Slugfest Special: The Cape

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The Cape is a one-hour drama series starring David Lyons as Vince Faraday, an honest cop on a corrupt police force who finds himself framed for a series of murders. He is forced into hiding, leaving behind his wife Dana (Jennifer Ferrin) and son, Trip (Ryan Wynott). Fueled by a desire to reunite with his family and to battle the criminal forces that have overtaken Palm City, Vince Faraday becomes "The Cape"--his son's favorite comic book superhero--and takes the law into his own hands.

Paul Brian McCoy:
Chris Murman:
Ray Tate:
Thom Young:

Paul Brian McCoy:

I went into The Cape with an odd mixture of trepidation and hope. On the one hand, every single commercial or piece of promotional material that I saw filled me with dread. I didn’t care for the costuming or the way the action was staged, but those were fleeting glimpses and tight cuts, so I put that anxiety aside.

On the plus side, the cast includes James Frain (twisted vampire, Franklin Mott from True Blood), Vinnie Jones (Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels, Snatch, Mean Machine), and Keith David (John Carpenter’s The Thing, John Carpenter’s They Live, and any number of other awesome acting jobs and voice work). Having Summer Glau (Firefly, Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, Dollhouse) in your cast doesn’t hurt either. Except maybe in the ratings, for some bizarre reason.

Even the production team and showrunner inspired confidence with veterans of Buffy, The Vampire Slayer, Angel, and Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, although, the writer/creator of The Cape, Tom Wheeler, was an untried quantity. I didn’t see his miniseries Empire or any of his pilots, but in interviews he seemed sincere enough in his devotion to comic traditions and Silver Age storytelling in general.

The plot is classic or clichéd, depending on your affinity for it. The Cape tells the story of heroic cop/devoted father/okay husband, Vince Faraday (David Lyons) as he is framed as a super-villain and left for dead by Peter Fleming (James Frain), the head of the evil ARK Corporation (who also just happens to be the super-villain, Chess). Faraday is taken in by Max Malini (Keith David) and his Carnival of Crime, all of whom (after a series of improbable events) agree to train Faraday to take down Fleming/Chess. To help in his quest, Max provides Vince with a cape with properties even more improbable than the events leading up to its presentation.

The rest of the initial two-hour airing (which is actually the pilot, followed by the first episode) is a series of remarkably boring events and clockwork plot movements that never seem to really grab for that golden ring of Silver Age Comic Creativity. Sure, there are hints of imagination, for example, the Carnival of Crime itself, or the mysterious hooded cape with an even more mysterious past. The villains of the piece have interesting looks (Chess has a creepy mask and bizarre eyes, while Dominic “Scales” Raoul (Vinnie Jones) has, predictably, scales), and they hit all the “dangerous” notes usually required. Although, the French poisoner, Cain, looks more in need of a bath than he does dangerous--but then, he's French. (Zing!)

However, all of these elements are reined in so much that they aren’t really allowed to breathe or move. There seems to be an urge to go large, but this is hampered by an equally strong urge to play up a Dark Knight level of realism. So, in the end, we get a story with classic bones and modern skin that, unfortunately, is hampered by clichés, gaps in logic, and cheap special effects for muscle.

To be quite honest, I don't feel any need at all to continue watching--and that's with Summer Glau featured prominently, so you know something's off.

If the creators had gone all out with the Silver Age style, The Cape could have been something entertaining and fun. Instead, the style forces unbelievable plot developments and impossible acts into a realistic light that undermines the storytelling, and, even worse, the fun. The Cape is a show that ultimately just doesn’t leave a mark, despite the best of intentions.

It doesn’t have enough flair or freedom to overcome its limitations. As far as I'm concerned, the only superheroes worth watching on television are still the ones in Misfits over in the UK on E4. That's how you have fun with the concept while still staying true to comic book themes and traditions.

Chris Murman:

You want to know how saturated we are with superhero genre media? I got a call Monday night from my father-in-law while I was watching the BCS championship game. I love the man to death, but he usually calls because his computer doesn’t work at the moment or he doesn’t know how to use Google, but instead of the usual, we had this brief exchange:

"So are you watching The Cape right now?"

