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DARK MATTERS Makes a Fine Appetizer for HEROES REBORN

Its own merits (which are not insignificant) aside, the question of who, exactly, Heroes Reborn: Dark Matters (on Hulu) is for persists after the six five-to-ten-minute web shorts have played themselves out. On the most basic level, it’s the prequel to a sequel, chronicling the five interim years between the conclusion of Heroes‘ original run on NBC and the start of the new reboot miniseries—airing September 24. By its very nature it can only provide backstory, and as an additional obstruction, it can only provide backstory that enriches the miniseries to come—not giving away vital information. Surprisingly, however, that doesn’t prevent the brains behind Dark Matters from telling a compelling story with wit and real, meaningful stakes for the characters in it, one of whom will figure prominently into Heroes Reborn proper.

That’s Quentin Frady (Henry Zebrowski, a treat), no hero himself, just a regular guy with a sister who’s developed powers. Over the course of the six installments, the audience sees he and his sister become embroiled in a superpowered political controversy through the lens of Quentin’s handheld camcorder, the found-footage angle no doubt a byproduct of a modest budget. While the drama between Quentin and sister Phoebe (Aislynn Paul) could stand fine on its own, the real value of Dark Matters comes from the supplemental program’s ability to finely shade the universe in which the show takes place, a world only slightly removed from our own. The writers have expended genuine effort envisioning how the exposure of superhuman individuals would fit into and interact with the world of 2015; it’s tempting to say god is in the details, but one of the most subversive and affecting details herein is the notion that in a world where teenagers can cheat death, God’s become an obsolete idea.

Before its later season, Heroes succeeded by keeping both feet planted squarely in reality. Like such forebears as X-Men and Watchmen (that second one especially; the first season of Heroes, unilaterally agreed upon as the series’ high point, is pretty much a blow-by-blow remake of Alan Moore’s seminal graphic novel), the writers of Dark Matters take chief interest in the sociological ramifications of the superpowers, and how they lead the progress of modernity down a diverging path. Some of this engagement with elements of the real world is constrained to passing mentions—Quentin mutters that some girl with the ability to heat water to room temperature appeared on The Tonight Show, and half-facetiously notes that the ready-made inspiration of the journey to come to terms with one’s powers is complete “Oscar bait.”

Dark Matters wields substantially more thematic power when framed as the larger allegory for otherness and alienation to which it so easily lends itself. Marvel godheads Stan Lee and Jack Kirby have copped to conceiving the X-Men—Heroes‘ most bald-faced predecessor—as a juicy symbol for the tribulations of life as an outcast, a mold that’s been shaped to fit everything from race to sexual and gender identity in the decades since the comic’s premiere. Admittedly, Heroes was not the first work of entertainment to realize that hey, learning your skin poisons people is kinda like being gay! Dark Matters proves its own worth by plugging these ideas into distinctly up-to-the-minute cultural institutions, updating the storytelling strategies for the most presentest present-day. In a clear nod to Dan Savage’s groundbreaking “It Gets Better” video campaign, the 2015 Heroes sees superpowered teens videotaping themselves demonstrating their abilities and stating trial numbers in imitation of Hayden Panettiere’s home-movie illustrating her indestructibility from season one. The analogy could extend to the #BlackLivesMatter movement as well, but the series’ engagement with the internet isn’t limited to projecting superheroism onto the latest social media trends.

Each installment begins with a robo-voiced warning from a cyberspace enigma known as hero_truther, a radicalized conspiracy theorist certain that shadowy government agencies are formulating plans to subjugate and control the so-called EVOs—a shorthand for those folks touched by the evolutionary gift. His diatribes split the difference between paranoiac #IlluminatiCONFIRMED ranting on YouTube and righteous calls for social justice in institutions that keep groups not reproducing hegemonic ideals away from positions of power. As Quentin and Phoebe begin to gain a handle on her abilities to control light and shadow, they attract the attentions of Renautas, a mysterious Google-esque tech giant and a frequent subject of hero_truther’s warnings. At a career fair, the vaguely biotech-related company approaches young Phoebe after seeing her being discriminated against by a different potential employer. (The cultural commentary’s not always the subtlest, but it’s minimally distracting when overly didactic.) They make loads of ambiguous suggestions about what they do without explicitly defining that, and Quentin doesn’t think much of it — until his sister goes missing when a protest that she’s chosen to attend becomes the site of a terrorist bombing.

Quentin becomes obsessed with tracking his sister down, and in the process of ascertaining her whereabouts, sinks just as deep into conspiracy-mongering and anti-establishment subversion as the mythical hero_truther. It’s not long until Quentin’s manically hanging strands of yarn between pushpins on a corkboard like a robustly bearded John Nash. The writers have a deviously intelligent trick up their sleeves, though; Dark Matters makes the quietly radical assertion that even as Quentin takes on the appearance of a disheveled nutjob, he’s never actually wrong. While the absent Phoebe’s roommate frets over Quentin’s mental wellbeing when he’s separated from his sister, the show never plays his theories for laughs or dismisses them. In an age when enough profoundly unsavory business takes place in the shadows, that state of constant vigilance takes on an entirely justifiable hue. Sometimes, if things are messed-up enough, the conspiracy theorists are right.

The minds behind Dark Matters have stumbled onto a serious boon in Zebrowski, too. The character actor has busied himself with bit parts for long enough, his talents squandered on the mercifully short-lived sitcom A To Z last year. He got a brief chance to shine in The Wolf of Wall Street as Jordan Belfort’s dim-witted accomplice nicknamed ‘Sea Otter’ tossing out such inspiredly idiotic gems as “All nuns are lesbians” and “I didn’t know that Buddhists could be Amish” during a bull-sesh at a diner. He’s got finely honed natural comic instincts, which inject precious levity and a sense of comfortable rapport into the many scenes he shares with Phoebe. As a sci-fi project, Heroes can place a lot of responsibility on its actors to believably deliver hard-to-swallow plot twists and line readings. Zebrowski consistently makes a winning hand out of the cards he’s been dealt, and he’ll be a welcome addition to the cast in the season to come.

Really, no project this minor has any business being this substantial. With Dark Matters, Heroes seized a rare opportunity to engage in timely world-building through the back entrance of a peripheral story. That confinement to backstory—once an oppressive narrative restriction—opens up the series to a new plane of storytelling possibility. Even when it might seem like a commercial disguised as original content, audiences can’t dismiss a supplemental webseries out of hand, not anymore. Dark Matters is as slight as they come and yet a pleasurable and edifying way to kill a half hour. Memories of the original series fall from grace still fresh in the public’s memory, the announcement of a Heroes reboot drew incredulous guffaws. If it’s anything like Dark Matters, however, it may be time to rethink that stance.

Dark Matters is on Hulu right now. Are you looking forward to Heroes Reborn? Let us know in the comments.

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