Thursday, February 3, 2011

The Cape and Supers in General

Mike Brotherton  posted up a quick thought bubble on why do superheroes on TV suck ass recently. I popped him off a quick reply, and then realized that the subject is an interesting question.

We see a plethora of comics to movies today. The obvious successes like Sam Raimi's Spiderman films. del Toro's great spin on Hellboy.  Jon Favreau's Iron Man.  Then you get into the lesser knowns, like The Losers. 30 Days of Night. Road to Perdition. Ghost World. A History of Violence.  There are high profile faves that have hit the screen, like Scott Pilgram and The Green Hornet, and then you have barely recognizable adaptations like Wanted that threw out the original comic premise for something that might be called "inspired" by the comic, while pretty much just tossing out the original. Then you have Zack Snyder doing essentially a frame by frame recreation of 300, and the same can be said for Robert Rodriguez doing much the same for Sin City--even including Frank Miller in the directing credits.

The thing Mike's blog touched on, was that TV superhero series have a spotty record.  While I still have fond memories of Lynda Carter's Wonder Woman--and to be entirely fair, the woman made those big ol' granny panties work for her, so how can not love the show--and I'm old enough to remember Legend of the Superheroes.  Yes, there was The Hulk. The Shazam/Isis Hour on Saturday mornings--and let's not forget Electra Woman and Dyna-Girl. The Greatest American Hero as a sort of deconstruction of the genre. The terrible Flash adaptation. Later we had a re-imagined Lois and Clark. Now, we have the almost unrecognizable Superboy in Smallville. There have been a ton of superhero series. Some fair, some not so great. Some terrible. Some, like Heroes started off with high hopes, and then sort of fell into mediocrity if not eventual collapse of anything resembling sense or structure.

Series like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and its spinoff Angel, fared better. Better writing was a start, and to be fair, TV has been kinder to fantasy series, and urban horror fantasy, than to straight up stories about guys and gals in capes and costumes.

In part, because, as cool as the costumes may seem on paper, when you put a grown man into spandex, you realize, that the physiques that the heroes of comics have are impossible. Not just the wasp waisted and titanic bewbs that most comic heroines have, but the men as well.  Even Olympic gymnasts and swimmers fail in comparison to most superheroes.  Put a costume on folks, and it gets silly fast.  Even super high tech costumes like MANTIS.

TV just doesn't have the budgets to work with that del Toro and Favreau have. Or Zack Snyder can pull in.  That isn't lost on TV producers either.  They want the demographic, but often don't understand the audience. Yes, I'm looking at even the Sci-Fi Network. Or the SyFy Network.  When a network programming lead says that she doesn't really like all that science talk or goofiness with aliens, you know that you're pretty much boned for good science fiction, and that sort of puts a damper on things like superhero spins as well. Producers who are looking to capitalize on a fad, but without understanding of the genre produce things like SuperCroc vs Gatoroid or the fifty brazillion disaster variations and the Mythological Beast Attacks of the month that SyFy has gone for in their TV movies. Or adapting straight up fantasies and slipping them in on a network supposedly devoted to science fiction. It is that lack of understanding of the genre that leads TV supers down an ugly and odd road.

Most often, it's a move to "deconstruct" the genre.  Greatest American Hero. Heroes. Lois and Clark turned Superman into a romance. Smallville turns Supes into a teen angst soap opera. Why?  Because those are things that the producers understand.  Just give the outer veneer of a man who can fly, or a girl who can heal anything, and then turn loose the monkeys to churn out scripts filled with pregnant pauses, dewy looks that are rife with longing--which sadly usually looks like our Dear Heroine sat on a pin--and they call it a success.

This is why I chose to take a look at The Cape.  I am a fan of another comic inspired series, The Human Target, though, the producers don't really tout it as a "comic series." The Human Target has been fun, and while it is a departure from the comic, in that our Beamish Boy isn't replacing his client so much, as a team related exercise in bodyguarding in a similar vein to the odd turns that Burn Notice has taken to, it is still a serviceable series.  Like many comic inspired properties, the producers threw out the original, and just use the title and character names, and roll on like a big wheel. I understand this, and I've pretty much resigned myself to it.

Which is why The Cape sort of captured my attention.  It's about half way through its first season, and it's taken some decent names and put them on camera. Keith David, Vinnie Jones, Summer Glau, all have some street cred for their chops on geeky franchises. It's a series that is unabashedly about a guy in a cape, and with a suitably genre background of a cop turned acrobat and stage magician, with a tricked out cape and a lot of parlor tricks he learned from a carny to fight crime, and clear his name, to rejoin his family who thinks him dead.

A lot to process?  It always seems like it with superhero properties. The stream of minutia and characters and all the odd plot pieces, but then again, try distilling down the relationships and sub-plots in NCIS sometime.  Comic series have their conventions, and motivations to be a hero is part of that. Our Vince Faraday has his own demons to fight, even as Bruce Wayne, or Frank Castle do. Revenge is always an easy one to understand.

The effects are not amazing. Vinnie Jones has an odd makeup as the sort of Killer Croc inspired Scales as an oddly disfugured dock boss.  James Frain's Chess is a diabolical planner, and the concession to showing his ebbil is his mask on occasion, and some odd contacts when he is wallowing in his own crapulence. Faraday's cape is an odd blend of bungi effects, CGI whipping around, and folding back into his cowl.  But the action isn't bad.  And the story is refreshingly open as a comic series go on TV. Not lost in trying to shed being a comic inspired series, it doesn't take the angst filled road that bogged down both Lois and Clark and Smallville, punctuated with melodrama.  Instead, The Cape follows a cop who wants to clear his name, and is getting used by his Circus of Crime mentor Max Malini, and Summer Glau's cryptic Orwell.  He's tortured by not being able to reach out to his wife and son who think him dead, and he breaks to see his son in the guise of The Cape, inspired by his son's favorite comic.

The one thing that I like about the series is that it doesn't shy away from the comicdom it comes from. It is at least honest with itself on this, and while it isn't the quality of writing that we saw in HBO's Rome--and to be fair, there are few shows that can be held to that standard--it is at least honest about where it comes from, and the material.

Great television?  Maybe not, but it doesn't suck necessarily, because it's not actively trying to be anything else than what it is. Which is actually kind of nice for a change.  It gives me hope that TV producers might eventually get the concepts that make a decent superhero concept. 

Perfect?  Far from it, but servicable and if you like the genre, it might be worth giving a spin, at least on Hulu to try it on for size.

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