Jul 1, 2015

Giant Box of Television: The Cape

As a part of my comics-collecting mania, I've amassed a fairly substantial Video/DVD/Blu-Ray collection of comic book-based films and television shows, erring mostly on the side of superheroes. Some are quite substantial (i.e., all 10 seasons of Smallville), but some are less so. As I finish a collection, be it season or series, I'll offer a few thoughts on the show, why it works, why it doesn't, and what it does for superheroes in general.

I discovered The Cape through Community. The Community rallying cry of "#SixSeasonsandaMovie" hails from an episode where Abed Nadir, pop culture enthusiast/obsessive, becomes enamoured with The Cape television show, claiming that it'll last for 6 seasons and a movie.

Abed was wrong.

There are 10 extant episodes of The Cape, collected onto a double-DVD collection. I picked it up on a whim, having found it for a good cheap price, and having seen the references to it on Community. It made up a good chunk of my post-exam television-watching, and having completed the series, I cannot for the life of me, especially in the wake of the success of The Flash television show this year, understand why it was not more successful. The Cape offers all the crazy, ridiculous, nonsensical logic of a comic book superhero universe. But more than just that, it recognizes the craziness, the ridiculousness, and embraces it, celebrates it. It's a remarkably self-aware series, something built directly into the fabric of the series as a result of the main character, Vince Faraday, taking on the identity of his son's favourite comic book superhero in order to clear his sullied name. What makes it a remarkable metatext for a superhero series is that there is little to no reference to more well-know superheroes in the series. The Cape, the character, draws strikingly obvious visual hallmarks from Batman. His origin, in some ways, is a reverse, or revamp, of Batman's origin, this time with the father of the family ostensibly dying while the son and wife attempt to continue on.

I shouldn't, perhaps, say that the series doesn't reference its more famous predecessors so quickly, though. Faraday/The Cape's powers and training are provided by a group that call themselves "The Carnival of Crime," hearkening back to Marvel's Ringmaster-led "Circus of Crime." But we're in a world where there are no superpowers to speak of, thus no Princess Pythons, etc. This carnival is composed of people who have become really good at their chosen skill, be it acrobat or hypnotist, and have applied those skills to less-than-altruistic goals. This is one of the really fascinating aspects of the show. The Cape is ostensibly a good guy, a former cop, a devoted father and husband, yet he teams up with a completely morally-ambiguous group of miscreants. And it's not like they hide their activities from him. We see here a prioritizing of crimes that begs deeper investigation. Faraday is attempting to expose the super-villainy of main antagonist Peter Fleming, a.k.a. Chess, a man who not only framed him, but is in the process of taking over the city in order to fund his criminal activities. He bears a striking resemblance to Wilson Fisk, actually, though that may be because I was watching the Netflix Daredevil series at the same time as The Cape. They are very similar series, though Daredevil errs a little more on the dark side than The Cape.

I'm going to revise that statement, actually, and I think the revision might offer a little insight as to why this series wasn't as successful as, in my opinion, it should have been. Let me just jump back to Community for a second. In one of the season finale's, Abed Nadir is transported to "The Darkest Timeline," a version of the show in which all of the main characters have been corrupted almost to the point of super-villainy. The alternate Abed has reformed, however, and, in passing while trying to stop an invasion of the prime timeline, mentions that The Cape was retooled for cable television, and became amazing. Had this actually happened, then the dark superherodom of Daredevil would have been preceded by, maybe even heralded by, The Cape. I noted above that the series embraces the ridiculousness of the superhero genre, but does so affectionately. At the same time, however, it looks to the noir-ish superheroes, Bendis and Maleev's Daredevil being a good example, for inspiration also. I wonder if the problem is that the two don't necessarily mesh particularly well? I've knocked this idea about before, but I'm trying to figure out how a superhero series, be it print or film, can balance itself between the celebratory and the deconstructive. The term I'm starting to bandy about for this process is the notion of an "ironically reconstructionist" viewpoint, in that we're in the celebratory mode, the reconstruction of the myth and fantasy of the superhero, but we're viewing that reconstruction from an ironic vantage, realizing the inherent flaws of these kinds of fictional constructions, but acknowledging that the flaws are an intrinsic part of the myth itself. One of the most common complaints I've heard about Superman is that he is too strong, too perfect. How can there be any suspense, any uncertainty, with a character who is that capable? From an ironic reconstructionist point of view, which I assert is the POV of a work like All-Star Superman, we recognize the flaw of his perfection but accept it as part of the myth. The trick is to tell stories about such a character that embrace this recognition without taking it completely apart.

