Hero worship

In praise of Stan Lee’s reality-TV gem
September 12, 2007 10:49:26 AM

VIDEO: The season-opening party from Who Wants to Be a Superhero?

The lesson of the Sci-Fi Channel’s Who Wants To Be a Superhero? (Thursday at 9 pm) might seem obvious: the stock elements of reality TV — the preposterous challenges, the internecine conflict, the tearful confessions — become flat-out hilarious when the contestants are wearing capes and tights. But Superhero, which just wrapped up its second season, is more subversive than that. Yes, the aforementioned capes and tights are good for some cheap laughs; they also, however, prompt us to reflect on the overblown, pseudo-heroic drama that’s standard issue for shows like Survivor — and thus on our unquestioning embrace of this bogus tough-guy/tough-gal shtick. Like Spike TV’s late, great Joe Schmo Show, Superhero is a protracted wink at the inherent absurdity of an entire genre.

And that’s just one reason it’s so satisfying. The contestants on Survivor et al. tend to be cagy Machiavellian narcissists. Superhero is chock-a-block with contestants who embrace their alter egos with an touching, almost reckless ingenuousness. Watch them show off their costumes in a Mexican restaurant, to the perplexity of the other customers; see them gleefully proclaim their personal catch-phrases (Hygena: “It’s time to clean up your act!”); wince as they join hands and shout — with nary a trace of irony — “We’re heroes! Excelsior!” You can keep your cocksure hardbodies; I’ll take the comic-book-loving dorks.

Superhero is a testament to the creative genius of comic-book mastermind Stan Lee. The prime mover behind the proceedings, Lee summons the heroes from their “Lair” for sundry challenges (decoding a “secret message” with a fourth-grade class, venturing into a vermin-packed tube to foil the nefarious Dr. Doom), periodically instructing them on the dos-and-don’ts of superherodom (don’t reveal your personal background, never lose your equipment, etc.), and regularly reminding everyone that the winner will anchor a comic book and a Sci-Fi Channel movie. The contestants, in turn, relate to him with the adoring awe of children communing with a firm but loving God. At first, this just seems weird. But by the second-season finale — in which clean-freak Hygena tells Lee about a late-term miscarriage, poor-man’s-Superman the Defuser tells Lee about his sister’s descent into drug abuse, and spastic martial-arts specialist Hyper-Strike tells Lee he was a miserable outcast as a kid — it becomes downright touching.

Because you can still watch Superhero on-line, at, I won’t say who wins. Really, you ought to find out for yourself. I will, however, make two modest suggestions to Mr. Lee, as the contestants call him. First, the lavish end-of-season gala at Universal Studios edged a little too close to reality-TV orthodoxy, what with its interminable video tributes and its cavalcade of contestants’ family and friends. Second — and with all due respect — the heroes’ final showdown with Dr. Doom was a major disappointment. I’m no comic-book mastermind, but I know that an archvillain absolutely, positively shouldn’t be that easy to conquer.

But these are small gripes. By breathing new life into a prematurely fusty genre, Lee and his blessedly un-cynical heroes-in-training have already done something remarkable. Please: hurry back with Season Three.


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