Superheroes have often served as metaphors for American power. In World War II, they punched Hitler. In the Vietnam era, they agonized. And so on. So what does The Cape, NBC's latest superhero show, say about America? Basically, we're screwed.
Heroes are old school. The Cape offers us a new hero, who embodies all of the insecurities of the 21st Century American male — and then suggests that his only salvation lies in going back to the 19th Century. People have been calling the Cape a Batman rip-off, but in many ways he's the anti-Batman. Where Bruce Wayne uses super-science and impossible technology to become the ultimate crime-fighting machine, the Cape uses... old spider-silk?
Actually, everything about the Cape and his origin harkens back to the past. Vince Faraday is a cop in Palm City (even the name is comic-booky) who loves to talk about his grandfather the World War I veteran and his father the former sheriff of Palm City. After he's double-crossed and framed as a supervillain, he encounters a group of not-terribly-freaky circus freaks, who teach him a ton of ancient secrets, like hypnotizing men into wearing panties using only their fingers. And wrestling little people. Finally, they give him a cape made out of old spider-silk that has properties that defy physical laws, including the ability to expand and contract massively, and turn hard enough to grip objects at a distance. The Cape trains to be a hero, but really he's prepping to be a kind of vaudeville act, as we're reminded over and over — using all of the secrets and innovations of the 18th and 19th centuries to razzle-dazzle a modern-day audience.
The Cape also uses a secret identity for a very old-school reason — so the baddies don't go after his loved ones — and yet it takes him a ridiculously long time to figure out that wearing a mask might help him keep his identity secret. He's so old-school, his only method of storing information is to stick it to a wall using really old sticky tape that looks like it's been sitting in a filing cabinet for several decades. This is how he can remember this week's McGuffin, and what his wife and kid look like.
All in all, Vince Faraday is sort of a lazily sketched avatar of the working American man, who's being ground down by the evil engines of the 21st century. He drives an obscenely huge red pick-up truck, and when he sees a coworker looking at a forbidden blog, he says, "Turn it off" as if the blog was a television set. He's a family man — he loves his son more than anything, and he sort of likes his wife — and he works hard to do the right thing. But he's caught in the grip of forces he can't really understand, and he's just a pawn in the larger game being played by the supervillain Chess — and yes, Chess is named after the board game, not the musical by members of Abba. I think. The world that Vince Faraday understands is going away, and he's being left behind, and he's a victim of the fact that...
Corporations are evil. Thank you, NBC Universal and your parent company General Electric, for reminding us that major corporations are always run by supervillains.
The Cape's main adversary, Peter Fleming, is the CEO of the ARK Corporation, which is one of those awesome fictional companies that doesn't seem to have a real line of business, other than Being Evil. I guess they're supposed to be like Halliburton or something, since we're told that they set up police forces in Afghanistan and other countries. I guess the version of Afghanistan in the Cape universe is probably a lot campier. Let's hope we see it at some point.
Anyway, Fleming, who's not-so-secretly the supervillain Chess, is in the process of privatizing the police force of Palm City, to get rid of the corruption that he probably caused in the first place. And in the second hour of last night's two-hour premiere, he wants to privatize the prisons, too, so he can create his ultimate corporate police state. It's all very Robocop. The rapacious corporate drive to own everything, to control everything — much like Comcast trying to buy NBC — is like an unstoppable runaway tree-ripping machine.
(Fleming is such a criminal mastermind that when he plots to have someone poisoned, he makes sure it'll happen when Fleming and his victim are sitting next to each other in a restaurant, just so that nobody will ever suspect Fleming had something to do with it.)
And yet, weirdly, ARK always seems understaffed. Peter Fleming only has one assistant, Marty, who's also Vince's best friend and (I guess) a former cop. The ARK headquarters is humongous and cavernous, but totally empty. (Except for the cops in riot gear, and the people we see in the ARK lobby in one scene.) The lack of staffing is probably due to the fact that everything is automated. Which in turn, is thanks to the fact that...
Technology is magic. Seriously, with technology, you can do anything. Especially if you've got holographic heads-up displays that float around your head. Those make you a god. The Cape may avoid using anything technological himself, but his biggest ally, the blogger known as Orwell, has incredible techno-powers. Orwell, played by Summer Glau, can find out anything and hack into anyplace on the Internet, as long as it's floaty and holographic. Seriously, if these people ever get hold of a Kinect, they're going to control the universe.
At one point, we see Chess make a virtual "chessboard" out of squares showing the Cape and various other characters in the story —- and then he throws them up in the air and spins them until they swirl around and around. Who can withstand the power of the swirly chessboard? Nobody, that's who!
Oh, and I haven't even gotten to the fact that you can have a magic keycard that opens every single door controlled by the ARK corporation — even the doors to bank safes — and it can never be revoked, for any reason. Seriously. The circus freaks that Vince Faraday hooks up with take his keycard, and they're able to rob like a hundred banks with it, but it's okay because nobody at ARK ever thinks to turn off that card's access privileges. (Probably because nobody actually works at the ARK Corp. Aha — the major drawback to over-reliance on technology instead of the human element!)
And then there's L9, which is a "super expanding chemical explosive" that officially doesn't exist — but it can blow up a car with a police chief inside without harming the guy who's standing right next to the car. And if you blow up a shipload of the stuff, it'll leave half of Palm City a toxic smoldering wreck.
So all in all, The Cape takes place in a world where technology has advanced to nearly incomprehensible levels of floatiness and omnipotence. And thanks to the power of technology, we're all in danger of living in a "police state" of corporate domination, trapped in the swirly chessboard of a masked lunatic. Our only real hope for salvation is a guy so old-school, he thinks that the only way to stop reading a blog is to turn your computer off. He's armed with the secrets of the 19th Century, chief among them a cape of physics-defying spider-silk.
Bottom line. The Cape might be the most comic-booky show about comic book heroes ever made. The opening credits are comic-book panels. The dialogue is pure Silver Age cheese. Just when you get bored, they throw in a hilarious grace-note, like a raccoon robbing a bank. ("Do we think the raccoon acted alone?") The hero bases his persona on an incredibly bad-looking comic, although I'm dying to learn more about the other fictional comic book in the Cape universe, Rad Lass.
But the show is clearly the work of people who haven't picked up a comic since the 1960s. The pace rattles forward hyperactively but unevenly. Story logic is incidental. Characters are thinly sliced and their personalities depend on the story's needs at that moment. The main villain is a genius mastermind — who seems unable to put two and two together.
On the plus side, it's a lightweight goofy show that's not really intended to be taken seriously, and as the serialized PG-rated equivalent of a Troma movie, it has some charms. (Too bad the ratings were underwhelming.) On the minus side, the show seemed designed to make us realize Heroes wasn't so bad after all. But instead, it had the effect of making me miss The Middleman, which ran rings around this show.