“You’re not a superhero, you’re a circus act!”
With the possible exception of George Reeves’ The Adventures of Superman, prime time live action TV and the superhero genre have never quite meshed, with a long history of almost-but-not-quites. The ’70s gave us The Incredible Hulk and Wonder Woman, which were successes, but look back at them now and you can see the thickness of the cheese. The internet haters always complaining about Raimi’s Spider-Man movies should check out the Nicholas Hammond Spidey series from the ’70s to see what crappy Spider-Man really looks like. Years later, The Flash did some interesting stuff, but low ratings and skyrocketing production costs ended its run quickly. Lois and Clark separated itself from the trappings of the genre by emphasizing romantic comedy cuteness over Red Boots action. Similarly, Smallville thrived for a whopping ten seasons by also distancing itself from the genre thanks to its famous “No tights, no flights” mantra. Birds of Prey also tried the “no costumes” thing, but with far less success.
As for original superheroes created for prime time, things get even sketchier. A ton of shows, everything from The Six Million Dollar Man to Buffy the Vampire Slayer, owe a lot to superheroes, but choose instead to categorize themselves as “action/adventure,” “sci-fi” or “fantasy.” M.A.N.T.I.S. fully embraced its superheroic roots and had Carl Lumbley being awesome, but weirdly inconsistent plotting and a goofy costume soon it dancing the Fox Network Friday Night Cancellation Tango. Heroes started out as the hottest show on TV, and seemed like it would be the one to buck the trend, only to crash and burn in its second through fourth seasons as storylines got increasingly convoluted and ridiculous. Others are more obscure — Automan and Nightman were laughably bad, and I doubt anybody but me remembers Once a Hero, Sable, I-Man, Hard Time on Planet Earth, Infiltrator, or Captain FlashBang and his Glorious Grenades of Justice. (I made that last one up.)
In 2011, a new supe dove into these already murky waters, as NBC hoped The Cape would find the same success as all the blockbuster comic book films. Ten episodes later, and here’s The Complete Series on DVD.
Vince Faraday (David Lyons, E.R.) is the only honest police detective in a city full of corrupt cops. While on the hunt for a criminal mastermind known only as Chess, Faraday is framed for Chess’s crimes and appears to die in an explosion. Miraculously, he survives, and is saved by a group of bank-robbing circus performers. Faraday knows he must stay in hiding, not able to return to his wife and son until after he clears his good name by catching Chess in the act.
Chess is actually Peter Fleming (James Frain, The Tudors), the head of the Ark Corporation, the city’s privatized police force. With the cops on his payroll, he’s free to commit all the crime he wants and keep his hands free. Faraday decides to fight back, with the help his new circus pals. They teach him circus abilities, such as acrobatics, hypnotism, and how to disappear in a puff of smoke. They also give him his most powerful weapon, a high-tech cape that makes him bulletproof, lets him blend into the shadows, and has retractable tips. In his ongoing battle against Fleming, Faraday — now known as “The Cape” — gains another ally, computer hacker Orwell (Summer Glau, Serenity), who has her own reasons for fighting back.
I wanted to like The Cape. I hoped it would blow my mind and become my new favorite show. There’s some goofy fun to be had, but it can, at other times, be a chore to get through a single episode. For what is, at its heart, a simple idea — a guy with a cape fights crime — the show is far too ambitious for its own good, and tries too many things at once. At any given time, we go from slapstick comedy high jinks with the circus characters, immediately into the Cape’s wife and son in tears while mourning his loss, and from that immediately into the Cape duking it out with a room full of henchmen. The creators are trying to do Nolan one second, Burton the next, and, let’s say, Scorcese the second after that. This mishmash of styles and tones is jarring. Viewers will be exhausted by the time each episode ends, and not in a good way.
Each episode has the Cape plotting to overthrow Fleming (after the pilot, he’s almost always called “Fleming” and not “Chess”), just as Fleming introduces the villain-of-the-week. The Cape and his pals investigate and stop the villain, while Fleming remains out of reach thanks to his “incredibly wealthy a-hole” status. Along the way, each episode also gives us a subplot with the Cape’s wife and son as they continue to wallow in depression and misery, another subplot with Orwell dropping the occasional hint as to her connection to Fleming, and an additional subplot with the Cape’s former partner (Dorian Missick, Lucky Number Slevin) gradually being tempted into corruption as Fleming’s new right hand man.
One novelty of the character is that he’s not called the Cape just because he wears a cape, but because his cape is some sort of ultraweapon. The cape’s retractable edges allow its wearer to wield it like a whip against bad guys, or he can use it to grab onto things, not unlike Spider-Man’s webs. One episode even introduces a mythology for the cape, stating that it has been handed down from owner to owner throughout the centuries. The characters place all manner of importance on the cape, as if it were the One Ring or something. I’ll admit it is pretty sweet to see our hero whip it around when fighting bad guys, but the writers are overselling the cape’s importance as the greatest weapon ever.
So, yeah, the series of something of a mess, but it does have its good points. The action scenes are generally well-staged, with fighting and explosions galore. Production values are solid, with big set pieces taking place in a variety of locales, such as high-tech labs, an ornate theater, and swanky rooftop penthouses. A lot of the villains-of-the-week are interesting, including a recurring role by Vinnie Jones (Snatch) as a half-human, half-lizard gangster. Others are a female assassin who can see the future, a seemingly undead criminal boogeyman, and a nerdy surveillance expert who’s buddies with a silent, brutal psychopath.
The acting is hit or miss. Lyons wears the costume well and occasionally shows some raw frustration about his situation, but at other times, he too often falls into “generic good guy” mode. Jennifer Ferrin (Life on Mars) and Ryan Wynott, as the Cape’s wife and son, go overboard on the perpetual mourning thing and their scenes slow down the otherwise hectic momentum of any given episode. I love Summer Glau dearly, but I have to admit she’s done better work than this. Frain spends most of the series as a stock villain, but shows some a fascinating new side to Fleming in the next-to-last episode. Fortunately, it’s not all bad. The best of the lot is Keith David (Coraline) as Max, the circus leader. David is clearly having the time of life as this character, and he performs every scene with a sinister playfulness that is simply delicious. Other members of the circus crew provide great fun in their supporting roles, including little person Martin Klebba (Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl) as a rough n’ tumble brawler and the bone-bendingly sexy Izabella Miko (The Forsaken) as a ditzy tightrope walker.
* Why doesn’t the Cape use a gun? Sure, most superheroes dislike guns for one reason or another, but the Cape is a cop (we know this because at least once per episode he proclaims, “But I’m a cop!”) so why isn’t he using guns, cop-movie style?
* Faraday adopts the Cape persona based on The Cape comic books his son reads. But then we learn that the cape is a real persona secretly handed down through the generations, so who’s publishing those comics?
* So if a bunch of wacky circus performers are running around robbing banks, how come the cops never once say, “Hey, maybe we should go investigate at that circus that’s in town?”
The picture quality on this two-disc set is stunning, with bright, vivid colors — this is a bright, colorful show — and remarkable detail. Sound is good as well, especially when the slightly Celtic-sounding but still appropriately heroic theme song kicks in. No extras to be found.
As you can tell by now, I have great fondness for the superhero genre. I love the classic, iconic characters as much as anyone, but I’m always on the lookout for the new icons, the fresh faces of today that will last the test of time. For all that The Cape gets right, it just doesn’t fit this category. See it only if you have to see absolutely everything superhero-related.