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.