Malcolm McDowell and Ali Larter, <EM>Heroes</EM> Malcolm McDowell and Ali Larter, Heroes

Welcome back to Monday Night Smackdown. When the last new Heroes episode ended seven weeks ago, Mohinder (Sendhil Ramamurthy) was telekinetically pinned to the ceiling like a piñata while Peter (Milo Ventimiglia) was having his head sliced open by the brain-snatching Sylar (Zachary Quinto). This epic battle between good and evil culminates when the show finally returns April 23. And it's not even the epic battle.

"We've positioned Peter and Sylar as the two mythic superpowers of the show, so this is merely Round 1," promises creator Tim Kring. "It's not their ultimate showdown — it's more like the trailer for things to come." Still, it's a doozy. Though the entire sequence (from start to freaky conclusion) only runs a couple of minutes on screen, it required four days to film, with Ventimiglia repeatedly being choked and body-slammed on the show's soundstage in Hollywood.

"Peter is always getting the s--t kicked out of him," Ventimiglia notes during a break in the fight. "I now go to a chiropractor. I have regular sessions with a masseuse. I just got an MRI. This show is killing me!" But he gives as good as he gets: "Sylar enters the battle with his usual arrogance, but he's in for quite a shock," Quinto says. "He has no idea that Peter has learned to harness his powers so strongly. It's a reminder that he can't get too cocky."

Plus, he may not be the total badass we think he is. "The audience will become more conflicted about Sylar and begin to care about him as the show goes along," Kring teases. "Don't assume you know everything about him." Ditto Linderman (Malcolm McDowell). In this same episode, we learn that the Las Vegas mobster has a superpower of his own — he's a healer! What's more, he's behind the dreaded nuclear blast in Manhattan and has a startling theory about why the disaster would be a gift to humanity.

April 23 also brings the death of yet another hero, but that's nothing compared to the body count on April 30. That episode, titled "String Theory," is set five years in the future. "It's a cautionary tale — a look at what will happen if no one stops the bomb," Kring says. America has become a veritable police state, and people with special abilities are being hunted down, arrested and registered with the feds. Nathan (Adrian Pasdar) is president, Mohinder is his chief medical adviser, and Matt (Greg Grunberg) is head of Homeland Security. Claire (Hayden Panettiere) has gone undercover as a greasy-spoon waitress. Niki (Ali Larter) has turned stripper and is romancing Peter, who has an unexplained scar running across his face. And in the hour's wildest twist, sweet, funny Hiro (Masi Oka) has become the country's most wanted terrorist.

The fanboy's new look — soul patch, samurai ponytail, military-style jacket and boots — is downright scary. "Present-day Hiro gets to meet future Hiro and realizes, 'That's not who I want to become,'" Oka says. "Mentally, I have to go to a very different place with this. No one on the set wants to talk to me. I'm giving out that vibe. No jokes."

No one's laughing at Matt, either. "His power in the government really goes to his head," reports Grunberg. "He's got the Haitian (Jimmy Jean-Louis) working for him so he can stop anybody's powers when he needs to. He literally kills off several popular characters in this episode. It's awesome." But, truth be told, the actor is a little worried about Hiro worship. "I really slap the crap out of Masi," Grunberg says. "He's the star of the show, and here I am kicking his ass mercilessly. The fans are gonna hate me!"

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