Superheroes the World Could Do Without
This article is from the archive of The New York Sun before the launch of its new website in 2022. The Sun has neither altered nor updated such articles but will seek to correct any errors, mis-categorizations or other problems introduced during transfer.
At some point in our lives, we all stuffed a towel into our collars and pretended to be Superman, or spun around until we got sick pretending to be Wonder Woman, or hung upside down off our bunk beds pretending to be Spiderman. Finding adults who’ll embarrass themse lves like this on national TV is the gimmick behind “Who Wants to be a Superhero?” the new reality show premiering tonight on the Sci Fi Channel. It begs the question: What kind of emotional train wrecks long to appear on television in tights, with made-up codenames and pretend superpowers?
The contestants include the Iron Enforcer, a bodybuilder from Brooklyn who likes to talk about killing people and wears a large tinfoil gun on his left arm; a bland cutie named Lemuria who is in constant danger of her breasts popping out of her gold bodysuit; and an uptight gentleman named Feedback wearing a remaindered “American Gladiators” outfit. Feedback is a walking tragedy, declaring that “Who Wants…?” is, “The culmination of my entire life,” and revealing that he quit his job when he couldn’t get time off to participate in the show. He is 33 years old.
“Who Wants to be a Superhero?” hits all the reality show marks: national auditions, 11 contestants living in a stylish loft, weekly challenges, and elimination ceremonies. The challenges test the contestants for the inner qualities of a superhero like courage, loyalty, and integrity. This is a disappointment for those of us who were hoping the producers would throw them off the top of a building to see who could fly.
Legendary comic book creator Stan Lee hosts from a TV screen in what appear to be pre-recorded segments, never interacting directly with the contestants. In the ’60’s, Mr. Lee was an iconic writer who co-created the Hulk, the Fantastic Four, Spiderman, and the X-Men. Like P.T. Barnum, Mr. Lee is an American huckster who created great things not out of an artistic motivation, but because he wanted to make a buck, and he utters his lines about the “inner qualities of a superhero” with all the sincerity of a Senator advocating campaign finance reform.
But Mr. Lee is not the only faker.As reality shows go, this is one of the worst produced and most contrived. At one point the contestants are given “communication devices,” which are, in reality, BlackBerrys. They turn them over in their hands, mouths hanging open as if they’ve never seen such a thing before. Are they savvy individuals making a calculated play for fame? Are they stupid? Are they in on the joke? Is there even a joke in the first place? An early plot point has the superheroes meeting for the first time and deciding to “party” by dancing around the room, only to be brought up short when Mr. Lee appears on the flat screen TV and reprimands them for not acting like heroes. Even a novice reality TV watcher can spot that this whole scene is scripted, as is much of the show.
As any viewer of VH1’s “The Surreal Life”will tell you, there’s nothing more entertaining than an emotionally unhinged contestant hitting the booze and making a mess out of himse lf, but “Who Wants…?” is drier than a North Texas Baptist township. It’s a reality show that’s been scrubbed clean of reality, and consequently the most fascinating aspect of the show is the Iron Enforcer’s right breast. His costume requires him to go shirtless and it’s apparent that a large piece of his right breast has been surgically removed.There’s a story in that mutilated boob that’s more fascinating than anything else on this synthetic show.
Superheroes exert a primal fascination.Who doesn’t want to be faster, funnier, better? And there are already many real life superheroes. Terrifica patrolled Manhattan for years, making sure drunk girls didn’t go home with predatory guys. Superbarrio has made Mexico City his beat, organizing labor rallies and fighting for the poor. The Justice League of Justice patrols Indianapolis on a semi-nightly basis, breaking up fights and helping old ladies. The world needs people who will go out in their spare time and help folks, and if putting on a costume, or a clerical collar, or a uniform makes them feel better about what they do, who are we to judge? What it doesn’t need is more lazy reality shows, which is exactly the kind of archenemy “Who Wants to Be a Superhero?” turns out to be.