Heroes Was A Missed Opportunity

NBC’s Heroes, now available to stream in the UK on BBC iPlayer, was a creative, satisfying superhero series that had the potential to be something more.

Heroes Peter Petrelli Sylar header
Photo: NBC

Beginning in 2006, NBC’s pulpy comic book-esque series Heroes ran for four seasons consisting of 77 episodes and over 30 online “minisodes.” The original run was followed up with 13-episode reboot Heroes Reborn in 2015. All in all, the franchise produced over 65 hours of content. Of those 65+ hours of Heroes, 20 seconds are absolutely, devastatingly perfect.

That 20 second of Heroes nirvana occurs in the 20th episode of the show’s first season, “Five Years Gone.” In it, the temporally-displaced Hiro Nakamura and his friend Ando Masahashi time travel five years into the future to discover what will become of the world if a prophesied explosion isn’t stopped. Things are properly dystopian with a superpowered president Nathan Petrelli (Adrian Pasdar) rounding up and imprisoning his fellow supes. Ultimately, however, Hiro discovers that Nathan Petrelli isn’t Nathan Petrelli at all but a disguised power-hoarder Gabriel Gray a.k.a. Sylar (Zachary Quinto). Peter Petrelli (Milo Ventimiglia), Nathan’s brother and the only other man on Earth whose powers can compare to Sylar’s, arrives to confront the villain. It looks a little like this.

Yes, that moment in which Peter Petrelli and Gabriel “Sylar” Gray (Zachary Quinto) square off with fire and ice is the most perfect 20 seconds of Heroes. It’s not because of anything that happens onscreen (the scene cuts off before Peter and Sylar even make contact) but because of what it suggests. That moment represents the best possible path that Heroes could have taken with its story. The tragedy, however, is that it did not. 

Like its (far superior) network television sci-fi forefather Lost, Heroes came out of the gate strong and went well and truly viral before the era of social media made going viral far easier. It’s easy to see why in hindsight. The show’s setup is remarkably appealing. It imagines a world in which people suddenly developed superpowers and then follows their journey in coming to terms with them. High school cheerleader Claire Bennett (Hayden Panettiere) could heal and regenerate Wolverine-style. LAPD officer Matt Parkman (Greg Grunberg) could read people’s minds. Single mother Niki Sanders (Ali Larter) had super strength and an alternate personality. 

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Heroes season one cast

The show combined its richly-realized characters, intriguing concept, and weirdly soothing soundtrack into a nice package that proved to be a fine TV show…for awhile at least. As Heroes went on, it quickly became clear that it did not have much direction beyond its original, satisfying concept. The show introduced a frustratingly unclear mythology filled with a shadowy agency to monitor and control heroes. That, along with a shockingly low-budget finale, turned many people off from tuning into subsequent seasons. They didn’t miss much.

Heroes was ultimately lacking in direction and purpose. But hidden in plain sight among its characters were two individuals that could have provided the show with all the direction and purpose it needed, if it were willing to indulge them. And that’s where those 20 seconds come in once again. Heroes should not have been a leisurely-paced series about a handful of individuals finding their powers and therefore themselves. It should have pared itself down to the story of two people: Peter Petrelli and Sylar. It should not have been a story of discovery but rather that of an arms race. 

Peter Petrelli and Sylar’s powers operate similarly. Both are able to collect and possess the powers of other superpowered individuals but each goes about their doing so in a significantly different way. Peter is a hospice nurse. As such he’s a decent guy, highly patient and empathetic. He is able to mimic the powers of those he comes into contact with simply by utilizing his natural empathy and thinking about that person and how it felt to meet them – to be welcomed into their life and story. 

Sylar on the other hand, is an analytical thinker. As the son of a watchmaker (not unlike a certain nuclear physicist working out of Gila Flats), Sylar is obsessed with understanding how things work. To that end, he literally cracks open the skulls of his victims and examines their brains to uncover their powers and incorporate them into his own brain, killing his victim in the process. It was actually implied that Sylar ate their brains before Heroes creator Tim Kring correctly realized that that was far too silly. 

Peter and Sylar are perfect foils. They are remarkably similar individuals. They have the same power, similar physical appearances, and even similar alliterative names (PP v. GG). It’s just that one difference between how they use their powers that makes all the difference. In that respect, Peter and Sylar are the perfect representative of a hero/villain dynamic that comics have mastered for years. As Nolan’s Batman films so marvelously articulate, heroes and villains are often more similar than not. After all, they’re part of a small fraternity that thinks it’s appropriate to put on costumes and cape around after dark. It is only their ideologies that make them different. And that is ultimately enough to make them enemies. 

Heroes had a very good thing going with the nemesis-style relationship between Peter and Gabriel. And to the show’s credit, it realized that for just over half a season. A lot of season 1 does indeed deal with Peter and Sylar traveling around, meeting other superpowered people, and collecting powers for their eventual, inevitable confrontation. The problem was that was when that confrontation arrived in the season 1 finale, it was stunningly lame. In the fallout of the poorly-received finale, it was almost as though the show was afraid to continue the story of Peter and Gabriel’s power-collecting. Instead Heroes decided to hunker down into its own incomprehensible mythology, heading back further into the past, and expanding its cast of heroes whenever it felt it needed a jolt. The right move, however, would have been to double down on Peter and Gabriel and their arms race.

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Heroes' season 1 finale

Every subsequent season of Heroes should have picked up with Peter and Sylar as central characters. They should have traveled the country, and eventually the world, looking for new superpowers to claim so that they would be better prepared once their next confrontation arrives. That way, the show could have continued to have expanded its hero base, bringing in fresh blood as needed, while also keeping the story centered on two individuals rather than over a dozen. Not only would that have been simpler storytelling, it would have been more powerful. Because the show would have had a true, series-spanning theme. The entirety of Heroes could have been about humanity’s dueling gifts of empathy and analytical thinking. What is more useful? What is more powerful? What will win in a fight when empathetic ice meets analytical fire? 

As evidenced by those 20 beautiful seconds in “Five Years Gone,” Ventimiglia and Quinto are excellent actors and are more than capable of shouldering such heavy concepts. Each season of Heroes could have built to a new fight between Peter and Sylar. And if the show’s budget didn’t allow for a satisfying execution of those superpowered fights, then so be it. The battle of ideologies would have been more than enough to make up for a lack of visual fireworks. 

That’s the important lesson to take away from that one moment in a hallway where Sylar’s fists turn blue and Peter’s, red. We don’t need to see the literal clash of fists to feel the satisfying clash of ideals. 

Heroes is now available to stream in the UK on BBC iPlayer.