LOS ANGELES — The aim of every superhero is to save something — the day, the world, the girl or the boy. But a more pointed question these days might be, “Who is saving the new superheroes?”
Many classic costumed regulars are doing fine, especially at the movies — Superman, Batman, Spider-Man, and Iron Man still thrill decades after first arriving on the scene. Meanwhile, the highly anticipated big-screen debuts of Captain America and Thor are fast approaching.
But in the past few years — particularly on the small screen — a new crop of would-be do-gooders have largely been greeted by the sentiment behind Tina Turner’s “Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome” anthem, “We Don’t Need Another Hero.” ABC’s “No Ordinary Family,” about a family that acquires special powers, has been attracting less than extraordinary ratings, and NBC is still reeling from the colossal crash-and-burn from its once promising “Heroes.”
And now stepping into the risky superhero arena is “The Cape,” NBC’s midseason drama about a framed cop who transforms himself into a comic-book style hero. The alternative hero battles evil with a specially designed garment and an arsenal of magical abilities, including, of course, an astonishing ability to use his trademark cape as a shield and weapon. The network is putting considerable promotional and financial muscle behind the drama, which debuts Sunday with a special two-hour premiere before settling into its regular 9 p.m. EST Monday slot (the show replaces the temporarily benched “The Event”).
The formidable producing team behind the new show believes “The Cape” can easily overcome the odds stacked against other superhero projects. Producers cite the show’s high production values and its contemporary twist on classic superhero genre themes dealing with alienation and redemption.
“We have developed a superhero mythology that works with a very contemporary sense,” executive producer Gail Berman said. “The hero here doesn’t have superpowers, just heightened skills, living in a world that feels very unfair and totally out of his control. I believe a lot of viewers will be able to connect with that.”
Creating a new superhero from scratch as opposed to embellishing an established property can be daunting. With “No Ordinary Family,” for example, the challenge in attracting an audience is whether the new universe created for the new series is sufficiently different from “The Fantastic Four” — and yet not so dissimilar that it alienates.
In “The Cape,” former Palm City police officer Vince Faraday (David Lyons) is forced to leave his family and go underground when he is framed for the death of the police chief by a ruthless billionaire mogul (James Frain) intent on taking over the city. Faraday falls in with a band of underworld circus performers, and the troupe trains him to become “The Cape,” complete with a new and unusual skill set to assist him in his crime fighting efforts.
Berman, the former head of Fox Broadcasting who currently runs the high-powered production company BermanBraun with former ABC chief Lloyd Braun, said they responded immediately to creator Tom Weller’s pitch of a man forcibly separated from those he loves.
“There are a lot of people who feel that it’s the love of the family that keeps them going, and that’s a key theme for this show,” added Berman, who was one of the main forces behind “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and other genre shows. “There’s this strong undercurrent of mythology combined with this man who has just one single goal — to get back to his family.”
Weller, a self-professed comic-book geek since he was 5 years old, said “The Cape” will have more than its share of action and over-the-top villains with names like Chess and Scales: “There’ll be plenty of bells and whistles, but the heart of the show is this family that’s been torn apart.”
NBC has been hyping the series for several weeks, and held a gala premiere party Tuesday complete with fire twirlers and contortionists.
Still, some pop culture observers believe the series has its work cut out for it.
“It’s not impossible for a new comic-book style hero to work in TV and become a brand,” said Michael Uslan, an executive producer of the “Batman” film franchise. “Just look at ‘The Great American Hero.’ It goes to the basic issue of branding. Fans these days are very sophisticated, and they know when it’s the real thing and when it’s not. Unless it’s really special and fresh, it’s hard to connect with them.”