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Friday in the Swipe File

by  in Comic News Comment
Friday in the Swipe File

I rarely get requests for things to cover here, so when I do, it’s difficult to ignore. Especially when it was something I was thinking about doing anyway.

Our own Bill Reed sent me this e-mail on Monday–

Please tell me you’re watching The Cape. And planning a column that reveals it as a continuation of the televisual superhero fare of the 70s and 90s. This thing is totally the successor to Nicholas Hammond’s Spider-Man, and MANTIS, and all the rest, to every extent.

Bill’s not mistaken. The Cape is essentially stitched together from about a dozen other superhero/crimefighter/masked-avenger shows.

Calling it a ‘continuation’ is a bit charitable… I think it’s more a case of out-and-out theft.

Seriously. I mean damn near every scene in the first hour was stolen from something else.

I’ll unpack it for you. Rich Johnston does a bit called “Swipe File,” and I hope he’ll forgive me if I, uh… swipe it. Let’s take a look at the TV version. Here’s the Swipe File on The Cape.

There’s some spoilers below… although if you’re reading a site like CBR I guarantee you that none — not one — of these plot points from the premiere will be new to you. As I go down the list I think it will amaze even those who thought The Cape was old hat. I’ll highlight the swipes in bold type for you.

We open with benevolent millionaire industrialist Peter Fleming (James Frain) volunteering to fund and equip the broken and corrupt Palm City police force after the new police chief is killed by a car bomb. Of course, this millionaire turns out to be EEEE-vil and in fact Fleming engineered the whole thing so his own cops could step in.

Much like allegedly benevolent but secretly EEEE-vil billionaire industrialist Lex Luthor sabotaged the EPRAD space station so as to promote his own, in the Lois and Clark pilot.

Look familiar? It should. James Frain was practically channeling John Shea's Luthor from LOIS AND CLARK. Except Luthor never bothered to put on his lizard contacts when he was about to be bad. Maybe Frain thought he was actually working on ABC's V.

I mentioned this to my friend Dave, who promptly pointed out that secretly EEEE-vil corporate schemer Dick Jones from Robocop also planned to sabotage the police in order to replace them with his own private force of robots.

I think John Shea’s Luthor is closer, but the fact that we’re trying to figure out which swipe is more appropriate to attribute to The Cape kind of tells you where this is going….

… Anyway, Fleming then plans to smuggle in more massively illegal high explosives. One good cop, Vince Faraday (David Lyons, looking very earnest) is alerted to this by a mysterious online journalist-blogger type, known only as “Orwell.”

Except for the gender transposition, the Cape has the same setup with Orwell that Dark Angel did with Eyes Only.

Orwell is basically the same as Dark Angel‘s Eyes Only, except on this show the genders are reversed. In the Cape version, Orwell is a comely young lady (Summer Glau.)

Because he’s a good policeman who genuinely CARES about his city, Faraday hustles down to the docks to find the explosives are being shipped inside a bunch of toys. Furthermore, the whole smuggling operation is being supervised by a corrupt cop. The same way corrupt cop Flass supervised smuggling Carmine Falcone’s drugs inside a bunch of children’s toys in Batman Begins.

Faraday is captured, evidence is planted to frame him for the whole thing, and then he’s turned loose to run for his life. A chase ensues with Fleming’s evil police closing in on Vince, many shots are fired, and the train car full of flammable gas that Vince is hiding under gets blown up. Everyone assumes he’s dead. Much in the same way policeman Michael Long was shot and assumed dead in the pilot for Knight Rider.

Vince Faraday, one good cop about to be presumed dead, and Michael Knight, former good cop presumed dead. People focus on the super car in KNIGHT RIDER and forget that Michael Knight was once a cop named Michael Long.

But, like Michael Long/Michael Knight, Vince Faraday also has mysterious help that whisks him away from death’s door and nurses him back to health. He is captured by a circus troupe that, it turns out, are actually a band of skilled thieves. After some initial mistrust, they accept him as one of their own and he begs them to teach him what they know, so that he can use those skills to help him in his quest for justice.

This looks like a new angle until you realize that it’s a mashup of Sword of Justice, where falsely-accused Dack Rambo learned the skills of all the master thieves he met in prison in order to further his quest, and The Magician, where Bill Bixby used stage magic and stunts to fight crime.

By the way? I would totally buy both of these shows on DVD if they got legit releases. Especially THE MAGICIAN.

Vince is mentored by the aging magician and escapist Max, who takes pity on Faraday and his impossible quest.

Vince is seething with rage as he sees how the evil Fleming and his minions in the police are slandering him on the TV and in the press. Max cautions him that getting emotional will only get him killed, and we have a training montage.

The whole sequence is lifted practically whole from the training scenes with Antonio Banderas and Anthony Hopkins in The Mask of Zorro. Especially the bit where Vince and Max talk about how in order to win, Faraday must become someone else entirely, a larger-than-life figure, a symbol. Vince will become …The Cape!

This is not without pain and sacrifice, of course. Vince is constantly pining for his wife and son, who think Vince is dead. He longs to tell them the truth, but he dare not, for fear of endangering them.

Much like the way Eric Close constantly was pining for his wife and daughter who thought he was dead, and longed to tell them the truth about his new superhero life but didn’t dare, on Now and Again.

