and alliterative), a low-level security guard in a failing marriage, who may or may not ever get sick. On the other end of the spectrum, there is Mr. Glass, an original comic book art dealer who also happens to have a rare condition that causes his bones to break after the smallest trauma. It is Mr. Glass’ belief that super heroes as we know them today are exaggerated and fictional stories about abilities that real people just might possess, and he believes that Dunn is the perfect example of this. The movie discusses David Dunn’s admittance and acceptance of his special abilities (which include imperviousness to injury, and the seemingly useless ability to touch someone and get a vision of something they’ve already done; good luck getting THAT to hold up in court), and his ultimately using them to…well…fight crime.

What makes this movie so compelling is how methodically it lays out the premise, and patiently it allows it to unfold. Dunn certainly does not believe that he is powerful or gifted, but we can tell that the things that Mr. Glass tells him resonate within him, and that he knows them to be true. When he finally decides to don his disguise and attempt to save people, we truly feel as though we have witnessed the organic birth of a real-life superhero.

This concept is explored much further in NBC’s new series Heroes, which premiered on September 25th. A text wrap at the top of the show revealed that the show tells of a handful of extraordinary individuals who will eventually come together and save the world. However, it stressed, stories like these have to start somewhere, and they intend to begin this one at the beginning. 


An ordinary girl with the power to heal impossibly fast, sell acne medicine, and have once been on Ally McBeal


For the next hour, we meet disparate people from all over the world (a nifty trick, considering that all filming was actually done in LA) who are in the process of realizing that something is different about them. However, that is the only thing they have in common. Some of them are excited about their powers (like the doctor whose dreams of flying are so real that he think he can, or the Japanese man who tests his ability to teleport by sending himself into the ladies’ bathroom), some are horrified by them (like the artist who thinks that it’s demonic possession linked to drug abuse that causes him to paint images of the future), and still others have no idea what to think (like the Las Vegas web cam stripper whose reflection in the mirror is either her protector, or a killer). Some of them can’t wait to show off their abilities, while others are ashamed. By the end of the pilot, this is pretty much all we know about them at present, though it is made clear that over time, we will learn a great deal more.

(I’ll continue the essay in a bit, but I did want to point out one scene that was just terrific. Two of our characters – the doctor who thinks he can fly (though hasn’t tried yet) and the artist who paints visions of the future – are linked by a secondary character, a woman who is the latter’s girlfriend, and the daughter of the patient of the former. Toward the end of the episode, she runs to the doctor, terrified that her boyfriend has overdosed, and explains to the doctor about the supernatural aspect of the paintings. When they arrive at the studio, as the woman runs to her collapsed boyfriend, the doctor is captivated by a painting on the floor which turns out to be a picture of himself, flying. As the weight of this sinks in, the boyfriend regains consciousness just enough to gasp “We have to stop it,” and points to yet another work he has just completed: New York engulfed in flames. Awesome.)

There are a few key things that Unbreakable and Heroes have in common.  Firstly, as stated before, they both root their stories in the real. In other words, these people don’t get bitten by a radioactive bug, wake up with powers, and start using them to uphold justice within the first twenty minutes. Instead, we watch them come to grips with what’s happening with their bodies slowly – in much the same way that you or I would – and thus it feels more real, even with the genre. Secondly, both Unbreakable and Heroes exist in a world where comic books and fictional superheroes already exist. I think this is a huge conundrum for the filmmakers of established superheroes: how do you make a modern movie about an iconic figure rooted in a real world where this same character has been in the public consciousness for over forty years? If Peter Parker became Spiderman today, in OUR world, one of two things would happen. If the COMIC BOOK of Spiderman had somehow already existed, we would all know what to expect of him, and welcome him into our lives. However, even if he came to be in a world where there was no Spiderman previously, we all have had so much exposure to comic books and superhero movies that we would grow to accept it far sooner than if the whole idea were new to us. Thus, since Spiderman’s New Yorkers need to resent him, and Batman’s Gothamites need to fear him (because if they didn’t, the story would be irrevocably altered), it’s best to pretend that they are alone in their respective worlds.

By contrast, Unbreakable and Heroes not only live in a world where people know and love superheroes, they embrace this fact as a vital part of their mythology. In Unbreakable, Mr. Glass is a life-long comic collector who uses his knowledge of them to draw his conclusions about David Dunn.  In Heroes, our Japanese man learns to stop time with his mind, and then extrapolates that he will be able to teleport because of an issue of X-Men, where Kitty Pryde travels through time. This is exactly the sort of detail that makes this show so good: if any of us woke up with powers, it stands to reason that comic books would become our primary source of information.

{jgibox title:=[Click Here to Read an Important Announcement from the Author] style:=[width:550px;]} I know that, to some, it must appear that I have sold out. The fact remains that, while CC2K started an entire section of the site in large part due to how much I love ripping apart shitty things. I have now covered this site with idolizing raves about the Fall TV lineup.  I have two things to say about this:

1. This is undeniably a great time for television. The backlash against shoddy reality shows has finally occurred, and we are seeing more well-conceived, intricately plotted programming than ever before.
2. This does not mitigate the incredible amount of shit that is still out there, and I can’t avoid it forever. I have no doubt that the Crapfest has not seen the last of me. {/jgibox}


A scene from Unbreakable: The Series, Season Three


Having said all this, I do not think that Heroes will end up being viewed as Unbreakable: The Series. If anything, it shows us that Shyamalan’s movie might have been better served through the medium of television. It would have been very satisfying to see how David Dunn developed and honed his powers, and how (or if) Mr. Glass would have evolved into David’s nemesis. At the very LEAST, Shyamalan could have fleshed out his ending in a more complete way. With Heroes, we will get to see all of that play out, over the course of a series.  That sounds like a pretty unbreakable concept to me. 



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