The superhero genre is so old, and the superhero movies and TV shows it spawned only slightly less old, that almost every live-action version these days has to be billed as a modernized, or even post-modern, spin on the familiar. No tights! No codenames! What does it really mean to have powers?
NBC’s “Heroes” was so eager to distance itself from the tropes of the genre that it wouldn’t even let its characters say the word “powers,” preferring to use the term “abilities,” as if that would somehow make indestructible cheerleaders and telepathic cops seem more palatable to the sort of people who don’t ordinarily go for this stuff.
NBC’s new superhero show, “The Cape” (which sneak previews Sunday at 9 p.m. before airing Mondays at 9 starting on January 17), doesn’t feel the least bit embarrassed about any of the usual trappings. It’s not post-modern, or even modern. It is proudly, almost defiantly old-fashioned. It’s the sort of show where no one in the fictional Palm City is the least bit confused about why they’re being menaced by a masked villain who calls himself Chess. It’s the sort of show where the hero, having been trained by one of the world’s greatest escape artists, is bound in chains by a bad guy, thrown into the ocean and asked to make like Houdini (or the ’60s Batman) and free himself from the diabolical death trap.
I admire that about “The Cape.” It is what it says it is, and finds no shame in that.
I just wish it was a better show.
The main fault lies with The Cape himself – or, as he’s known when he’s not fighting, evil, Vince Faraday, the one honest cop in the dirty town, who has to fake his own death and put on a mask to clear his name, protect his family and prove to his son “that one man can make a difference.” Vince is played by Australian actor David Lyons, who’s as beloved by some people in NBC casting as Alex O’Loughlin is at CBS. Lyons was inserted into the last couple of years of “ER,” and he added little outside of one storyline in his final season in which we found out his character had been molested as a child. (Shameless awards show bait, but very well-played by Lyons.) Then he was cast as the lead in “Day One,” a series about a major world-changing disaster that was then downgraded to miniseries, then to TV-movie, then to never-airing.
Now he’s a superhero, and he lacks the charisma and lack of self-consciousness the part – and show – really need to work.
Almost every scene of “The Cape” that’s interesting either doesn’t feature Lyons at all or pairs him with a colorful supporting cast of characters – specifically the group of bank-robbing circus performers who become his unlikely partners. Keith David capably chews the scenery as the troupe’s leader and Vince’s new mentor, and little person stuntman-turned-actor Martin Klebba (“Pirates of the Caribbean”) has fun as the group’s muscle. By far the most entertaining scene of the pilot has Klebba squaring off with the hulking Vinnie Jones as a bad guy whose reptilian skin has earned him the nickname “Scales.”
(The circus stuff may bring back bad memories of the final season of “Heroes,” but the scenes with these characters are done with a much lighter touch, blessedly.)
The Cape has so many sidekicks floating about, in fact, that Summer Glau seems adrift as Orwell, a blogger/hacker/spy who first tips Vince off to the connection between Chess and local business icon Peter Fleming (James Frain). Glau, beloved by the show’s target demo for her roles on “Firefly” and “Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles,” is there for fan service – a beautiful alum of two short-lived cult favorites playing a sexy, butt-kicking blogger is about as fan service-y as you can get – and sometimes little more, as the circus folk are much more prominent in these first two episodes.
But all the color in the margins doesn’t matter if the man at the center of the picture is a bore, which Lyons unfortunately is. The square-jawed, utterly sincere hero is a hard thing to pull off without seeming stiff – what’s it been, 32 years since Christopher Reeve did it in “Superman”? – and without that kind of commanding presence from its hero, “The Cape” winds up seeming sillier than it intended to be.
I’d like to see this kind of show work in the future, but watching back-to-back episodes of “The Cape,” I began to understand just why so many modern superhero shows and movies try to go ultra-modern. There’s a lot more room for error when you’re commenting on a genre even as you’re producing an example of it. Do it entirely straightforward like this and you have to get it right all the way. And “The Cape” didn’t do a good enough job of finding a man to fill its titular accessory.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org