I Specialize in Impossible
The cape in The Cape doesn’t belong to the guy who calls himself the Cape. It’s the property of a magician-turned-crook, Max (Keith David). It is also extraordinary in every way, as Max describes it: “Made entirely of spider silk, stronger than Kevlar, thinner than filament.” When he first offers use of the cape to Vince Faraday (David Lyons), an erstwhile cop looking for a new way to fight crime, Max explains his generosity, sort of: “I’ve broken 92 bones in pursuit of the perfect illusion. I’ve trained a generation of escapists, acrobats, and magicians. I specialize in impossible.”
So okay, every comic book superhero needs a mentor, right? Someone who shows him ropes and inspires him, someone who helps him hide his secrets and adjusts his moral compass. Usually, that mentor is low-key, the sort who’d rather the mentee attract attention and appreciates said mentee’s appeal. In The Cape, though, not only does Max have the cape, but he’s also got the smarts, the backstory, charisma. Poor Vince doesn’t have a chance.
This imbalance is built into almost every aspect of the show, from plot to casting. Vince is saddled with the typical sappy family plot (he’s framed for murder and believed dead, and so leaves his young son and lovely wife sad and sadly accompanied by a drippy piano score) and a banal desire for vengeance against the man who takes all this from him. This would be the series’ villain, the rich, conniving, utterly arrogant Peter Fleming (James Frain), CEO of Ark Corporation, a Blackwaterish contractor that’s recently privatized the Palm City police force and is poised to run the prisons as well. Predictably, Fleming frames his greed as patriotism: his company’s “paid millions of dollars to train police officers in Afghanistan while American cities are left to crumble in neglect,” he spins it to Vince. “I want to change all that. First, we have to rebuild the trust.”
What Vince misses, being the grandson of a sheriff, is that trust here equals gullibility: citizens in Fleming’s eyes are mere vehicles to increased profits, a box to check en route to a contract. “The people,” he says, “will be so afraid, the fear will never leave them. Ark can pursue its goals while they cheer for us.” Both Fleming and Max traffic in illusions. Both are willing to use Vince (and other minions) to achieve their ends, and neither much believes in civic duty the intrinsic value of human life. Fleming makes threats (“I’ll find out who you love, I will make them scream”), but Max has panache: “I’ll make you the greatest circus act that ever lived,” he promises Vince.
Faced with a choice between bad and worse, Vince opts for Max’s Carnival of Crime, where he’s aligned with a little person MMA fighter (Martin Klebba), a blond in sequins (Izabella Miko), and Orwell, a surveillance expert played by Summer Glau (the go-to girl for ooky-but-sweet science-fiction, as in: Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, Dollhouse, Serenity). Like Eyes Only in Dark Angel, Orwell exposes the bad guys using the internet, but throwing in with the Cape seems a more direct route to justice: she provides locations and building blueprints, he provides muscle (he spends his off hours on a heavy bag) and moralizing: while the cape’s illusion allows him to appear and disappear in puffs of smoke, his indignation drives him to make accusations and exact violent payback.
As Vince learns from Max “just how much the human body can withstand, and the mind,” he fine-tunes his own righteous self-image. Yes, he sighs to Orwell, he wears “long underwear and a cape,” and yes, learns mind control from an exotic sideshow mentalist named Ruvi (Anil Kumar), who tells him, “The point is not to let the sucker know he’s being hypnotized.” Max and his crew are fond of pointing out their differences from civilians (suckers or not), and it makes a certain sense to affiliate superheroes with circus performers, to note their similar flair and excess, their affection for tricks and deceits.
To see the superhero as something of a con-man, no matter his super-self-righteousness, clarifies the capacity for delusion he needs in order to do his work and believe in his secret identity. It’s a helpful conception, and it makes the Cape less tedious than he would be otherwise. His wife who thinks she’s a widow, Dana (Jennifer Ferrin), engages in another sort of circus act, as she restarts her career as a lawyer to support her son, and also has to take on the tabloidification of her own life (married to a murderer). As the show cuts between their shared flashbacks (moving in together, cooing to their newborn baby), Dana and Vince seem to share a sensibility as well as a past. It’s an awkward device, mostly designed to motivate Vince, even as you’re hoping it’s going to give Dana more of a story.
As much as they have at stake, neither Vince nor Dana is as much fun to watch as Max. Master of the arched eyebrow and the sly grin, Max is better than a circus act.