Jeff Jensen
November 08, 2006 AT 05:00 AM EST

To all the powers on display in NBC’s neo-superhero drama Heroes, add this one: superspeed. After seven episodes, the prime-time fantasy has distinguished itself as the breakout hit of the 2006-07 TV season, with more than 14 million viewers hooked on time-bending Hiro Nakamura and his assorted super (not quite yet) friends. More impressive is that the seemingly narrow-skewing (read: GEEKY!) enterprise appears to be growing among the masses; while its first three outings hovered around 13 million viewers, the show has been steadily increasing its numbers ever since.

How high can Heroes fly? No one yet knows. But it has certainly soared high enough for all who work in Hollywood to see, which can only mean one thing: copycats. Sources tell EW that TV and movie execs have let agents know that they want ”the next Heroes” — i.e., a ”realistic” treatment of superheroes, and, if possible, an original property that they can own and exploit without having to worry about irking zealot fanboys with their creative liberties, or sharing profits with SuperDuperSomebody’s corporate landlord. Just a couple weeks ago, one of the movie industry’s most famous unproduced projects, Tonight, He Comes — a dark fairy tale about a masked mystery man whose stab at a normal life in a small town has disastrous consequences — found new life when Universal hired Peter Berg (Friday Night Lights) to direct. (FYI, Will Smith is attached to star.)

Heroes might also be blazing the trail for another long-languishing movie property, Watchmen, based on the Alan Moore/Dave Gibbons comic book saga, considered by many to be the greatest superhero story ever told. Watchmen trafficks slyly and quite intelligently in superhero archetypes and situations, and one trepidation Hollywood execs have always had about mounting a costly adaptation of the comic was its inside-baseball aspect. Yet Heroes seems to have proven that movies like The Matrix, The Lord of the Rings, Spider-Man, and The Incredibles, plus the Harry Potter book and movie franchises, have united the world under a geek banner; we might not all speak the language fluently, but we know enough to get by. Watchmen is currently being developed with director Zack Snyder (Dawn of the Dead) at the helm, and we Watchmen fans at Entertainment Weekly wish him well and pray to the Geek Gods that he doesn’t screw it up.

Should Heroes be so flattered with imitation, it would mark a significant shift in the depiction of superheroes, not to mention provide a new source of creative gas that can help prolong the boom of comic book-extrapolated pop. The comic book industry can attest to the power of a darker treatment of its colorfully clad characters: In the early 1980s, amid a period of declining sales and a retreat from mainstream retail exposure, comics experienced a revitalization thanks to artists like Alan Moore, Frank Miller (Daredevil, The Dark Knight Returns, Sin City), Howard Chaykin (American Flagg!), Grant Morrison (Animal Man), Neil Gaiman (Sandman), and others who began ”deconstructing” superheroes by peeling away the costumes and examining the political, cultural, and psychological forces that shape them — and even better, using their stories to reflect the state of the world. ”In many ways, it seems mainstream culture is about 15 years behind comics,” says Joe Quesada, editor-in-chief of Marvel Comics, who adds that a number of high-profile Hollywood writers who are comic book fans — like Buffy the Vampire Slayer‘s Joss Whedon, Clerks‘ Kevin Smith, and Lost‘s Damon Lindelof — were all profoundly shaped by the heady renaissance of the 1980s. Says Quesada: ”All those guys got into comics during a time that’s reflected in Heroes — no costumes, no codenames; darker, edgier, more realistic.” (We would be remiss if we didn’t acknowledge that Bruce Willis’ Superman-as-reluctant-Everyman fable Unbreakable beat Heroes to the punch.)

Of course, the ironic twist with Heroes is that it was created by a guy who actually wasn’t a comic book fan at all. Tim Kring, best known for the crime drama Crossing Jordan, claims to be a big non-geek, despite a résumé that includes Knight Rider, Misfits of Science, and the short-lived minor cult classic Strange World. I recently had the chance to speak with Kring for EW’s cover story on his new sensation, and the producer laughed at the notion that maybe an inner geek has long been bucking to burst free — he denies, in his words, ”a pollen burst of nerd that has exploded at mid-life.”

And yet, just as Alan Moore and his peers were reacting to and against an established history and commonly held knowledge of comic book tropes, Kring says Heroes was a response to the recent surge in superhero pop like The Incredibles. Indeed, astute comic book professionals like superstar scribe Brian K. Vaughan (Y: The Last Man, Ex Machina), who says he’s a fan of Heroes, recognizes an important distinction in the show’s creative makeup. ”A show like Buffy the Vampire Slayer is a closer approximation of a comic book than Heroes,” says Vaughan. ”Buffy is like a guy who loves comic books doing a TV show, and Heroes feels like a guy who loves television doing a comic book. If Heroes is going to last, and I think it’s going to, it can’t just be about ‘What if superheroes existed in the real world?’ Because that’s really an empty question. It has to be about what connects us as human beings and what responsibilities come with our abilities, and it seems to be tackling those questions. That’s why it’s connecting with people, much more than it’s cool to see a guy fly or stop time.”

Moreover, where the ’80s comic book revisionism posed the question ”Why in the world would anyone really want to be a superhero?,” Kring’s show still possesses the dream-come-true aspect of classic superhero tales, even if it also dotes heavily on the old Marvel Comics idea that superpowers can be a real pain in the ass. In fact, cult pop icon J. Michael Straczynski (TV’s Babylon 5) — whose acclaimed comic series Rising Stars is often cited as a direct ancestor of Heroes (Damon Lindelof, who used to work on Crossing Jordan, even suggested to his old boss that he check out the comic during the development of the series) — questions if a pomo approach to superheroes can fully be embraced by the masses. ”The reason these [superhero archetypes] endure is because, at their core, they are what we wish and hope we could be, if gifted with remarkable abilities. We like to believe we would be heroes. Not many kids want to grow up to be Lex Luthor,” says Straczynski. ”Which is not to say a deconstructionist approach doesn’t have its place; [they] help us reconsider these archetypes. But there’s a reason the first Superman movie is and remains the most successful of all the comic-based movies, and that is its inherent innocence, decency, and heroism.”

Next page: Is Heroes too much like X-Men and Rising Stars?

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