Streetwise Hercules (I Need a Hero)
For the better part of the 20th century, American ideology found itself forever altered as the superhero archetypes embodied by the Golden Age of Comics filtered throughout society. These indelible hand-drawn figures were, for a generation, undoubtedly novel but also simultaneously a manifestation of mythic themes that had arisen time and again in human history. Much like in any folklore, however, the retelling as a juxtaposition of the new and the old—here I refer to both the act and the product—informs savvy observers about the nuances present in the culture of the storytellers. For a scholar, the questions posed by the audience are just as important as the answers. Thus, when NBC’s Heroes appeared on television screens in 2006, academics paid attention as audiences immediately began to contemplate the age-old role and representation of heroes albeit in a modern setting: What does it mean that heroes don’t have costumes? Are heroes appearing around the world? Does this mean that I could be a hero?
While all of these musings are important to consider, one of the most fundamental questions series creator Tim Kring asks is, “How do we react to, respond to, negotiate with, and acknowledge power in society?” As American audiences, we have come to understand the concept of power in terms of its abuse—we are a country built on the protection and conservation of freedom and have grown to abhor the curbing of our perceived personal liberties. Moreover, in a post-9/11 environment we have again come to believe in the myth of American Exceptionalism, the idea that our nation embodies good in the world and we, as citizens, are tasked with defending that ideal. Or perhaps we feel powerless as we live with the knowledge that a bomb (nuclear but also possibly biochemical) could wipe us out in an instant; our notions of invulnerability have been shattered and we are desperately seeking to regain a sense of safety and security. Ultimately, this is one of the true strengths of Heroes: the genius of the show rests in its ability to have potentially threatening themes hide in plain sight. For although we may shy away from discussions of power in political arenas, we feel free to discuss the same ideas when they are conceptualized as special abilities in the realm of superheroes. Underneath the veneer of science fiction, we find all too familiar issues as discussions of Heroes’ genetic mutations (both in the show and amongst audiences) parallel conversations that invoke Social Darwinism and the imagination of ourselves as potential heroes positions us to contemplate the role of choice and agency in our lives.
So while some might argue that the show appears to ascribe to a secular philosophy, with its focus on the individual and a palpable scientific undercurrent, I would suggest that it also demonstrates that a deep-seeded sense of wonder continues to exist within us as we begin to discover and wield our own powers. Although we may not be able to read thoughts like Matt, have regenerative bodies like Claire, or copy others’ gifts like Peter, we realize that, in their place, we have developed the ability to speak our minds, access rejuvenating spirits, and, perhaps most importantly, exhibit the qualities of compassion and empathy. Slowly, we come to understand that being human is not a limiting quality as we once thought; instead, it is precisely because we are human that we can accomplish extraordinary things. “Yatta!” indeed.
 In his essay, “Chiariidaa o Sukue, Sekai o Sukue!” Rudy Busto makes reference to the ordinary as extraordinary (2009), a thought supported by the work of Darko Suvin who describes the ability of science fiction to encode the ordinary (1979). While I do not disagree with this point of view, I tend to occasionally conceptualize the relationship in slightly different manner: instead of seeing the ordinary as something that gives birth to the extraordinary, the ordinary is the extraordinary.