The Nexus of Pop-Culture Fandom

Television Collision: The Cape – Campy or Crappy?

Written by: Phoebe Raven, CC2K Staff Writer

Do you sometimes feel I am too snooty in my choices of TV shows to cover and rave about? Do you feel I indulge my “inner fan girl“ too seldom and never give credit to the campy, teenage, silly and just outrageously fun shows out there?
Yeah, I agree with you.

So when I first heard about NBC’s new superhero show The Cape, I vowed to view it not as a critic but as a fan of television, as the girl who has watched all the days worth of audio commentary on the LotR Special Edition DVDs, as the girl who reveled in the sex and gore and historical inaccuracy of Starz’ Spartacus.

I wanted to like The Cape more than anything, because Summer Glau is in it, and I only ever want to see Whedonverse-alumns in good things that are meant to last.


At the same time though I also wanted to hate The Cape for the simple fact that there are too many stupid “masked crusaders“ and superheroes running around these days, getting rebooted and re-imagined and spun-off and shoved in our face. The currency of “superhero“ is undergoing a major inflation, never before has the mere term meant so little. And honestly, I would much rather see real people be heroes in real situations (on TV and otherwise) than I would like to see another supernaturally strong Megaman float through the air.

In any case, I went into my viewing of the first two episodes of The Cape with an open mind. If the show could embrace its goofy premise, maybe it could be awesome. Further down you can find my step by step account of my viewing of the pilot episode, but let me skip ahead here and give you my preliminary conclusion after watching the first two episodes at the beginning of this article:

The Cape is fun. If you shut off large parts of your rational brain. The show is being marketed as “embracing its own campiness”, and yet there have been many shows who have done that a lot better. The Cape doesn’t use storylines and motifs already established in the superhero and comic genre to make any new point or to even subvert them after using them. The Cape attempts the subversion a couple of times (more details on that further below in my viewing account), but mostly the show just uses familiar storylines and motifs simply to re-use them and circumvent having to come up with anything original or unique. Be it the origin/background story of our hero, the setting or even the villains, The Cape has little to no originality. Instead it borrows from all and any comic book source and previous superhero movie you can imagine and weaves all of this borrowed material into a predictable if entertaining pseudo-narrative.

I am sure those of us who have read countless comics and seen all the different incarnations of Superman, Batman, Spiderman, Iron Man etc. may get some kick out of The Cape and specifically identifying the sources from where The Cape borrowed its gimmicks, villains, backdrops, characters, set design and so on and so forth.
And for what it’s worth, we don’t get a lot of TV show so openly catering to the comic book geek out there, who can name the issue and page number where we first got to see the spacey if run-down inner city train on high up rails riding through Gotham City (a very similar model can be seen in Episode 2 of The Cape). So I am sure for that specific audience The Cape is a hit, because it is so much fun to geek out over and rediscover all the comic books you may have forgotten about (plus, buy the new, tie-in comic books of The Cape).

All those who don’t mind their shows being cliché-ridden and filled with trite dialog that always sounds vaguely familiar (one episode is almost like a 40-minute déjà vu) will also enjoy The Cape. Since Twilight, The Vampire Diaries, Supernatural and the like are hugely popular, I would suppose this group is rather large and may just bring in the ratings for NBC.

Even I – your sometimes too snooty TV editor – could enjoy The Cape every now and then, as a breather between episodes of such overly heady shows such as In Treatment and Mad Men. I won’t write the show off yet, I’ll keep giving it a few more tries, but I am not making any promises. I don’t know just how much brain-melting I can withstand (see below).


Watching The Cape, Episode One: A Viewing Account (plus summary) by Phoebe Raven


Warning! Here Be Spoilers!

Six minutes into the pilot episode and I am already fuming! See, in the fictional town of Palm City (yes, yes, Gotham in shiny California style) there is a bad man named Chess running around, aka “The Masked Killer”. He appears within the first few minutes of the episode, masked and all, to kill the new Chief of Police. Chess had only just turned around, showing us his chin under his mask and displaying his English accent, when I already knew it was James Fain – psycho vampire Fanklin from True Blood, he’s just unmistakable. And not three minutes later he returns to the screen as a suited-up business man and owner of the Ark Corporation, which is planning to take over the Palm City Police Force, making it a private institution.

