First Glance: The Cape

Reader Challenge: Keep your eyes peeled for the alliterative passages! (I’m not really sure how it happened, but they just kept popping up.) There are more than there ought to be, considering I wasn’t trying to do that.

Four episodes in and I still can’t believe I’m saying this (but I must): The Cape is surprisingly awesome. It isn’t really quality television programming, per se. But it is exactly as good as it ought to be for what it is.

Basically, The Cape is the television iteration of a comic book. Or, alternatively, an extended superhero blockbuster movie. It maintains the fairly straightforward, rather simplistic story format of each, as well as the blend of pseudo-realism and heavy stylization that characterizes superhero fiction in general. I’d argue it is formatted more similarly to paper comics; each episode is equivalent to an issue, split into smaller chapters, each of which is announced by what is basically a title page. (During the pilot, before I figured out what the titles were, I was not only confused but vaguely disapproving. Now that I understand what’s going on, I’m actually a fan of the presentation.) Since much of the show revolves around a comic book, the stylization is a rather creative and definitely effective technique. You just need to watch the opening credits to see that the aesthetics of the show are awesome.

There is no lack of stylization in any aspect of The Cape. It is, arguably, more style than substance (at least so far). It is filmed with the idea of comic-style images in mind – it’s a technique that worked wonderfully for Heroes. The visual similarity to comic book images extends into color choice, set design, and even the casting. No, really: if you look at them, there is not a single one who cannot easily be imagined into a cartoon character.

As far as casting goes, The Cape is populated by individuals who have been chosen more for look and persona than any amount of nuance in their performance. David Lyons (Vince Faraday) is just the right mix of abs, altruism, and border-line asinine determination. His voice and his manner would be just a little too puppy dog if he were trying to pass for a tougher, more epic superhero. But for a guy who lurks in corners, is trained by circus performers, and goes around calling himself “The Cape”, it works. He couldn’t hold the show up by himself, but he doesn’t necessarily have to.

The supporting cast is much more entertaining, naturally; but they are all only as excellent as they should be, without threatening to overshadow the central character. Summer Glau is, well, Summer Glau. I hate to say it because I love her, but there’s just not a whole lot of acting going on. Her role so far is a cross between watered-down River Tam and a ballerina. The situation is, sadly, made worse by the fact that her character’s storyline so far is painfully predictable. BUT. She is Summer Glau. So “Orwell” (real name X Fleming) is sexy and droll and yet still childlike and charming. Not new, as I say, but not unwelcome either.

Keith David, arguably best known as the voice of Goliath the Gargoyle, plays ring master and bank robber Max Malini to perfection. Between his voice and his eyebrows, he manages to give the two sides of the character – wise old trainer and happy resident of Moral-Gray-Area-Ville – an individual flourish of overwrought sardonic-ness. Also, he rocks some seriously rad Tuareg jewelry. His circus underlings, Rollo (Martin Klebba), Ruvi (Anil Kumar), and Raia (Izabella Miko) are obvious caricatures – no layers there – but unarguably entertaining. Not a whole lot of time is spent at Max Malini’s circus now that The Cape has his own fantastically aesthetic batcave (capecave?), but that time is unfailingly enjoyable.

Naturally, it is the humdrum humans who are least spectacular. And really, that’s the fault of the roles rather than the actors. It takes longer to warm up to characters who aren’t flashbanging their way across the screen making cheesy one-liners and forcing you to either like or hate them immediately. I’m still formulating my opinions about Dana (Jennifer Ferrin), Trip (Ryan Wynott), and Marty (Dorian Missick), but they are definitely growing on me.

The best roles are always the villains, and Chess aka Peter Fleming aka James Frain is no exception. In the pilot there seemed to be some question about whether or not he was going to have an accent or not. Now that the accent has been embraced, it is much easier to concentrate on his snobbish Brit businessman excellence. He is massively fun to watch, and plays the role with just enough of a tongue-in-cheek twist to make dressing in an all-white Western sheriff outfit seem like something the character would actually do. (And, even more impressive, managing to not look any more ridiculous than intended.) “Chess” has been killed in the world of The Cape so, unfortunately, we don’t get to see much of the CREEPY-AS-HELL snake eyes in red leather which is CREEPY AS HELL. Thankfully, Vinnie Jones fills the evil theatricality void by playing his usual money-man mobster-type bad guy…with awesome reptile makeup.

There are many things to enjoy about The Cape. It is well-made, beautifully orchestrated, and achieves exactly what it wants to in terms of creating a world and a story. Unfortunately, people don’t seem to be getting particularly swept up in said story. Ratings for The Cape are not encouraging. (It doesn’t help that its main timeslot competition is FOX’s Lie to Me, which airs immediately after perennial House.)I think part of that is due to the fact that the promos just looked so stupid. I mean, I almost didn’t watch the show because of them (and I have low standards!). That was the immediate problem that got The Cape off to a slow start. Well, that and the fact that it is called “The Cape” and revolves around a superhero named “The Cape” and no-one has been able to take capes seriously since Edna Mode of The Incredibles.*

The on-going problem is that there just isn’t much substance to back up all the style. My main concern is that the writers just won’t be able to come up with enough story to keep the show going…and it looks like they won’t even have all that many episodes to fill. Time was, a superhero could go through basically the exact same routine every week with a different opponent and everybody was thrilled. But we are living in a post-Nolan-Batman world. People demand more depth to their superhero fiction. And that is a good thing, no question. Still, it is kind of sad to live in a world where the classic superhero model – misunderstood good guy repeatedly saves the world without recognition or ego – isn’t enough anymore.

I really am enjoying The Cape in all its stylistic simplicity. But I’m not especially invested. And neither, it seems, is the rest of the television-viewing audience. Too bad, so sad. Not, however, a tragedy. I honestly believe that The Cape is worth watching as far as its own merits are concerned. I also honestly believe it is doomed to fail (could be quickly or via slow, painful slide) so unless you have plenty of time on your hands, don’t bother. There are better, or at least more dependable, things to watch…probably.

*They have managed to make the cape itself a tool rather than an accessory. Yeah, the disappearing act and cape-as-weapon bits are a tad silly. But how much sillier are capes that just hang there? I ask you.

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  • Boycool  On January 30, 2011 at 1:29 PM

    I thought Max’s wasted last speech was very original.

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