The history of TV superheroes has been a fairly potted one of late. Although shows like Buffy, Heroes and No Ordinary Family have brought superhero-inspired fiction to the screen, it’s been a while since TV attempted to do its own, original superhero show without a spin on the concept. But that’s what The Cape undeniably is: an irony-free, genre-embracing superhero show made entirely for TV.
That said, although The Cape is an original idea, the shadow of dark vigilantes like Batman and Spawn loom large over the pilot episode, in which Vince Faraday (apparently the city’s last remaining good cop) is framed for murder and ‘killed’, only to assume the identity of The Cape, his son’s favourite superhero, to bring his enemies to justice.
The storytelling pays homage to the more pulpy pre-superheroes (think Batman, The Green Hornet and Dick Tracy), individuals who tackling street-level crooks and their bosses while dressed in a natty costume. In this case, the titular cape is woven from spider’s silk, making it (we’re assured) super-strong, ultra-lightweight and particularly prehensile. The rest of the tricks Faraday employs are literal stage illusions (though his ability to disappear in a cloud of smoke, like an illusionist, probably stretches reality a little too far).
Kicking off the series with a double-header, the pilot episode gives us the ‘origin’ story, introduces Faraday’s family, friends and nemesis (the traditional Evil Brit archetype, Chess) while episode two, Tarot, shows us how he plans to continue his war on crime, and how his family rebuilds their lives now he’s gone.
With so much packed in, one thing you can’t accuse The Cape of is being slow or ponderous. There’s no Heroes-style arcing here. Both episodes stand alone as complete stories, but together, form a greater whole. Commendable stuff, given TV’s current propensity to treat every season as a single, plodding 13/26-part story.
Although The Cape is thick with superhero shorthand borrowed from the Batman movies (when the circus gang robs a bank in comedy masks, you can’t help but remember that The Dark Knight did it better), it nonetheless maintains a completely autonomous air in terms of its subject matter. There are no geeky references, no self-aware winks to the audience. It plays the genre completely straight (but not entirely humourlessly).
The temptation to camp things up must have been huge, particularly when Faraday encounters a group of Robin Hood-style circus performers who pass on the tools and knowledge he needs to become The Cape. But they manage to keep the tone just the right side of serious, even when Faraday is wrestling a midget combat expert.
Without references to fall back on, the show’s geek credibility comes in the form of Summer Glau, who plays, well, that one character she always plays, quirky, intelligent, action-hacker. Think Sydney Bristow with fewer wigs (although she does don one in episode two). Fan-favourite Keith David plays Max, the circus ringleader who takes Faraday in after he’s been framed and becomes his mentor. Finally, Vinnie “The Juggernaut” Jones features in episode one as a hench-villain, although, to be honest, his presence just reinforces the idea that all Brits are evil, something made doubly insulting by the fact that an Australian (who, let’s be frank, is probably descended from actual British criminals) gets to play the hero!
Two episodes in, it’s clear that the show is interested in building its own mythology, having already established three villains, a wide supporting cast and several public figures. The macro plot, which concerns Chess trying to gain control of Palm City’s police force and public services in his alter ego as an evil billionaire (think of him as the Reverse Batman) is actually quite well thought out, and is gloriously distant from the time-travelling, world-ending nonsense that Heroes couldn’t stay away from.
Although elements of the first episode are slightly ropey, from the low-budget CGI to the uninspired dialogue, the set pieces are actually quite good and the characters, while initially thin, are already growing into themselves by episode two.
Given a little time, The Cape might actually prove that superheroes don’t have to be postmodern to be an effective storytelling tool. Between its retro charm and willingness to embrace and use the genre conventions, The Cape feels much fresher than it objectively is. There’s no doubt that, were this an actual comic book launch, it would be instantly derivative, but on TV? It stands out as being rather unique. We’ll find out next week whether it can keep that up or not.
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