"No, it’s a rerun from last night. I’ve seen both episodes already."

"It looks really good," he said. "Definitely looks like the kind of thing you would enjoy watching."

With that, he awkwardly said his goodbyes and I laughingly told my wife what was said. Thanks to so many superhero movies and television shows, the public has become okay with their place in our culture. To boot, the public has become so accustomed with the clichés that accompany the superhero genre that they often don’t realize the crap they are watching.

I will say this, if The Cape aired on Saturday mornings or was the new lead in for Tower Prep, I would have no problem recommending this show. Unfortunately, The Cape is marketed to adults during prime time viewing and the producers have plenty of money for development. Thus, I expect better than this.

Many times, in this medium and others that we review on this site, we rag on stories that have to waste a ton of time with exposition and setup. I’m sure as you’re reading this you can remember a time when engaged with a story you thought to yourself, "Get on with it!"

Maybe The Cape is a perfect example of times when we need a little more exposition than we think.

The show began with a do-gooder cop (no seriously, he comes from a family of cops), who is offered a chance to work for a privatized police force that will be taking over for a traditionally run police department. Also, a super-villain called "Chess" is already a widely known name in households, and he orchestrates the "death" of Vince Faraday. So right off the bat, you’re being asked to suspend reality a little bit. All of this happens within the first few minutes.

After that, viewers are asked to process a society of carnies who masquerade as bank robbers who, of course, teach Vince all their tricks (my favorite was the hypnotism lessons that just left me feeling creepy). Then, a strange, yet obviously attractive woman appears out of nowhere to be his Oracle. This woman has been keeping her eye on Vince for a while--though the hero is still in love with his wife and all, so there’s no problem there. Add to that the oddest rogues gallery of villains, the leader of which is the CEO of the new privatized police force who makes his eyes look like a cat and is an expert martial artist.

Finally, what superhero genre show or movie would be complete without horribly written dialogue? I reached my breaking point during the second episode when Vince realizes he has what it takes to wear the cape. When talking with Max about how his connection to his family could get him in trouble, Vince responds with this doozy:

"My family’s not my weakness Max, it’s my strength."

I had to pause the show and laugh like a child for five minutes. We all can see the huge loopholes that kind of rhetoric provides because we’ve been reading clichés for decades. Max responds with an explanation of what the real makeup of a hero is:

"The cape is just a tool . . . don’t forget who’s wearing the cape."

And with that, I knew this show would be lucky to make it to a second season. We’ve already had this wool pulled over our eyes with Smallville and Heroes; I don’t see the public jumping on board with this premise. Like I said, it’s a good show geared towards kids who don’t know any better. For adults, please respect your audience a little more, Hollywood, and try selling crazy somewhere else.

Ray Tate:

Betrayed, believed dead, framed as a master criminal, former police officer Vincent Faraday becomes the Cape in order to restore his honor and his place in the lives of his wife and son. I like this show.

Creator Tom Wheeler crafts a novel means for his hero to maintain a vigilante edge without killing anybody in the process. The hero lost his parents to crime? That's Batman. The Cape loses his family through the circumstances that led him to his new existence, but they're still alive. Wheeler checks in on them to see how Faraday's purported death affects them. For example, in the pilot, Faraday's wife Dana must now seek employment to support her son and herself. She must furthermore decide whether or not to use the name that brought shame to their world.

The Cape isn't just an ex-police officer possessing skill sets associated with the profession--though he's no mean detective. Instead, he adds to this body of knowledge. The crimes that destroy his life also drops him into the laps of professional bank robbers/circus performers. This plot element is the only direct reference to Batman and Tim Burton, and it's a good one.

Wheeler removes the Penguin and replaces him with Gargoyles' Keith David's more personable Max Malini. After Faraday supports the thieves' larcenous goals, also hurting his nemesis Chess in the process, he becomes expert in carnival trickery: hypnotism, manic fighting ability, escapology, sleight of hand, and stage magic. As a result, the Cape becomes a very plausible hero, outfitted with his namesake, a legendary garment made of spider silk worn by a famous circus performer and passed down among the carnies.

