What makes a TV superhero truly super?
His powers? His costume? His crusade against evil?
If you examine some of TV's most memorable live-action superhero series -- from the giddy kiddie-show heroics on The Adventures of Superman to the self-loathing angst that characters endured on Heroes -- you'll quickly arrive at the conclusion that there is no single right formula for success.
Granted, there's a TV superhero playbook of sorts, a set of generally accepted "rules" to the genre. Yet these conventions are often broken and sometimes the results are quite interesting.
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That said, the creators of The Cape, NBC's ambitious new superhero series premiering at 8 p.m. Sunday, seem to know the rules chapter and verse as they walk a thin line between realism and escapism.
Here are some of the ways in which this new hero known as The Cape, an unjustly disgraced cop who battles criminal forces in Palm City, measures up against the giants of the genre.
With the notable exception of Batman, a campy comedy that never bothered to address how millionaire Bruce Wayne entered the crime-fighting game, almost all other superhero shows have started by serving up the hows, whys and whens. The early episodes of Heroes did this best.
When Hiro Nakamura, the Japanese office drone, discovered that he could travel through time; when high school cheerleader Claire Bennet comes to the conclusion that she is indestructible; when Nathan Petrelli, the ambitious politician, tries to conceal his ability to fly; when they all are coming to grips with the idea that they're meant to do something special -- that was the season in which Heroes soared.
The Cape opens with an origin story as well: Vince Faraday, played by David Lyons, is a cop framed for crimes that he did not commit. Thought to have been killed by Palm City's corrupt law enforcement, Faraday goes underground and is befriended by a group of carnival misfits/bank robbers. Driven to restore his reputation, to reunite with his family and to bring down the city's master criminal, Faraday becomes a flesh-and-blood version of The Cape, his son's favorite comic-book superhero.
Almost every superhero has a distinctive look. Superman's costume of red, blue and yellow, faithful to the comics in which he first appeared, is a classic. Same goes for the get-ups worn by Batman, Wonder Woman and The Flash. The Incredible Hulk, the green-skinned giant perpetually bursting out of his smaller alter-ego's clothes, essentially is his own costume. A super suit of extraterrestrial origin is a vital element of The Greatest American Hero -- it's the source of Ralph Hinkley's superpowers.
On the other end of the spectrum , Smallville's Clark Kent went years before donning his Superman suit. Steve Austin of The Six Million Dollar Man fame and Jaime Sommers of The Bionic Woman didn't bother with costumes -- or with secret identities either. And the closest that Heroes came to having a costumed hero was Claire in her cheerleader clothes.
As for The Cape, our hero's costume is an integral element of the show. His look consists of a mask, a cape with a hood and body armor. It's moodily stylish in a Dark Knight way.
Superpowers and supergadgets
Some superheroes are born with their exceptional powers; others gain their powers via scientific mishaps or genetic mutations. Then there's Batman and The Green Hornet, ordinary men who just happen to have extraordinary fighting skills and an imaginative arsenal of crime-fighting gear.
The Cape belongs in their category. His cape, in fact, is more than a fashion statement -- it's a weapon. He's also trained in stealth combat, as well as in magic and escape artistry.
But unlike Batman, who tooled about Gotham City in his Batmobile, and The Green Hornet, who had his Black Beauty, The Cape hasn't established a reliable means of transportation in the first two hours. He'll need to work on that.
With all due respect to Robin and Batgirl, to Lois Lane and Jimmy Olsen, TV's ultimate superhero sidekick has got to be Kato of The Green Hornet. Britt Reid's masked driver, after all, was played by none other than martial-arts great Bruce Lee. Now that's someone you want at your side in a fight!
But The Cape's sidekick is a promising one. Her name is Orwell, and she is a knows-everything/sees-the-big-picture reporter/blogger played by Summer Glau. Orwell has mad computer skills, reliable news sources, a terrific wardrobe and a sweet fleet of flashy cars.
A supervillain often brings out the best in a superhero. Lex Luthor was a constant thorn in Superman's side in Lois and Clark and Smallville. Batman faced a revolving-door lineup of classic baddies, headed up by the Joker, the Penguin, the Riddler and Catwoman. Wonder Woman often battled Nazis in her first TV season. And Sylar, a charismatic psychopath, emerged as the most interesting character on Heroes.
As for The Cape, the twisted criminal mastermind called Chess has the potential to top them all. The character, played by James Frain, is billionaire CEO Peter Fleming by day, a man who lives large and has a winning personality. But as Chess, who controls almost all criminal activity in Palm City, he's a madman who brings mustache-twirling villainy to rarely seen heights.