"The Cape" creator Tom Wheeler pulls back the cloak on the secrets behind the first season of NBC's new superhero drama, revealing himself to be well-schooled in the world of comic books and creating the kind of backstory and continuity that would impress any serious fanboy – or fangirl.
On creating the universe and mythology of "The Cape":
I'm a lifelong comic book fan. The idea of sort of writing my own comic was always really appealing, writing any comic. I just have always been sort of attracted to those stories. The opportunity when I thought about writing "The Cape" came sort of in stages. I knew I wanted to write a story about a father and son, and a father who takes on the persona of his son's favorite comic book hero. But then it took a while for me to settle on who that hero should be. And I also wanted it, if I was going to write it for TV, I really wanted to kind of wrap my arms around something that felt like its own comic book universe – still emotionally grounded and sort of high-stakes but I sort of wanted to create my own kind of playground. So the idea of creating a fictional city seemed to fit in a kind of silver age fashion just sort of create a hero with some Silver Age sensibilities, even though it's set in the 21st Century and just larger than life characters. To see if we could maintain a really sort of strong emotional thread throughout and kind of what's some of the great character-driven superhero stuff we've seen. I knew I wanted costumes. I knew that would be a challenge. But I also feel that that in a sense what embodies a superhero – or at least the ones I grew up with. And I've been approaching it from a couple different places. I want it to have kind of a pulp sensibility. I wanted Palm City to feel like it had some timeless elements to it. The nightlife I wanted to feel sort of old Hollywood. I wanted to have a feel of different worlds with in it, and yet still be a relatable world. So I think you'll see kind of a mixture of both. That was the genesis of some of it and how they ended up combining a little bit.
On why actor David Lyons IS The Cape:
One of the real challenges we got into for this was that some actors come in and they play the superhero. You know, they've got the fists on the hips and they do the whole profile and you're kind of going 'Oh geez, what have I done?' and 'This is going to be lame.' And we had seen some good actors and but we had for certain not found Vince. And there was something about David who is not only really super, just compelling in his look, but beside that he was only one that convinced me. You know, he was the only one that his conviction and his sincerity immediately brought the scenes to a place where you can only sort of hope they go. And he continues to do that. I mean the awesome thing about him is his total commitment. And through him we're able to go through these crazy worlds and these experiences and meet these characters but he never as an actor ever loses sight of what it's about, why he's doing this. And so I really think he's - we just couldn't have a better hero to put this on his shoulders. The first day he was running around with the gun and doing all this detective stuff. And you were also like, 'Damn, he's like a really good action hero guy!' That stuff just comes so naturally to him. I think we're slowly killing him with everything we're putting him through and having to fight Vinnie Jones on top of a train and everything else. I'm hoping he's okay at the end of this. But he is just like 1000%. And really there's a vulnerability and a conviction and a reality to him that there was no question in our mind.
On finding the right balance between superhero saving-the-day storylines and mainstream television storytelling:
One of the things that I wanted to establish was even though our guy would wear a mask and we were going to tackle this whole idea of costumed superheroes, I also didn't necessarily want it to be super-powered. Now The Cape does some extraordinary things, and obviously we will push the envelope in science and what is conceivable. But it's also going to be limited in what characters can actually do. I prefer that, because I feel that will bring us deeper into our characters. And there's a "Fugitive" aspect to this story about a guy trying to get home. But we tackle it in a pretty realistic way. It's not just that we set up the premise and then he just goes and sort of punches bad guys in the head. I kind of approach these things as a novelist. And the material that I'm most drawn to, growing up with "Star Wars" or "Lord of the Rings," I tend to tackle these things with a sort of lot of ambition and scope. But I think they have to start from a very intimate emotional stakes place. So what launches The Cape into existence is this struggle to get back to his family and to send a message to his son. What will keep him as "The Cape" as we go along we'll approach very realistically. His family is going through the loss of a father and husband. He's going through this struggle of this decision he's made to protect his family to keep his identity a secret. And it's brutal on them both. And we deal with that and at the same time things will change in the course of the series, and even though there is an adventure of the week aspect there are still, for those who will tune in every week, undercurrents of change and developments that will sometimes subtly and then sometimes quite suddenly change and reverse course. So I have big plans for the character of The Cape, who The Cape is, the mythology of The Cape. And I also love to dig deeper into the history of Palm City. For instance, the digital comic that we're doing – which Michael Gaydos is doing the art for and is just doing this beautiful job – that comic book is not just drawing our characters like drawing our actors. That's actually the comic book that Trip, the son, reads in the show. So it's a second Cape mythology within the show for those who want to get a better feel for this world and the rules. I really think this show in particular has a lot of opportunities in sort of the digital world in comic books. We're actually putting up Orwell is watching as an actual blog. So you can follow Orwell's blogs so, you know, there's a connection to what's going on. In those blogs will be clues to, you know, new bad guys and new villains and storylines that we're dealing with. One of the most fun and sort of challenging aspects is how can we tell these stories? And through which different venue just to give it that satisfying quality for the audience. We're pursuing all those different ways to make it feel Palm City is a living, breathing place and people can access it through different areas. I love that part of it. I'm totally into that and we're actively dealing with it every day and how we can bring the audience further into the show.