In addition to a fascinating premise, the Cape boasts impressive acting all across the roster. David Lyons brings intensity to the main character, and he makes the fighting believable and exciting. He flourishes daring-do, striking traditional heroic poses, selling them as serious instead of campy.

Summer Glau acts smartly as Orwell, a Smoking Gun character responsible for exposing corrupt cops and sleazy deals long before the Cape emerges from the fire. I suppose you might also consider her the Cape's Oracle, but there's a major difference. In The Cape, women do not have to be crippled in order to be brainy. Also, due to her alliance with the Cape, she takes a more active role in crimefighting. In this sense, she's the opposite of Barbara Gordon.

Rounding out the cast, Jennifer Ferrin instills sympathy and shows guts when she faces the reported death of her husband; Martin Klebba makes Rollo, a lively, humorous sparring partner for The Cape and a bane to Scales played with suitable vitriol by Vinnie Jones; The Tudors' James Frain embodies a superb genius villain that's equal parts Lex Luthor and Fantomas; finally, Dorian Missick imbues credible treachery to his role as Marty Voyt, the Cape's former partner and friend.

The high production values of The Cape impress. The judicious special effects support the story and the cast. The score is rousing and original. The Cape's costume and, indeed, the overall outfitting, adds final, attractive touches to what could have been a big budget superhero movie.

Perhaps the greatest thing about The Cape is that nobody involved appears to be embarrassed that they are in a superhero production. Quite the opposite, they appear to be proud to bring a new masked, caped champion to life.

Thom Young:

For the most part, I did not care for The Cape at all, but there were a few things I liked about this "special two-hour event"--which was not actually a two-hour pilot movie; it was just the one-hour "Pilot" followed by the first episode of the series, "Tarot."

Oh, before I start listing the few things that I liked about this special two-hour event, I do want to say that it baffles me how NBC executives could have watched the pilot and then green-lighted 13 more episodes. Thus far, the network has only committed to 14 episodes (including "Pilot"), and I doubt the series will go beyond that initial order. I expect it to be canceled before the rest of the 12 episodes finish airing.

Initial indications are that the two-hour premiere had 8.4 million viewers, which is probably good enough for the show to rank in the lower end of the Top 20 TV shows for the week. However, the numbers usually drop off after a premiere episode, so right now the series does not seem destined for the top of the charts.

On the other hand, NBC is desperately trying to bring in more viewers as they re-aired the two-hour premiere one day after the first airing, and the they are re-broadcasting the special event again on Thursday (on sister network SyFy, formerly Sci-Fi) and on Sunday (on sister network USA). Perhaps after four showings of the premiere, the show will find enough viewers that the numbers for the next episode won't fall off too dramatically--but I doubt it.

Okay, without further ado, here is what I liked about the special two-hour event of The Cape:
  • There wasn't any bad acting (plenty of bad writing to go around, but at least the actors were sincere in their performances and in the delivery of their lines).

  • Keith David has a great voice. It's a voice I've often heard in various animated shows and as the narrator of some great documentaries (such as Ken Burns's Jazz), but I rarely see David in a live-action production (Platoon, back in 1986, was probably the last time I saw a live-action production that he was in).

    David would make a great Othello; I'm surprised someone hasn't financed a film version of Shakespeare's play around him. Here, however, he plays an odd character named Max Malini--more on him later.

  • Jennifer Ferrin (as Dana Faraday, the protagonist's wife) and Summer Glau (as Orwell) are so beautiful that I'll probably continue to watch this series just to get my weekly fix of seeing them (which is undoubtedly part of the consideration that goes into casting shows like this, as I'm sure David Lyons landed the title role in part as an attempt to bring in a certain segment of female viewers for what is otherwise a show targeting a young male audience).

