I realize I’m late to the party that is NBC’s much-derided superhero TV series The Cape, which ran briefly earlier this year, but which saw its first season cut short following poor reviews and abysmal ratings. Because it first appeared after I had already finished writing my dissertation on contemporary superhero narratives, I felt relieved at the time that I wouldn’t have to waste my time on several hours of rancid pulp with -according to most reliable accounts- zero redeeming features.
But now that I’m working on my book, I’m on the lookout for more recent superhero stuff that I could refer to, and given my well-known fondness for all things excessively trashy, curiosity finally got the better of me, and I downloaded the first season. And boy, was I in for a treat.
Since most of the bad reviews I’d read made it sound like the show was flawed rather than a total stink-bomb, it seemed like it would be a waste of time to indulge in it for any length of time. Fortunately, The Cape is in reality so insanely awful that it could almost be interpreted as a cleverly conceived satire of the worst clichés of the superhero formula. Like a live-action version of some best-forgotten Saturday morning cartoon, it puts exclamation marks behind every line of dialogue, moves from one situation to the next with near-hysterical abandon, while the garish lighting appears to emulate the lurid aesthetics of only the trashiest type of comics.
In its own way, NBC’s once-popular Heroes was just as stupid and superficial, even if fans for a short time mistook its bombastic pretensions for innovative complexity. The Cape wisely ditches the hollow soul-searching of the postmodern superhero, instead wearing its pulp heart on its sleeve throughout, and aiming for the kind of affectionate B-movie nostalgia that made stuff like Darkman so enjoyable.
But once again, the road to hell appears to be paved with good intentions, as in the case of The Cape, the execution simply fails miserably on all possible levels. Everything about it is too obvious, from its unimaginative premise to its dumb-as-a-bag-of-hammers scripting. Most incidental pleasures are therefore of the unintentional kind: the adoring wife and child our hero leaves behind as he assumes his role of vigilante superhero, its ‘futuristic’ computer interfaces and other laughable attempts to include new media in its archaic urban environment, its cackling villain characters, and its clueless casting decisions. And then of course there’s the eternally hilarious central conceit of the protagonist’s superpower: the eponymous cape.
Apart from this ill-conceived and underdeveloped core component, a cape “made entirely of spider silk – stronger than Kevlar but thinner than filament” (???), many other aspects of the show tend to defy belief and -indeed- rational argument: the omniscient blogger/sidekick Orwell, who always shows up in the right place at the right time; the corrupt former partner, who suddenly appears to have a finger in every pie in the Gotham-like Palm City (is the city’s name ironic? is it completely arbitrary? who’s to know…); and especially, the gang of circus performers-cum-bank robbers our hero falls in with, who act, dress, and behave like cast rejects from the Pirates of the Caribbean movies.
Amongst that group, B-movie star Keith David reliably hams it up as The Cape’s mentor/father figure, solemnly intoning his completely nonsensical dialogue in just the right tone, as if he’s the only guy on-screen who’s actually in on the joke. So although The Cape debuted to universal derision, I predict that it may experience an unexpectedly long shelf-life as a cult favorite.