Edna Mole warned us about capes. "Do you remember Thunderhead? Tall, storm powers? Nice man, good with kids," the pint-sized couturier to the superheroes cautioned early on in The Incredibles. "November 15th of '58! All was well, another day saved, when his cape snagged on a missile fin ... Stratogale! April 23rd, '57! Cape caught in a jet turbine! Metaman: express elevator! Dynaguy: snag on takeoff! Splashdown: sucked into a vortex! No capes!"
Mr. Incredible may have heeded her sartorial advice. But NBC's almost spectacularly confused new superhero drama, The Cape, premiering Sunday at 9pm, appears to absorbed none of The Incredibles' lessons in how to dress a miracle-worker—or in what other than the clothes make the man. The Cape is a cautionary tale in how hard it is to tell superhero stories at a time when the genre has shifted from urban crime to international terrorism, and from the dark alley dangers of the metropolis to the devious labyrinths of the mind.
Superheroes tend to square off against two kinds of villains: those immediately accessible for a good pummeling, like Gotham City crime boss Carmine Falcone, or those so fantastic as to lie outside the scope of ordinary criminality—or human possibility entirely like the godlike Galactus. The recent revival in superhero movies has struggled with the fact that as a political issue, crime no longer tops the list of public concerns, and improvements in urban life have made cities aspirational destinations rather than desperate danger zones.
In the 2002 reboot of Spider-Man, an instance of random urban crime is part of the titular hero's origin story, and later an excuse for a well-choreographed smooch, but Peter Parker quickly turns his focus to deranged industrialists, scientists putting their funding to dubious use, and black gunk from outer space. Christopher Nolan's Batman movies began in 2005 with a somewhat quaint world of crime syndicates and reached greatness in 2008 with a villain who explicitly treated the syndicates like a petty annoyance, ascending to become a major terrorist. It was Tony Stark's arrival as Iron Man that same year that caught superhero movies up to the American entanglement with the military-industrial complex and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The Cape tries to bridge comics' origins and their future. Its hero is the kind of honest cop usually relegated to Bat Signal-operator status, Vince Faraday, exiled from the force when a supervillain called Chess kills a new police chief and frames Faraday for the crime. Chess also happens to be an corporate titan named Peter Fleming, who hopes to spike crime in Palm City (a beachy-looking stand-in for Los Angeles) in order to convince the mayor to allow him to privatize the police force and prisons.
The show is desperate to draw connections between overseas misadventures and American disorder.
"The Ark Corporation is paid billions of dollars to train police officers in Afghanistan while American cities are left to crumble in neglect," Fleming pontificates in industrialist mode, while Faraday declares his superheroic quest to clear his name "an unconventional war." But most of the crime we see in Palm City is either random robberies unconnected to Fleming's schemes, or high-level strategic violence that has no impact on ordinary residents of Palm City, like political assassination attempts on a prisons commissioner who is resisting privatization (Richard Schiff—aka Toby from The West Wing—cheerfully collecting his paycheck).
Saying repeatedly that there's a connection between the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and urban crime doesn't make it so, or even make it seem remotely plausible. And given that Fleming secures the contract he wants to run Palm City's police force in the early minutes of the first episode, there's no clear reason for him to continue to terrorize the city as Chess, a masquerade that could wreck his business interests if he can't prove he can bring crime under control.
It doesn't help that The Cape, which uses devices like title cards to transition between screens as if we're switching panels, can't decide if it wants to be a crisp-looking action show or a moving comic. My guess would be the latter, given the inclusion of a gang of circus-themed bank robbers, Vinnie Jones with a crocodile-print face, and a theoretically secret assassin with a melodramatic college-girl level Tarot tattoo. It's basically a freakshow, a barrier to full immersion and belief in the series's worldview, with no new argument to make, nor anything new to show us, about crime, corruption, and the city.
And these overwrought exteriors don't reflect or give way to compelling interiors. Where Norman Osbourne's mask made manifest his growing madness, Jones is just a big guy with a mug like an expensive handbag. The Cape's titular costume is just an excuse for a training sequence involving hypnotizing people into women's underwear and learning to vanish into poofs of smoke. The details are all sound and fury.
And the same goes for the writing. Faraday delivers lots of content-free, impassioned speeches about how one man can make a difference. For some reason, this convinces everyone from investigative bloggers to subterranean circus troupes that the best use of their time is to teach a guy in an expensive cape and some serious mental distress to fight crime. The writing makes Faraday seem incapable of remotely nuanced thought, and worse, makes everyone else seem idiotic for lining up behind a guy who, were he to appear in a less sentimental and more carefully constructed work like Kick-Ass or The Dark Knight, would end up a smear on the pavement or an inmate at Arkham.
There's the occasional sign that the writers understand the silliness of Faraday's chosen methods. "The Cape?" asks a convenience store owner Faraday's just saved from some thugs after learning his rescuer's sobriquet. "Well, you'll work on it!" But the show is still stuck with the central conceit that Faraday is a bulwark against evil. It can't take him less than seriously for long.
And so far, it's having trouble treating Faraday as a serious and interesting subject for analysis, too. Recent superhero movies have mined gold from darkness of the psyches of those who give up normal lives to fight evil—even Kick-Ass's humor is of the very darkest hue. But though the show repeatedly points out that Faraday's gone to a dark place, there don't seem to be any depths to him that the writers can plumb. Faraday's just a collection of Signposts of Decent Manhood: he has war medals he doesn't like to talk about! He reads his son comic books and tells him to brush up on math! Incorruptibility and the ability to punch a dwarf in the face don't make for a complete character, much less a compelling hero. And neither does a cape.