Superheroes on the small screen have been, almost without exception, a recipe for campy disaster. Sure, I still get a nostalgic kick out of watching old re-runs of such childhood favorites as 'Wonder Woman,' 'The Amazing Spider-Man' and the immortal '60s version of 'Batman,' but let's face it -- those shows are pretty dang cheesy. Aside from the (arguably) efficient if tween-oriented 'Smallville,' has there ever been a truly great, kick-ass comic book series on television?
Say hello to 'Heroes.' Ten ordinary people who are about to discover they have newfound extraordinary powers. There's Matt Parkman (Greg Grunberg), a Los Angeles police officer with the ability to hear other people's thoughts. Isaac Mendez (Santiago Cabrera), a New York artist who can "paint" future events during precognitive trances. Claire Bennet (Hayden Panettiere), a small-town high school cheerleader who has a spontaneous regenerative ability (aka, "Save the Cheerleader. Save the World!"). And the hopelessly optimistic Hiro Nakamura (Masi Oka), a programmer from Tokyo with the ability to manipulate the space-time continuum -- and who is convinced that with other "special persons," he can be a hero and change the future.
Some of these heroes will have a harder time embracing their would-be gifts, however. There's D.L. Hawkins, the husband and father who can alter his physical tangibility and phase through solid objects, and whose estranged wife Niki (Ali Larter), an ex-stripper, will take refuge from her superhuman strength in an alternate personality. Their son Micah will also begin to exhibit the talents of a "technopath," allowing him to control machines and electronic devices, with potentially deadly consequences. Meanwhile, Nathan Petrelli (Adrian Pasdar) is a New York Congressional candidate who fears his ability of self-propelled flight could destroy his career, while his brother Peter Petrelli (Milo Ventimiglia), a former hospice nurse, struggles with his empathic powers to absorb and recall those who are near to him.
This first season of 'Heroes' (the hit show is due back on NBC for a third go-round beginning this September) is an origin tale. As such, there is a lot of explaining going on -- even more so in this Blu-ray, which features an extended version of the pilot and (if you're a true fan) over 50 deleted scenes. Even if you just watch the original episodes, there is much exposition to take in, and 'Heroes' can be a bit talky at first. Still, it's instantly captivating -- I was immediately drawn into the story, the mysteries of each character's superpowers, and the intricate plotting that lays the groundwork for engrossing intrigue to come. 'Heroes' may be sprawling in its aims, but it's so tightly produced that I was often left dazzled and amazed at the narrative land mines it navigates.
The serial nature of television allows 'Heroes' great latitude to explore the complexities of its characters in a way that would be impossible for a theatrical feature. The benefit is that it's almost impossible not to become emotionally wedded to their otherworldly predicament, and to root for their survival. From the initial realization of their superpowers in the pilot, through the physical hardships that are by turns hilarious and harrowing in subsequent episodes, 'Heroes' arguably digs deeper into the inner lives of its protagonists than any other serial currently on television -- and certainly any comic book movie ever made. 'Heroes' is just as intricately plotted as 'Smallville,' but far less reliant on the soap opera melodrama that can often be so formulaic on that show. Without being limited to a single superhero to explore, 'Heroes' also has a far more expansive range of character notes to hit -- and it never fails to surprise.
If I have any reservations about the show, it's that it doesn't have any big, flashy comic book villains, nor much action. Not that I need a silly pro-wrestler in tights, or a repetitive monster-of-the-week structure each episode. But there are times when 'Heroes' becomes so self-absorbed in the anxieties of its characters that it forgets to have fun, and teeters on the brink of being downright morose. Of course, 'Heroes' will never be -- not should it be -- camp. But a bit more humor would be welcome... because, after all, this is a group of superheroes we're talking about, not investment bankers.
Regardless, 'Heroes' is certainly one of the most exciting new shows to hit television in the past few years. And after only one season, it's remarkable how quickly it made inroads into becoming a mainstream phenomenon. There are enough water-cooler moments that it's the kind of show you feel compelled to watch, if only not be left out. This Blu-ray set is certainly an excellent introduction to what all the buzz is about -- even if, on the verge of the show's third season, the jury is still out if the show is going to succeed in the long haul. But regardless of the eventual fate of 'Heroes,' this first season hit the mark.
