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 V.15 No.33 | August 17 - 23, 2006 

Idiot Box

Cape Fear

“Who Wants to Be a Superhero?” on Sci-Fi

At first, I was skeptical. I was weaned on comic books. I’ve got a garage full of “Captain America” back issues. I worship Stan Lee as much as the next True Believer. But a TV reality show in which people dress up in dorky costumes and vie for the chance to be America’s next great superhero? ... Well, it all sounded incredibly dorky.

But I’ve been shocked and heartened to find out that--in addition to being incredibly dorky--Sci-Fi’s “Who Wants to Be a Superhero?” is entertaining, addictive and occasionally touching.

The premise is simple: Ten people adopt a “superhero” persona, complete with homemade costume. Over the course of the show, they are subjected to assorted tests of courage, self-sacrifice and other heroic qualities by none other than Marvel Comics guru Stan “The Man” Lee. In the end, only one contestant will survive to become immortalized in a comic book.

Initially, the show looked doomed. I mean, who wants to read a comic book about Monkey Woman, a chick in a fur bikini who screams a lot? Or Fat Mama, a plus-size gal whose sole power seems to be doughnut-eating? None of these people or their creations seem especially worthy of enshrinement alongside the likes of Spider-Man and The Incredible Hulk. But, then, that’s not really the point.

The point, instead, is watching ordinary people try to live up to the ideals of superheroism as laid out by Mr. Lee. In this respect, the incredibly sincere, nicely coifed Major Victory seemed an early standout. He walked the walk, and he talked the talk. ( “Be a winner, not a wiener” is his cheesy catchphrase.) But Victory biffed a recent challenge in which contestants were sent to a nearby deli to order the most “heroic” meal. Turns out it was all a trick to see who would reveal their “secret identity” to the restaurant’s attractive waitstaff. Answer: Just about everybody--which leads to one of “Who Wants to Be a Superhero”’s most interesting quirks. It’s the only reality show I’ve ever seen where nobody bitches about being kicked off.

So far, everyone who’s been booted has readily admitted their failure, and expressed sincere regret for having disappointed Stan. Everyone, of course, except mean-spirited musclehead The Iron Enforcer. But, even then, the show worked in a magnificent twist by recruiting the brutish dude to become a turncoat villain known as The Dark Enforcer who now works to destroy the remaining heroes.

It’s corny as hell, but it’s brilliant. The show expertly straddles that fine line between archetypal inspiration and total melodrama to which comic books have long laid claim. Watching Fat Mama interrupt her first challenge to help a lost child (the challenge’s real goal) or hearing Creature deliver a rousing speech about not wanting to vote off her fellow contestants kinda brings a warm and fuzzy feeling to my hero-loving heart. Excelsior!

“Who Wants to Be a Superhero?” airs every Thursday at 7 p.m. on Sci-Fi.

 
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