Gotta give it to THE CAPE here. It's a better show than NOW AND AGAIN... but NOW AND AGAIN came first.

However, for those of you that are thinking this is more like the bits with Ellen Murphy and Robocop in Robocop 2, well, that case is there to be made as well. (Credit for this one goes to my friend Dave, again– once he mentioned Robocop all sorts of stuff jumped out at me.)

I suppose it's possible that NOW AND AGAIN swiped this riff from ROBOCOP, but they're so utterly different in every other way I'm inclined to call it coincidence.

Also like Now and Again, we constantly shift away from the superheroic doings of Faraday and his struggles to check in on the missus and the kid. It turns out Mrs. Faraday is a plucky lawyer willing to take on hopeless causes in the name of justice…

…much like Katie Holmes in Batman Begins. One was a D.A., the other a defense lawyer, but otherwise, they are indistinguishable.

Also? All plucky young lawyer ladies must be HOT.

By the end of the premiere, we have set up the basic situation– The Cape is going to be about our hero’s ongoing battle with the EEEE-vil Ark Corproation magnate Peter Fleming and his various villainous proxies, and he’ll be aided by Max and the circus gang, as well as by comely young Orwell, who communicates with the Cape via radio to keep him updated while he’s out beating up bad guys.

Both these characters seeming oddly familiar... ? OTHER than the Luthor and Eyes Only references?

Deja vu again? Probably because it’s the same way Mutant X was largely about the battle against the EEEE-vil Genomex Corporation magnate Mason Eckhart and his various villainous proxies. And in addition to riffing on Dark Angel‘s Eyes Only, Ms. Glau is doing double duty by also serving as the Cape’s version of Tina McGee from The Flash.

At least they didn't make Frains wear some horrid faux-Albino wig like they did poor Tom McCamus.

And I could go on and on. (I’m sure others will, in the comments below.) Never mind all the obvious Batman schticks that are looted– there’s only so many ways to do a caped urban vigilante, after all– but by the time the widow Faraday had landed the lawyer’s job, Julie and I had made a parlor game of spotting where the next bit in the premiere was going to be lifted from.

Sure, some of these things are probably coincidence. And some might fall into the category of genre convention –admittedly, evil billionaire industrialists have been a dime a dozen ever since Ian Fleming’s Auric Goldfinger. But THAT many swipes? All in a row?

Now, I doubt that actual plagiarism took place. If someone were to bust screenwriter Thomas Wheeler on all these things, I daresay he’d bristle. He’d probably swear up and down that he’s never heard of Sword of Justice or The Magician. (Hardly anyone has.) It’s even possible that he arrived at every single one of these cliché ideas independently. Or that he meant some of them– you know the words, sing along!– “as an homage.”

No. Sorry, but no. Just as an aside, let’s take a moment to explain what homage is, because I’m getting seriously annoyed with it being the go-to defense for people who traffic in pasted-together clichés.

Homage is something creators do when they’ve already established their own thing, and it’s an earned privilege. When The Middleman did a version of the Star Trek Mirror Universe, yeah, that was homage. When Hustle did a Bollywood musical number in one episode, that was homage. Human Target is clearly working the same turf as the action shows of the 1970s and 1980s and the creators have said up front that this is their intention, so when they cast Lee Majors as “the first Christopher Chance,” that’s a nice little homage. All those folks thoroughly established their own bona fides before slyly referencing things that came before, and those homage references were asides. They weren’t the load-bearing pillars of the entire enterprise.

But when you stitch together a bunch of clichés into a patchwork Frankenstein’s Monster like the premiere of The Cape, without a single acknowledgement to anything that came before, you are either stealing or — and this is more likely, in this case– you haven’t got an original thought in your head. It’s not pastiche, it’s not parody, and especially it’s not frigging homage. It’s just grabbing for the easy answer every time you have to make a storytelling choice.

All that being said… we did enjoy it, after a fashion.

The Cape might very well turn into something cool. The level of craft on display is amazing. It’s a great-looking show, and the actors are all doing yeoman work with almost nothing to work with. (Keith David as Max, especially, is great.) It’s done with tremendous verve. Certainly, the whole thing is more fun to watch than the show it’s replacing, The Event.

But praising The Cape, I feel like I’m complimenting a shoplifter on his good taste. All the reviews I’ve seen are using the phrase deja vu. Well, now you know why… we really have seen it all before. It’s just that most reviewers aren’t nerdy enough to have all the references at their fingertips… like Bill Reed, or me, or, probably, most of the other regulars around here.

It’s nice that NBC went after the geek demographic so hard. It’s lovely that they brought the cast to San Diego and so on.

But you know what would really have helped? A little less sucking up and a little more actual geekery. I can’t see Joss Whedon or John Rogers or Javier Grillo-Marxuach or, really, any of the guys that genuinely know their way around genre TV and movies making dumbass copycat mistakes like this. Hell, even the staff of Smallville knows better.

Let’s hope The Cape gets some actual superhero writers for their superhero show, or it’s going to end up truly going the way of those series Bill mentioned in his e-mail — and by that, I mean it’ll end up as a miserable failure done by people with no understanding of the material. Despite my fond memories of the schlock TV of my youth, that’s not really a tradition I need to see come back.

See you next week.

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