  • Finally, I liked the sets on which the show is filmed. They seem realistic rather than like obvious television sets (such as the artificial-looking sets on the Birds of Prey series that aired on the old WB network eight years ago, or the cheap sets on The Flash that aired on CBS 20 years ago). Indeed, The Cape may actually be filmed on location rather than on sound stages--so, yeah, the sets for the show are pretty good.
Okay, that's it. That's all I liked about The Cape. As for why this superhero television series failed on so many levels, I would need to consult my notes. Unfortunately, I didn't bother taking notes while I watched the two-hour premiere, so I am going to have to go on memory--but the problem is that most of the show is not very memorable.

First, while this premiere airing was a special two-hour event, it actually took me five hours to watch it even though I was fast-forwarding through the commercials.

The phone would ring, or an e-mail would arrive, and I would pause the DVR to deal with the distractions. However, once a distraction was dealt with, I found other things to do. I had no compulsion to get back to watching The Cape. In fact, if it wasn't for having to write this review, I doubt I would have finished watching it--even to see Ferrin and Glau--especially since Glau didn't show up until more than two-thirds of the way through "Pilot."

Ah, yes, Summer Glau. She has had an interesting career. Most science fiction/fantasy fans know her from Firefly and its follow-up theatrical film Serenity. However, I never saw her in those productions. My first exposure to her work was when she played Crystal Burns in seven episodes of The Unit; she was fantastic in that series as a (to be politically incorrect) trailer-trash army wife who started cheating on her husband after he was severely wounded while working as a corporate mercenary in Iraq.

Then she suddenly turned up as a terminator in The Sarah Conner Chronicles, and she was fantastic in that as well (the last half of the second season of that series was very good, but it's difficult to save a show from cancellation when it waits until the last half of its second season to become very good). Thus, I was excited to learn that Glau would be in The Cape. Her career (which includes Dollhouse, another show I didn’t care for and stopped watching before she began appearing on it) seems intricately entwined with the “genre shows” that most fans of science fiction, fantasy, and comic books tend to watch.

Glau does the best she can with the material that was written for her here, but the character she is playing is thus far just a two-dimensional analog of Barbara Gordon from the Batman mythos. Like Barbara Gordon’s Oracle, Glau's Orwell sits behind a state-of-the-art computer terminal (actually, it's a futuristic computer terminal that far exceeds the current state of the art) and she monitors people throughout the city so that she can feed information to The Cape in the same way that Oracle feeds info to Batman. (Considering Glau's stature--five feet, six inches tall and slender--her Orwell is more "Little Sister Is Watching You" rather than "Big Brother").

However, Glau's Barbara Gordon analog isn't relegated to just being Oracle; she can also help The Cape in the streets by kicking ass like Batgirl, and driving a car like . . . well, like Batgirl can drive a motorcycle, I guess.

Unfortunately, those qualities seem to be the extent of the character thus far; she's a whiz with futuristic, holographic computers (where does she get those wonderful toys?), and she's had considerable training in martial arts and stunt-car driving. Still, if the show was just about her character doing these things, I would probably like it a great deal more than I do.

The show really falters when it comes to The Cape himself. The obvious analog for the character is Batman, but The Cape's abilities are more akin to The Shadow and two Marvel characters: Spider-Man's villain Mysterio and The Shroud (a character created by Steve Englehart and Herb Trimpe in 1976 as a mash-up of The Shadow and Batman, which is a near-perfect description of The Cape.

In fact, The Cape resembles The Shroud so closely that Marvel probably could have either charged a licensing fee or filed a grievance for trademark infringement.

When I first heard of this series while it was in development, I figured the generic name for the character was an indication that the show was going for some sense of verisimilitude similar to Christopher Nolan’s Batman films, and that (conversely) the protagonist was going to suddenly find himself thrust into the role of superhero by accident after discovering a cape with magical powers. In some ways I was correct; in others I couldn't have been further off the mark.

Before the premiere, I had learned that the protagonist, Vince Faraday, chose to name his superhero persona after his son's favorite comic book character. Obviously, "The Cape" is a rather generic name for a superhero, but it's not as uniquely generic as some people might think. After all, not only do we have Marvel's The Shroud (and the similarly named and attired Cloak), we have had such characters as:
  • Mike Richardson and Mark Badger's The Masque (Dark Horse Comics), which became more well known later as The Mask when Richardson moved the character away from Badger's version,

  • B.C. Boyer's Masked Man (Eclipse Comics),

  • And there are probably other characters with similar generic names, but I can’t think of them at the moment.
Thus, I have no real qualms with the generic name of the character in this TV series. The problem is with the weird origin and abilities of Faraday's superhero identity.