Chess/Suited-Up Business Man promptly assures our hero, who – imagine that – is a police officer looking to get a job at Ark, that Palm City can be great once again. Yadee, yada. Heard it all before. Seriously, any viewer too dumb to fall off a fence in a windstorm knows Suited-Up Business Man is Chess and thereby evil.
But, I want to like the show, so I am giving it the benefit of the doubt after these first seven minutes thinking maybe we are all meant to know that Suited-Up Business Man (who is called Flemming, but who cares?) is the evil Chess and are supposed to follow our hero – who is now a “private” police officer hired by the Ark Corporation – while he discovers this himself.

Of course there is the omniscient blogger?/secret organization?/terrorist Orwell, who/which has a blog online where posts about the police force being corrupt are presented to anyone who dares to click onto the blog. And while our hero sits in front of his computer late one night (the desktop layout of which looks about as up to date as 1995), Orwell hacks into our hero’s computer and gives a bit of expositional info on Chess, a smuggling ring and explosives on a train.

Natch our hero, who will get the idea to wear a cape and mask and become “The Cape” from his son’s comic books (we know this from a sweet scene of father and son reading comics in bed together even though mom told them not to), goes to check out said train with the explosives and is betrayed by his best friend and ex-partner on the police force, who already knows something is foul in the state of Ark. But before Friend can do anything about Hero’s discoveries, Hero is injected with something by two guys straight out of Bioshock and falls to the floor unconscious.

Okay, so far I have seen more genre clichés than even I – as someone who made it a point never to watch any of the Spiderman movies and hasn’t read a comic book other than Asterix and Lucky Luke – should be able to cram into eleven minutes of television. What is this show trying to do, melt all of our brains to take over the world, mwuahaha???

In a move owing much to every Bond villain and Dr. Evil, Chess reveals himself to Hero (thanks, NBC, but we really didn’t need the flashback to four minutes earlier to make clear this is the same guy, we are not fish, our short term memory lasts longer than seven seconds) and makes an elaborate chess metaphor speech. Then utters another cliché: “You have one move left: run!”

Apparently Hero is supposed to be framed. The public shall think Hero is Chess – the bad guy, not the game, that would be too metaphysical – so that the Ark Corporation can bring him down, have the city be all grateful and hence hand over the police force to them. So the mask is stapled to Hero’s head and he is set loose, so the Ark Corps can chase after him, helicopter and all.

Second cool, overblown explosion of the night lets Hero’s family see – via live news cast from the scene – that he may be 1) Chess and 2) dead. The deal between the Mayor of Palm City and Ark Corp. to hand over the police force and make it a private business is worked out faster than Hero can crawl out of the sewer tunnel he escaped to. Man, I wish Peace Talks for the Middle East were that time efficient!

Hero wakes up in the circus – yes, this gets weirder and encounters more stereotypical freak characters, who hate cops and are the “Carnival of Crime” bank robbers and who want him to join their ranks. Well, they want Chess to join their ranks and don’t believe Hero that Suited-Up Business Man is the real Chess. Because in this day and age of corruption, sex scandals and corporate greed, it is unimaginable for a Suited-Up Business Man to be associated with anything even remotely illegal. Wait, which planet do I live on again?

But hey, the fun finally starts! Hero trades his life for his all-access Ark employee key card, which the Carnival of Crime use to get into the now Ark-controlled banks and stage a few fun robberies – circus music included. Now this is how to do campy right!

Yet the fun is promptly spoiled as Hero’s Friend, now Suited-Up Business Man’s right hand, is ordered to “Find these comedians” and “Search the woods” or something will happen to his “beautiful family”. Where else would these easily identifiable criminals (they are circus freaks after all and use a key card that should be traceable to Hero) hide than in the woods, right? And why would Friend, who has worked for Ark for some time now and lured his friend into it as well, do his job without being threatened with consequences should he not? And while I am at it, why would Hero want to call his family and actually SAY something, when it is so much fun being without them and letting them think he is dead?

