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Will 'The Cape' unveil a new prime-time hero?

Evil has a new enemy, and this latest caped crusader has some tricks up his sleeve. "The Cape," which debuts Jan. 9 on NBC, follows the adventures of a costumed vigilante with a secret identity and a score to settle. Sound familiar? NBC and the producers of the hour-long crime drama certainly hope so. They're aiming to capitalize on the super success that movie studios have found in recent years t
/ Source: TODAY contributor

Evil has a new enemy, and this latest caped crusader has some tricks up his sleeve.

"The Cape," which debuts Jan. 9 on NBC, follows the adventures of a costumed vigilante with a secret identity and a score to settle.

Sound familiar?

NBC and the producers of the hour-long crime drama certainly hope so. They're aiming to capitalize on the super success that movie studios have found in recent years thanks to comic-book adaptations such as "The Dark Knight" and "Iron Man." Sounds like a no-brainer, yet the spandex trend has had a hard time making the leap to television.

(TODAYshow.com is a part of msnbc.com, which is a joint venture between Microsoft and NBC Universal.)

Much like Batman, the title player in "The Cape" isn't really super. He's more like a UFC fighter, carnival showman and escape artist rolled into one. The Dark Knight may have his utility belt, but The Cape has a bag of carny tricks and knives to help him out of a jam.

Vince Faraday (David Lyons, "ER") plays the ex-cop framed for murders he didn't commit. Believed dead, he goes underground, hoping to reunite with his family as well as take down billionaire Peter Fleming (James Frain from "True Blood" and "The Tudors"), who is also the psycho crime lord Chess.

As for the superhero moniker The Cape, that comes from Faraday's son's favorite comic-book character. But it all makes sense, because the superhero comes into possession of an ancient cloak that can be turned into a great weapon.

Tough time on TV

While the show contains key elements that are popular in comic books and blockbuster superhero films, there's no guarantee "The Cape" will have an easy time fighting off the competition.

Freshman series "No Ordinary Family" on ABC has found some success on the small screen, but the show is as much about family as fighting. "The Cape" is going for a more ambitious serialized action-adventure storytelling hook.

"I think 'Heroes' proved how hard it is to do that kind of thing well," said AOL TV critic Maureen Ryan. "And maybe the networks feared most of their viewers aren't readers of comic books or haven't been for some time."

"Heroes" may also have scared off the networks. The big-budget NBC show was a huge success when it debuted in 2006 — in the same Monday 9 p.m. time slot "The Cape" will move to on Jan. 17. But "Heroes" quickly collapsed under the weight of its own muddled mythology and was canceled after its fourth season. It's far from the only failure in this genre. In fact, past results indicate superhero shows usually turn out to be ratings kryptonite.

Yes, "Batman" was a campy sensation in the 1960s, and "Wonder Woman" and "The Incredible Hulk" were solid performers in the late 1970s. But most superhero shows come and go more quickly than "The Flash" (which lasted just one season, from 1990-91). "Birds of Prey" lasted just 13 episodes in 2002, and "The Justice League" and "Aquaman" never made it past the pilot stage.

Super success

The only superdude to consistently defy expectations happens to be the first one.

Superman is a TV powerhouse, having spawned four hit series, including "Smallville," the longest-running superhero television series ever. Part of "Smallville's" success can perhaps be attributed to its adherence to the "no flights, no tights" motto the producers have followed for most of the show's run. "The Cape" is taking a very different approach.

"The most notable and endearing quality of 'The Cape' is how much it unabashedly embraces all the comic-book-genre conventions that 'Smallville' spent many years avoiding," said Entertainment Weekly senior writer Jeff "Doc" Jensen. "We'll see if audiences can get behind that and if they'll enjoy (the show)."

AOL's Ryan also believes that just because with great power comes great responsibility, it doesn't mean superpowers can't be fun. "I'd say there has to be an element of aspiration or hope," Ryan said. "Why not show ... that having a superhero power can be kind of fun? That saving the world is actually a good time?!"

Vanity Fair and Wired pop-culture writer Michael Ryan agrees. "The reason everyone loved the first season of 'Heroes' is because it was fun to see these people discover their powers and then imagine what they would do with said powers," he said.

"If 'The Cape' wants to succeed, (episodes should) concentrate on the people behind the masks, not the costumes themselves," Ryan added. "If the main character reacts to his new powers like we do — think Bruce Willis in "Unbreakable" — the show can work."

Jensen says the time might be right for the show. "I think audiences are in the market for superhero stories with a notable, interesting point of difference," he said. With The Cape being an outlaw who fights side by side with criminals to battle corruption, it could be just the fresh perspective the show needs to win viewers and defeat the competition.

Whether audiences tune in may depend on how out there the show gets. EW's Jensen wrote regularly about "Lost" and points out that the ABC drama started hemorrhaging viewers as it let its geek flag fly with time-travel stories.

"The Cape" is also not based on a pre-existing character. Will audiences tune in for a hero not ripped from the pages of Marvel or DC Comics?

"If this was 'Batman' starring Dylan McDermott, you'd have at least 10 million people tuning into the pilot," noted Jensen. "But this is 'The Cape,' which isn't based on any pre-existing comic-book property, starring That Cute Australian Guy From the Last Season of 'ER' Who Was Also In 'Eat Pray Love.' That's not as easy a sell."

Michael Avila is a writer in New York.