For all their spectacle, wonder and action, the best superhero stories hinge on the people underneath the spandex, capes and superpowers. Batman is interesting because of Bruce Wayne’s grief and trauma, we love Spider-Man because we’ve all gone through puberty, and I personally love the X-Men because no other stories so perfectly encapsulate what it’s like to feel different.
I share that preference for the X-Men with Zachary Levi and Judith Shekoni, two actors who star alongside a massive and diverse ensemble in Heroes Reborn – a revived 13 episode event series continuing the story of 2006’s Heroes.
“I was a big X-Men – and everything around X-Men – fan,” Levi tells me on the red carpet of the Heroes Reborn Toronto International Film Festival Primetime screening. “I mean like, X-Force, X-Factor, New Mutants all that kind of stuff.”
“I love Mystique,” says Shekoni.
I point out that, as fans of X-Men they must love Heroes. In terms of ink-on-paper analogues, the show and its themes most closely resemble those of the Marvel series about mutants with superhero powers, uniting in their uniqueness and saving the world. Levi practically takes it for granted.
“Oh yeah. Dude, are you kidding me? When it came out I was like, ‘Whaaaat?’”
It is a bit ironic too, considering these X-Men fans are on track to become some of this fall’s most iconic villains by opposing mutant-human integration. Shekoni and Levi are new additions to the Heroes franchise. Together they make up a vigilante couple, Joanne and Luke Collins, who are bent on finding and killing Evos, the show’s term for humans with superpowers.
Described by Shekoni as “a kind of combination between Natural Born Killers and Mr. and Mrs. Smith,” the Collinses are bent out of shape over the death of their son and display the kind of gravity characteristic of comics’ best baddies. They are ruthless, cool and clever, legitimately scary but with a charisma that keeps them interesting. Most importantly though, they’re very human.
“We are out to cause a lot of harm to people with special powers,” says Shekoni. “I believe I’m on a mission, I’m on a calling and that I’m meant to find people with special powers, eliminate them, and in some way that’ll make me feel better for the loss of my son.”
Heroes Reborn, despite early eye rolling criticism that six years of cancellation is not enough time for a franchise revival, makes an excellent case for its existence in its first two episodes which were screened during TIFF as part of the new Primetime programming. Its spectacular villains aside, the new series is an excellent example of how far television has come over that past few years. It takes all of the things that made Heroes so exciting when it premiered in 2006 and adds some of our modern golden age of TV magic.
More of a sequel than a reboot, Reborn can forego the tedious origin story tropes that we’ve all come to be so tired of and still feel new. It also takes for granted a certain level of viewer sophistication, moving at a pace that was unheard of in 2006, when network series were expected to run for over twenty episodes each season. Heroes Reborn is built to last only 13 episodes before ending definitively, and it’s clearly affected the storytelling. It’s fast and moves in a strong direction with little to no risk of becoming tedious (there simply isn’t time to).
Putting its own spin on the superhero registration story, which serves as the ever-relevant allegory of racial and gender-based persecution, this version of Heroes is distinctly darker than its predecessor, but at first glance you wouldn’t know it. That’s because despite the tired modern trend of adding grit to established properties in order to make them look smart, Heroes Reborn is popping with the new millennium brightness of the original series.
The Japanese characters’ subtitles float beside their heads, the palate is bright and colourful, and every scene looks like it was story boarded with the pages of a glossy comic book. If we can accept that 2006 has its own nostalgia, then it’s true that Heroes Reborn is steeped in it despite having grimmer subject matter. That’s why when returning cast member Greg Grunberg implies his character has taken a turn for the malevolent I’m excited (if a bit surprised) instead of worried the show is sinking into cliche.
“Some of us are doing things that aren’t so nice,” Grunberg tells me. “And that’s not something I expected myself to be doing.”
The violence faced by heroes new and old, presented through the filter of the Heroes brand makes darkness feel fresh. The whole thing starts with a terrorist bombing in Austin which leads to the anti-Evo sentiments that serve as the series’ situational conflict. There is an underground Evo railroad, there are conspiracy theories, there are mass murders committed by a couple of grieving parents, and yet at no point does Reborn feel like it’s cashing in on the whole cynical-equals-clever trend. There is a hope at the heart of Heroes Reborn, one that’s easy to connect to.
Perhaps the biggest change in the television landscape between 2006, when Heroes premiered, and now, is that superheroes are all over TV. As Jimmy Jean-Louis, who returns in the premiere as The Haitian, pointed out to me, “Heroes was one of the first superhero shows. So if we did it well the first time we definitely know how to do it even better six years later.”
While that might not have been true of every show dragged out of cancellation, it certainly seems to be true of Heroes Reborn. To get to the bottom of why this might be, I turned to the show’s most prominent character: Noah Bennet, aka, the man in the horn-rimmed glasses (or more accurately Jack Coleman, the actor who plays him). Coleman has been in the most episodes of Heroes to date, and is positioned as the revival’s primary character.
I ask him the same question, what is the role of Heroes Reborn is now that everyone else has jumped on the superhero TV bandwagon? “Not skipping a beat,” he pinpoints exactly what made Heroes special when it first premiered.
“It’s not up to us to reset the bar or change the paradigm,” says Coleman. “We’re still going to do what we do. It’s about ordinary people with extraordinary abilities. It’s always going to be about the people. It’s always going to be about their hopes and dreams and aspirations and failings. That’s what Heroes is.”
And that’s what Heroes Reborn continues to be. Telling larger than life stories about relatable human problems in ways that are at once familiar and fresh, the new series stands out for focusing on people in a genre that is increasingly about icons. If the best superhero stories are about the people behind the powers, then Heroes Reborn is poised to achieve greatness.