Hero realizes he can’t prove he is innocent, because his enemies are now running the police, so Circus Leader suggests Hero helps him out and they just steal all of Ark’s money and get back at them that way. I have never heard of a better plan. Ever.
Hero attends his own funeral, too, hidden behind a tree. Because when the entire police force is your enemy and knows your face, the best thing to do is walk around in broad day light.

A third “chapter title” (after “Chess” and “Orwell”) is faded in: “The Birth of a Hero”. Ah, I get it now. This is SUPPOSED to be this awful, because it is making fun of the generic, always-the-same origin stories all comic book heroes who aren’t actually supernatural have. A bit in the reasoning of: “You know the drill, this happens and that happens, and the bad guy says this and that and then, the hero is born and we all know he is awesome and good and just wants to get back to his family. Now, can we get on with the cool superhero stories already? Who cares about the how and why, we wanna show you cool explosions and shit! You’re gonna love it!”

Much like Batman used a lot of high tech to cover up the fact that he wasn’t supernaturally gifted or bitten by a radioactive spider, Hero soon to be known as The Cape (to send his son a message, you see) agrees to be trained in the ways of magic and illusionism by Circus Leader. Well, this could be fun. The cape certainly is: made entirely from spider silk, stronger than Kevlar, but thinner than filament. And it has a nice blue shimmer, my favorite color. After thirty minutes, Hero is finished with training in disappearing, using his cape as a weapon, fighting midgets and the art of hypnosis.
Chapter Four “Scale” can start.

“Scale” turns out to be that smuggler, the one from the beginning who is supplying the explosives. The Cape tries his newly learned tricks on him at the docks, where Scale is loading another shipment of kablooey. Not all of the tricks work as well as they could yet and so The Cape winds up wrapped in a thick boat chain at the bottom of the ocean, his life flashing before his eyes. Which was the plan all along, because now he can use his escapist tricks and sneak onto the ship.

Where he is promptly photographed by – TADA – Summer Glau! In the capacity of “Orwell” (revealed by the flyers she is conveniently carrying). Fighting ensues. Or at least she attempts to fight, lamely. Which The Cape comments with “What are you, like, twelve?” Her witty comeback: “You’re the one wearing long underwear and a cape!”
YAY for acknowledging the camp! The only way to maintain a redeeming quality for the show.

And Orwell’s lair finally has all the cool high tech I was looking for (which the Ark Corps. apparently doesn’t know how to use). And the two realize they are fighting for the same side. With her cool computers and his awesome cape, what could possibly stop them from taking back the city?

Suited-Up Business Man meanwhile has found Circus Leader and brought him to … for some reason the ship with all the kablooey from earlier. Suited-Up Business Man is also now again being Chess and threatening Circus Leader, who resists nobly and manages a halfway-escape (he is shot) thanks to his vanishing tricks. And the rest of the Circus pack call in Hero to help them out. Why do they know Chess took Circus Leader to a ship? Who cares, it’s Chapter Five, “Chess vs. The Cape – Round One!”

In which Circus Leader almost dies – says his last words and all – but then doesn’t, which is actually a funny scene.
Chess reveals he wants to blow up the ship with all the loaded kablooey triggered by his cell phone, which will take out half the city and in the aftermath give Ark even more power to do what they want. Chess even has a submarine lined up to escape the blast. But here comes The Cape. And his technical back-up, Orwell, blocks all cell phone activity within a 500 feet radius.

This leaves Chess no choice but to jump overboard. We all know we haven’t seen the last of him yet, it being Round One and all.
So The Cape decides to go see his son. And tell him all the good stuff about love and do your homework and your father was framed. And though the kid is long out of elementary school and not stupid and The Cape doesn’t even wear a face mask or alter his voice, supposedly the kid just believes The Cape is real and doesn’t recognize him as his believed-dead father. Or does he now?

“One Week Later” The Cape brings down two armed robbers at a clothing/convenience/corner store (when Hero just wanted to buy something, but crime follows him everywhere) and when the store owner realizes what just happened he notes in delight: “You’re a superhero! What do they call you?” – Answer: “The Cape.” – Unimpressed storeowner: “The Cape? Well, you work on it.”

Yeah, you better.