So what does that have to do with The Cape?

Superhero television/film properties have not been as prominent as the same sorts of properties in comics. Obviously. In comics, we've had almost 80 years of being able to take the superhero apart, place it back together, understand what makes the archetype function, what makes the specific heroes remarkable, what makes them flawed. We've worked through celebratory fervor (think Superman during World War II, or Batman during the 60s television show boom), and, somewhat notoriously, through the deconstructive moment of the late 80s and early 90s (thank you, Alan Moore.) In comics studies, we've had time to assimilate those points of view, and refashion them into what I'm calling ironic reconstructivism. The televisual incarnations of these characters/character-types have not had the same benefit of time. In fact, looking to the DC films and the Marvel films, it's almost like we're working through those two modes at the same time. Nolan's Batman series, and the subsequent DC properties, are deconstructive almost to a fault, whereas the Marvel films are all about spectacle, with, if I'm to be honest, very little substance beneath the flash. Neither of these approaches is wrong, and both have very fruitful applications to the way we can think about superheroes. But a show like The Cape, where the two are being fused, rather expertly, I might add, suffers for the want of time to assimilate these viewpoints. Comic book superhero fans are still working through the ramifications of the Dark Knight/Watchmen treatment of superheroes, and we like to think we've got a handle on what that kind of treatment means for our mythic heroes (we don't, though, just to make things clear). The wider popular audience that a superhero television show is attempting to appeal to hasn't had that luxury of years of discussion and thought to lead us to an ironic reconstructionist text like All-Star Superman. Nolan's version of Batman was revelatory for many people, and so was Whedon's The Avengers, in vastly different ways, and I'm not sure that a film that attempted to fuse, or bridge, the aesthetic/rhetorical visions of the two would have been even remotely as successful as the two films were independently. Though Mad Max: Fury Road comes close. That's a conversation for another time.

Thus, The Cape is cancelled. And not gently, either. Shortened from a 13-episode order to a 10-episode order, we are left at the conclusion of the series with questions that, it seems, will go unanswered forever. The difficult part is that you could see the showrunners getting ready to conclude the storyline, moving us into the endgame that has been coming between The Cape and Chess from the very first episode. Had the series been allowed the last three episodes, had it been allowed to finish the story, or one of the stories, that it had to tell, we might have seen the cable revamp that Dark Abed hints at. The Cape concealed within itself the potential for a superhero series that allowed us to question what makes a hero, what are the lengths to which one might go in order to serve justice, as opposed to law? At the same time, it allowed us to embrace wonder, to see that the superhero really does reside within us, and that it's function is not simply the vengeful path of Batman or Wolverine, but the ascending path of Superman, the celebration of the powers we carry within us and the ways they can benefit the world. It's a wonderful conversation to be having, but perhaps The Cape just started the discussion slightly before it should have.

One note to anyone who might check the series out: there is a comic book called The Cape, published by IDW, that has nothing to do with the television series. I was so excited to see that it had been continued in the medium of its genesis, and to see that I might actually have a chance to at least see the conclusion to the story being told in season 1. Alas, such was not the case. I still hold out hope, though. This series deserves a look from superhero fans. It's speaking to our beloved genre in some interesting ways. It also deserves a second chance, especially now, during the superheroic media golden age within which we find ourselves. Vince Faraday, Peter Fleming, the Carnival of Crime, they are wonderful creations. And once created, it's hard to keep a good superhero narrative down.

Here's an interview with Creator Tom Wheeler, in which he is quite optimistic about the show's future. Someday, perhaps.

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