'Heroes' is not only one of the new breed of modern television shows produced in high-def from day one, but it also boasts production values that can at times rival that of any major Hollywood blockbuster. (Okay, so some of the CGI effects are cheesy -- but you try producing an hour-long show each week without a little cost-cutting here and there.) The 1080p/VC-1 transfers on the previous HD DVD release were strong if marred by some weak points. Universal has not tampered with that general success for this Blu-ray, again presenting the same encodes in VC-1 and 1.78:1 widescreen. (In a nice little plus, the additional room afforded by BD-50 dual-layer discs means the entire first season fits on five discs here, versus the seven required on the HD DVD.)
I was particularly impressed that in most respects the source is quite consistent. Unlike 'Smallville,' which wears its comic book origins on its brightly-colored sleeves, at first glance 'Heroes' could easily be mistaken for a straightforward drama, with a realistic, less showy style of photography. Colors have a nice, deep richness without calling attention to themselves, and there is a noticeable use of filters (particularly blues during interiors, and acidic oranges on exteriors). Fleshtones hold firm fairly well, though occasionally the actors can look a bit sickly (perhaps that's intentional?)
Contrast is strong enough to lend a pleasing sense of depth to the image, and whites are for the most part not overly hot. Sharpness is also superior for a TV-based source, aside from a few of the CGI shots which suffer from an overload of motion blur (an apparent move to obscure the limitations of the show's budget). The transfers are a bit dark, however -- shadow delineation is not the absolute best I've seen, with fine details sometimes lost in the blacks.
However, by far the biggest irritant with these transfers is noise. Generally, the image looks smooth, but wide static shots are often laced with fuzziness -- especially large areas of white. Select slower shots can also look quite poor. For example, in the second episode on disc one, at around the 16 minute mark, there is a simple dialogue exchange that looks like it came from a different source -- noise is quite intense, and it's ugly. Such moments are scattered throughout the entire season, so get ready to be jarred out of the moment if you are particularly sensitive to video noise.
Otherwise, considering the sheer volume of material here, 'Heroes' is still quite good-looking, and generally impressive. It's definitely superior to the broadcasts I've seen, and fans will undoubtedly be pleased.
The HD DVD release of 'Heroes' came with a Dolby Digital-Plus 5.1 surround track (at 1.5mbps), Universal has provided the Blu-ray with DTS-HD Lossless Master Audio 5.1 Surround (48kHz/16-bit) soundtracks. Unfortunately, in this case I had trouble distinguishing these mixes from those on the original release.
As mentioned earlier, 'Heroes' is not particularly action-packed -- it's actually quite talky, and marred by uninspired sound design. Rarely is an imitation of a 360-degree soundfield created -- and when it is, it doesn't last long. Discrete effects will pop up suddenly in the rears, be fairly loud, but then the track goes back to being front-heavy. The DTS-MA doesn't offer much in the way of exciting uses of rear pans or front-back movement, so I was rarely immersed in atmosphere. These DTS-MA tracks also continue a problem I found on the original mixes, namely that clarity and depth of range to the rears is too bright, which gives the track a whiff of artificiality and harshness.
Otherwise, dynamic range is above-par for a television show, if just average if taken on its own terms. Dialogue is well-recorded and well balanced in the center channel -- I rarely had trouble making out dialogue (an issue more common to TV releases). The subwoofer does not deliver truly aggressive low frequencies, but is strong enough to make an impression (it's here that the DTS-MA track exhibits the greatest bump -- the .1 LFE is clearly stronger and tighter). Again, high-end is a bit too forced and sometimes sounds a bit screechy. Finally, the score (by ex-Prince cohorts Lisa Coleman and Wendy Melvoin) is nicely rendered, but still a bit too lackluster in the mix.
Universal is bringing 'Heroes' to Blu-ray about a year after the HD DVD and DVD versions premiered, but the studio has not abandoned the extras in the interim. There is a ton of great stuff here that fans are sure to devour. (All video materials are in 480p/i/MPEG-2 video only, and the quality is average at best.)
'Heroes' is perhaps the biggest breakout hit on television since 'Lost,' and for my money, it's just about the only TV comic book series that's ever been any good. Sure, it can be a bit slow-paced at times, and sometimes the characters' unending neurosis grow a bit tiresome, but this is still genuinely compelling television. This Blu-ray also shines, with nice video transfers and audio that gets a high-res bump up over the previous HD DVD version (even if the results are not a particularly significant upgrade in quality). The extras and exclusives are also top-notch. Any 'Heroes' fan can easily pick up this Blu-ray set with confidence, and if you're curious, definitely give this set a spot on your Netflix queue.
Portions of this review also appear in our coverage of Dunkirk on Blu-ray. This post features unique Vital Disc Stats, Video, and Final Thoughts sections.