On the comic book runs that influenced him the most:
I grew up reading mostly Marvel stuff. I would say Daredevil was my favorite character. I was into X-Men. The first X-Men I picked up was #136 where the whole Phoenix saga was underway. I was always really just drawn into the Marvel characters. But over time Green Arrow was a favorite of mine – the Mike Grell Green Arrow was amazing. Then Daredevil though the Frank Miller electric Bullseye run, which was just I felt such a great a great kind of music between crime story and superhero. And it was all street level and it had a really sprawling mythology but also it was an adventure in a comic book. So I loved that run. I loved Brubaker's run on Captain America more recently. The whole Winter Soldier thing I just thought was great. I'll read everything Grant Morrison writes. And I won't always understand it, but I will read it! He's just brilliant. His ideas just go by in a panel too. There will just be something that sort of flies by and you're just like 'Wait what, what? Did he just say--?' I envy his imagination. I think there's a certain wish fulfillment aspect of the regular guy sort of thrown into a situation or having to take on a responsibility. I love the sort of larger than life or space epics, but I do kind of favor the more Green Arrow, Daredevil, Batman. I just I sort of relate to them best and I feel they were the most influential. Although The Cape itself kind of has aspects of even going further back like The Spirit or The Shadow, something sort of torn out of that era. And the fact that The Cape itself is straightforward, there was something in its simplicity that I kind of loved and felt like it could sort of straddle both those worlds, the kind of heroes I grew up, you know, reading and then something that sort of harked back to an earlier age kind of. Power Man Iron Fist, I was also way into. Iron Fist is a big favorite of mine. And that Matt Fraction run on Iron Fist recently was just outstanding.
On inviting real-life comic book writers to work on scripts for "The Cape":
Oh I would love to, yes absolutely. And a lot of these guys that I mentioned are really damn busy, you know? I was throwing out some calls to some of these guys, and it was like they're doing quite well writing their ten books. But yes, any time Ed Brubaker wants to give me a call or any of the others…There's some wonderful, wonderful writers and some of my favorite writers are writing comics right now. And I have a lot of respect for what they do, so yes, definitely.
On what non-comic book fans will find to love about "The Cape":
It has to deal with the regular guy in extraordinary circumstances aspect to the story and the wish fulfillment aspects of the story. But more specifically there's a whole side of this story that, yes, we'll have some larger than life villains and wonderful actors will play them, but there's a Palm City, real people living their lives part of this story. For instance Vince's wife Dana, who is just played terrifically by Jennifer Ferrin, she's a single mom now suddenly who has been forced to move to a scarier part of town who is now responsible, the sole breadwinner for her family who is kind of now plunging into Palm City as a public defender and coming up face to face with sort of the corruption and the stuff that's going on. There is a really sort of romantic angle to this woman who lost the love of her life, but The Cape is now in her life. And she's wrestling with like how long do I mourn and what does that mean and when is it appropriate to move on with my life? I think all of these sort of aspects to this story just ground us and ground it all the more, because you can tell a story that embraces 7-years-olds and 70-year-olds and people that are fans of comics and people that are not into comics through stakes that are real and emotions that are real. And so I I'm sensitive to that. What I love about "The Cape" is we tell one story that deals with something that is the cutting edge, mostly sort of high tech dangers and things we fear in this world and feels like a story that's tipping into science fiction. And then the story we're telling now or shooting right now is a really Gothic, creepy, wonderfully scary kind of story. And I'm just continuing to feel out like where we can go. And so I think there's influences and story influences that are pretty embracing to all audiences.
On finding the right kind of appeal for female audiences:
I have a wife who is very vocal about how I approach my characters and how I deal with them and how I write my woman characters. We have some wonderful writers on staff, Toni Graphia, from Battlestar and Sarah Connor, and Christine Roum, and some really wonderful female voices and just some wonderful writers in general. And we I think, I mean one of my favorite storylines really is this Dana storyline. And suffice to say we have huge plans for Summer Glau who plays Orwell. But Dana has really sort of taken hold as a real... just when you see her you root for her. Her story is very heroic without having all the sort of superhero trappings. Her story is just as heroic and her journey in some ways is just as dangerous and just as compelling. And I just look forward to really continuing to sort of complicate their lives in a very loving way. I think people will be surprised where it goes. And I think we have a really strong female villain. Mena Suvari comes in as this character Dice. So we're reaching out to female audiences. And I think our characters' stories will be really compelling.
On the long-term game plan:
I came in with a plan that has relatively held pretty well, I've got to say. Sometimes you end up getting to the same place through a totally different avenue which I kind of love. I love that discovery part. And obviously the writers on staff here have taken it on as their own, of course. And so we've all together come up with some great stuff. But yes, I know where this season will end. Those scripts aren't written yet. As for season two, I have some very strong ideas of the threads that would go through season two and a couple of options of how I want to end a season two. What you always wrestle with are these even longer term plans where there's a kind of ‘what if' and you go well in three, four years. And inevitably that stuff tends to move up. But there's some really exciting exciting stuff and places that I would like it to go, and that give it a little bit more of an epic scope. We'll see how this sort of initial run goes, but I would love for it to go on and on because there's a groove and a rhythm I would love to find that I just think would be terrific. And what I really initially want to do is just create this very rich, rogue gallery with these really cool actors so that people can in a very fun way anticipate who's coming back. I will look forward to revisiting some of these characters that we've already established.
"The Cape" premieres Sunday on NBC at 9/8c.