With all the superheroes muscling into theaters, there ought to be room — in theory, anyway — for a few caped crusaders on TV. Enter “The Cape,” NBC’s foray into cloaked avenger territory, kicking off with an extremely fun two-hour launch that shrewdly mixes comicbook imagery with the right measure of playful humor. Part “Batman,” part “Robocop,” the semi-futuristic vision of an ailing metropolis in need of a savior will be tough to sustain on a weekly basis, but the first mission succeeds as an original leap into this genre — bridging the perilous gap between what works on the printed page vs. live-action.
Granted, TV has a rather sordid history with comics, dating back to the high camp of “Batman” in the 1960s. Even recent efforts have proceeded cautiously — witness “Smallville’s” initial (and since discarded) “No tights, no flights” pledge.
“The Cape,” on the other hand, dives into a pretty conventional origin story, as committed cop Vince Faraday (“ER’s” David Lyons, blessed with a solid superhero jaw) tries playing things straight on an increasingly corrupt police force in Palm City. Framed as the master masked criminal Chess, he escapes a massive explosion that leaves the world thinking he’s dead — and his wife (Jennifer Ferrin) and young son (Ryan Wynott) grappling with his disgrace.
But Vince is taken in by Max Malini (Keith David), who heads a circus gang that robs banks. After what amount to hazing rituals, Max — a master illusionist — and his compatriots train Vince, who uses his ninja-like skills, escape arts and a special cloak to become the Cape, his son’s favorite comicbook hero.
To protect his family, Vince decides to continue playing dead, seeking to neutralize the private contractor, Peter Fleming (James Frain, born to play a comicbook villain), who is transforming the police into a private paramilitary operation.
Finally, Vince receives assistance from the mysterious Orwell, an “investigator blogger” played by Summer Glau, managing to be oxymoronic and improbable all at once.
If the premise sounds cheesy and busy, the execution is crisp and efficient — and manages to sell dialogue like, “Together, we can take this city back,” which often sounds better in a word balloon. Even the music (by Bear McCreary) brings to mind Danny Elfman’s “Batman” theme.
Can “The Cape” take flight with more than just the cultish adoration of fanboys and kids? Ah, now that’s a formidable challenge — especially with the show residing Mondays in what was “The Event’s” timeslot after this Sunday preview to capitalize on NFL football.
At this point, the Herculean task of turning NBC around looks like a job for Superman. Still, “The Cape” overpowers most of the fall’s development through sheer energy and wit, thus qualifying as a welcome step — maybe even a bold leap — in the right direction.