To avoid spoiling the plot for those readers who may want to watch the re-broadcast of the two-hour premiere on SyFy or USA, I won't give too much away here other than to say that Faraday ends up being rescued by a gang of bank robbers who believe he is a super-villain named Chess. When they learn he isn't Chess, they are ready to kill Faraday for being a cop (or former cop, or privatized cop, et cetera).

However, Faraday is able to prevent them from killing him by showing them that he has the ability to bypass the security systems of most of the banks in town through the use of a security card that he acquired when he became a privatized cop for a company that manages the security systems for most of the banks in town.

At this point I figured, "Well, as soon as the gang of bank robbers (led by Keith David and his amazing voice) get access to Faraday's security clearance they will end up trying to kill him--at which point Faraday will stumble across the magical cape that saves him from certain death at the hands of the evil Carnival of Crime. Bwa-ha-ha-ha-ha!"

However, the producers and writers throw us a curve here by having the gang of bank robbers embrace Faraday and take him into their family of carnival performers--and Faraday, the former cop who supposedly hates crime, agrees to join their gang because by helping them rob banks he is striking a blow against the evil CEO of the corporation that created the security systems for those banks.

Uhm . . . huh?

That scenario makes absolutely no sense at all, but we are just supposed to go with it. Don't bother to think through the logic of the plot, just enjoy the good-natured and humorous camaraderie that is developed between Faraday and the gang of bank-robbing carnival performers (a gang that may be loosely based on Grant Morrison's The Circus of the Strange from his early issues of Batman and Robin--very loosely based).

Eventually, Faraday discovers a cape hanging on a hook in a tent and he asks David Keith's character about it.

"Why, I haven't seen this old cape in years," Max replies.

What do you mean you haven't seen it in years? It was hanging on a hook in the middle of a huge tent! It wasn't like Faraday discovered it at the bottom of an old trunk that was buried in the corner of a storeroom under piles of other crates.

Upon finding the cape, which doesn't seem to have any special qualities about it other than it's black and made of spider silk, Faraday decides to use it to become his son's favorite comic book character. Max agrees that Faraday should use the cape to become The Cape, and he and his gang of carnies train Faraday in the arts of illusion, professional wrestling, and hypnotism (by waving two fingers in front of someone's face until you can get that person to wear women's under garments).

The power to cloud men's minds and dress them in frilly bras and panties is an awesome power to have.

Finally, his training complete, Faraday sets out as The Cape, and we learn that the cape of The Cape is alive! It's actually the symbiote that bonded with Spider-Man for a while as his black costume (is that character now known as Venom or Carnage? Something like that).

Of course, no one has yet admitted that the cape is an alien, symbiotic creature that is slowly sucking away Faraday's soul, but it's the only way I can explain why the cape can suddenly lash out from Faraday and slap the bad guys around the way it does.

Beyond slapping, the cape can actually grab bad guys by the throat and hurl them about--except when it doesn't want to, which is when the bad guys can get the drop on The Cape and capture him.

In a way, I really do hope that the show ends up explaining that the cape is either magical or an alien symbiote since that would at least clarify its amazing abilities.

For now, though, the explanation we are given is that the cape has weighted corners, and that Faraday is able to manipulate it as a martial arts weapon--similar to a nunchaku with the weighted corners being the two staffs and the fabric of the cape making a very long version of the chain or cord that links the two staffs together in nunchuks.

The way the cape's abilities are currently explained doesn't really make sense , but hey, it's only a comic book . . . er, a TV show.

For now, I'll continue to watch the series to see if it gets better, but mostly to get my fix of seeing Jennifer Ferrin and Summer Glau. However, I don’t expect it to take up too much of my time since The Cape will probably be canceled before my birthday.

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