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 second go-round beginning this September) is an origin tale. As such, there is a lot of explaining going on -- even more so in this HD DVD version, 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 predicamentd, 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 the most exciting new show on television. And for having only been on one season, it's remarkable how quickly it has 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 HD DVD set is certainly an excellent introduction to what all the buzz is about -- I was quickly drawn in, and I can't wait for season two.
'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.) As you would expect, this HD DVD release is even more superior than the show's HD broadcast.
Each episode is presented in 1.78:1 widescreen and 1080p/VC-1 video, including the never-before-seen, recut 73-minute pilot. I was particularly impressed that in most aspects 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.
Unfortunately, Universal has decided not to include high-resolution audio on 'Heroes,' so don't expect a Dolby TrueHD track or the like. Instead, we'll have to content ourselves with a mere Dolby Digital-Plus 5.1 surround track (at 1.5mbps). That said, the show's sound design isn't particularly dynamic anyway, so what we do get is perfectly serviceable audio.
As mentioned earlier, 'Heroes' is not particularly action-packed -- it's actually quite talky. Rare 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. Spatiality is fair, with pans between channels not seamless, but certainly acceptable. Clarity and depth of range to the rears is also a bit too bright for my taste, as if the sound engineers were a bit too eager to make the rears more pronounced through sheer loudness.
Otherwise, dynamics are pretty strong. Dialogue is surprisingly well-recorded and consistent -- I rarely had trouble making out dialogue (an issue more common to TV releases). The subwoofer hits a few low tones, though it is not incredibly impactful. Again, high-end is a bit too forced and sometimes sounds a bit screechy. Finally, the score (by ex-Prince co-horts Lisa Coleman and Wendy Melvoin) is nicely rendered, but a bit subdued -- it certainly never stands out in the mix.
Universal is bringing 'Heroes' to HD DVD day-and-date with its DVD debut, and mirroring the standard-def extras on each. Even if the HD DVD version didn't include a host of high-def exclusives, this would be quite package on its own -- there is a ton of great stuff here that fans are sure to devour.
Let's start with the 73-minute unaired Pilot on disc one. More than just a handful of extraneous scenes reinstated for marketing purposes, this is actually a recut version by series creator Tim Kring. The changes are quite substantial, if something a mixed bag. Much of it worked for me, including an entire subplot involving terrorists that adds palpable tension, and an entirely new introduction for the character Sylar (with an entirely different actor!). Other changes were less welcome, such as snips to the Petrelli family relationship that I missed. Those curious about this sometimes radically re-worked Pilot should turn to the optional audio commentary with Kring, who spends most of the track outlining the differences. He also is quite witty when it comes to discussing some of the budget limitations, including the majority of the sets being reused from "Crossing Jordan." Fun, informative stuff.
Less successful are the 50(!) Deleted Scenes scattered across remaining discs two through seven. Some are so short (literally seconds) that they comprise only mere lines of chopped dialogue. For the real gems, you've just gotta scour through it all -- there are some real nuggets here of character development, with a couple of subplots that I'm surprised were snipped. I won't spoil them, but die-hard fans will likely thrill to learn genuine new insights about their favorite show. Yes, watching 50 scenes is a commitment -- but then you bought a seven-disc box set promising hours of extras, didn't you?
Other video extras include five featurettes, all on disc seven. Truth be told, despite a decent combined length of about 45 minutes, these are rather surfacey in the end -- they certainly are no match for the breadth and depth of the dedicated picture-in-picture commentaries exclusive to the HD DVD release (see below).
The first featurette, 'The Making of 'Heroes'" (9 minutes) is your standard behind-the-scenes fluff piece. It touches on just the basics -- the concept, the casting, a quick overview of the production and hints at upcoming character arcs. There are the usual quick bits of production footage, and interviews with Kring and most of the main cast. Again, though, it's all a bit too superficial and slick to offer much beyond the promotional.
"Special Effects" (8 min.) offers another quick look at creating believable special effects for an hour-long weekly television series, and to say the time crunch is severe would be an understatement. Also interesting about this featurette is that a clear distinction is made between special effects (on-set trickery including rain, mood, etc.) and visual effects (stuff actually created on the computer).
"Stunts" (10 min.) is a continuation of the production detail. Featuring an interview with stunt coordinator Ian Quinn, he guides us through the basics, plus a few key action sequences.
The remaining two featurettes include "A Ppofile of Artist Tim Sale" (11 min.). A celebrated comic book artist, Sale's contribution to 'Heroes' is quite extensive, as he was in charge with largely conceptualizing the visual look of the show's protagonists. Basically a one-on-one chat, this one's arguably the most informative and fascinating of the featurettes on the disc.
Finally, "The Score" (9 min.) is cool, if only to seen what Wendy & Lisa have been up to all these years after the mega-success of 'Purple Rain' and the Prince & the Revolution phenomenon. Admittedly, I found their compositions to be a bit too well-integrated into the show, as they often seem to blend into nothingness. Still, it's great to see the composers of a TV show at last get some recognition.
Note that while the original unaired Pilot is in full 1080p/VC-1 video, (and looks just as good as the rest of the episodes), all of the other video extras listed above are presented in 480p/i/MPEG-2 video only (the deleted scenes are properly framed at 16:9, while the featurettes are windowboxed 4:3 only).
'Heroes' is television's breakout hit of the year, 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 get a bit tiresome. But this is still genuinely compelling television, and I certainly will be tuning in for season two.
This HD DVD definitely impresses in the supplements department. Universal has packed in enough standard extras to keep any fan happy for days, plus a load of cutting-edge high-def exclusives that really push the boundaries of the format. Okay, so the video transfers can get a bit noisy at times and the audio is somewhat underwhelming, but as TV-on-high-def box sets go, this first season of 'Heroes' is now the one to beat.
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.