Forget the MCU, Heroes was the start of the superhero boom

Jessica Cullen
Robert Downey Jr as Tony Stark and Hayden Panettiere as Claire in Heroes

Before the MCU was the biggest thing in superhero culture, Heroes was putting in all the work as one of the best TV shows of its time.

In the minds of many, Iron Man marked the beginning of a new age for the superhero genre. The first official entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe saw Robert Downey Jr. step into Tony Stark’s shoes, igniting a taste for superhumans (or just very, very risk-happy millionaires) that wouldn’t even begin to dissipate until the 2020s.

But before Tony Stark was cinema’s golden boy, the hero trend was quietly evolving on the small screen, with one superhero show being the most valuable asset of them all: Heroes. Airing on NBC from 2006-2010, Heroes was a short-lived but initially-successful mainstream show that did the damn thing before the MCU was even born.

Heroes might not be “better” than the MCU in any way, but it’s important to acknowledge its place within the genre. Heroes had two years to establish itself before Iron Man came along, and in that time, it laid a sturdy foundation and became a TV phenomenon. As such, it managed to accomplish feats that Marvel often couldn’t even reach, let alone beat.

From ordinary to extraordinary

You’ll likely remember Heroes for having one of the greatest taglines of all time: “Save the Cheerleader, Save the World.” While the latter seasons weren’t as highly regarded, it’s important to remember that during its peak, Heroes was a benchmark of excellent television. (During its run, the show was nominated for two Golden Globes, 14 Emmy Awards, and a BAFTA.) A legacy is still trying to take shape, with a Heroes reboot titled Heroes: Eclipsed being pitched around in 2024.

One thing Heroes did so successfully was tackle the foundation of what a superhero movie should be. Normal people gaining superhero powers isn’t the sole trope of the genre, but it’s an important one. That’s why heroes like Spider-Man and Batman are so beloved — they’re not aliens or advanced beings. They’re humans who had bigger responsibilities pushed onto them.

This is the backbone of Heroes. A group of normal people — a cheerleader, a nurse, and an office worker, to name a few — who discover that they possess extraordinary abilities. As such, they have to juggle their very real lives with very surreal circumstances. This is something that Marvel, particularly when it got into the weeds of its shared universe, seemed to forget.

That’s not to say that Marvel should have only done origin stories, but it would have kept audiences connected had they remembered to keep focus on that very human struggle. That’s part of what made Heroes so great; it was a show about average people who had to be something more.

Superheroes for everyone

Speaking of “average people”, Heroes was revolutionary for audiences on another front: it made superhero stories accessible. Marvel movies have leaned into the concept of “event cinema” over the last decade, with midnight releases and post-credit scenes and the multiverse (and so on and so forth), and as such, outsiders might be intimidated by the idea of getting stuck in.

The cast of Heroes

Heroes delivered a superhero-driven story on primetime television. Audiences were able to tune in each week during their dinner and get bite-sized installments of an expanding world. They were able to connect to Claire, Hiro and the like over time, and they were able to do it all from home. (Far before the days of Disney+, mind you.)

Heroes also gave an edgier take on the genre that would eventually become most associated with children and younger-skewing audiences. The show was very much for grown-ups, and although superheroes have been vessels for themes and complexity even before the cinematic boom, Heroes paved the way for the MCU to incorporate deeper ideas.

Don’t forget, the TV landscape had been completely rocked just two years prior to Heroes’ release when Lost came out in 2004. Putting a big-scale, mystery-clouded show that played with narrative, characters, and timelines was a risk, but Lost proved that it could be done. Heroes followed in the same vein, essentially creating a comic book-inspired story for Lost intellects.

Heroes ditches the comic books

Comic books did serve as an inspiration for Heroes, but it was wholly original, too. The show was designed to follow a similar structure to comic book narratives, with each season serving as a “volume” or two, starting with Season 1, aka: Volume One: Genesis.

It’s impressive to think that Heroes was designed after comic books but didn’t have any specific plot or characters to draw from. Instead, audiences were given a new concept, free from any existing mythology or restraints.

Yes, the MCU might have outlasted Heroes by way of age and legacy, but that doesn’t make the latter any less important in the grand scheme of things. There might have been Smallville before it, too, which aired from 2001-2017, telling the story of a pre-Superman Clark Kent. But Heroes aimed to go above and beyond any pre-existing material and deliver a fulfilling superhero show, which is exactly, for the most part, what it ended up doing.

Regardless of where it ended up in fans’ minds (the later seasons were not kindly viewed by audiences or critics, and it was eventually canceled by NBC after Season 4), the very presence of Heroes had a big impact on superhero demand. It kept audiences warm while they were unknowingly waiting for something bigger to come along, which it would, just two years later.

And it did it all without source material and without a hero’s foundation to base it on. Put simply, Heroes was able to build the superhero genre in a cave with a box of scraps.

For more from Dexerto’s HeroFest, check out our breakdown of every Marvel movie ranked, the Superman movies in order, and find out why Guardians of the Galaxy is the perfect MCU trilogy.