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With Regards To Capes

Posted by Ta-metru_defender , in Essays, Not Rants! Jun 22 2013 · 525 views

Essays Not Rants! 066: With Regards to Capes
In Man Of Steel Superman has lost his usual red underwear. Well, more he never has it in the first place in this adaption. It's no wonder why, no one, not even Batman, wears their underwear outside anymore.
That said, Superman still has his cape, something that's seemingly as much an artifact as the underwear thing. Yes, Thor and Loki both have capes, but they're demigods. Batman's cape is explained away as serving not only the effect he creates but a utilitarian purpose as well. Hardly anyone wears capes these days. In The Incredibles, the first superhero deconstruction you saw if you’re my age, Edna Mode goes to great lengths to explain the impracticality of capes in a morbidly comedic sequence.
So why does Superman still have his bright red cape? It's doesn't make much sense (see Edna Mode's list for reasons), yet it's part of his costume and and he doesn't rip it off. More importantly, why did the filmmakers choose to keep the cape? It's iconic, sure, but nothing is sacred in adaptions. Here's the deal: capes are heroic. There's the image of the kid with the towel tied round his neck pretending to be a superhero. That's Superman. He's the Boy Scout, the Kansas-bred all-American hero.
And his cape is an integral part of that. Look at the use of capes in the film. General Zod, when we first see him, is wearing a cape. It doesn't take long, however, for him to shrug it off and, of course, become the villain he is. When we first see Superman in his outfit we first see his red boots and red cape. When Superman meets the military, we once again focus on his cape. His cape is what sets him apart. Zod doesn't have a cape, nor do any of his followers; but Jor-El, Superman's father, does. It's a beautiful visual cue, one that speaks to the basis of our pop culture mythology: the person wearing the cape is a good guy, a hero.
Such is Superman: he's the archetypical superhero. The cape-wearing, evil-fighting man in tights. Contrast him to Joel, from The Last of Us (because that game is amazing and bears referencing). Joel is not a hero, he's not even a good guy. Joel is a desperate man who's more than willing to do horrible things. Joel is a survivor, he acts solely to survive and protect his own interests. Superman, conversely, simply is good and will protect anyone.
So where do we get a narrative? Joel's comes from challenging his interests and upsetting his status quo to see how he reacts. The narrative/arc is clear from the onset, though Naughty Dog makes several bold choices with where to take it. Superman has no obvious arc. He's invincible and infallible; any impending doom or moral dilemma lacks tension because we know Superman can't be hurt and will always do right. After all, he's wearing a cape. So where does the narrative tension come from? How does Man of Steel craft a story that doesn't undermine his character but still delivers an engaging story?
The movie addresses the question of the cape. The story's primary tension comes not from Superman vs. Zod, but rather within Superman himself. Clark Kent must become Superman... Or must he? The Clark Kent we meet is a Clark Kent divided. He has these powers, but should he use them? How should he use them? There lies the conflict; the tension is the question of should Clark Kent wear the cape or hide in anonymity. Granted, we already know the answer, but it's a far more interesting arc than "will he survive?". Once that question is answered, however, a new one arises: to what lengths will Superman go in pursuit of what the cape means? How far will Superman go to protect someone?
Zack Snyder has described Man of Steel as the least ironic movie he's made. It might be the most honest recent superhero movie besides Captain America, there's no attempt to give Superman the dark and gritty treatment so common in our era of antiheroes. Where The Last of Us gives us an antihero who rings closer to a villain, Man of Steel presents a hero with no doubt of his goodness. So Superman wears a cape.

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Your essay was good and all, but I take offense to the idea that Kansas-bred superheroes are prone to cape-wearing. =P

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Your essay was good and all, but I take offense to the idea that Kansas-bred superheroes are prone to cape-wearing. =P

Well, they do.


If they come from Texas, they wear white hats. :P

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If they're from Iowa, they fly starships. :P

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If they're from Iowa, they fly starships. :P

I'm afraid I don't know the one you're referring to. First thing that comes to mind whenever Iowa is mentioned is Kevin Costner in Field of Dreams. Who happens to be the dad of the guy from Kansas in Man of Steel

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I personally have a bit of an issue with the "capes are heroic" notion. Capes can be heroic, but it depends on how they're worn and the body language of the character wearing them. Capes can often be seen as a symbol of power (probably a cultural artifact from their nature as a showier accessory worn by nobles, and from there the fact that magicians wore them both as props and as costumes cemented that further until often the cape itself had a certain amount of mysterious power to it.

Now, capes as a symbol of power can apply just as effectively be used in a villainous context. Because capes are very showy, and because they add a certain amount of volume to a character's silhouette, they can be used to make a villainous character look imposing or flamboyantly luxurious. Dracula is one character who historically wears a cape, as is Fu Manchu. And both fit the "villainous noble" archetype, meaning they are using the cape not only to make them visually imposing but to give the impression of a wealthy, extravagant character.

Lately capes being used as a villainous archetype is sort of falling out of favor, in part because unlike the heroic "superhero cape", they feel somewhat out-of-place in anything but a period piece. No modern-day business executive or politician wears a cape (that I know of). I think Superman and his cementation of the "heroic cape" archetype is perhaps the core reason why capes can be used for heroes in the future or the modern day without seeming totally out-of-place.
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Jun 22 2013 09:15 PM

No modern-day business executive or politician wears a cape (that I know of).

Man, I love stock images.


But nah, Aanchir, you've got fair points all around. I just found it to be a really cool visual cue within this movie. Nothing much else to say, haha.

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If they're from Iowa, they fly starships. :P

I'm afraid I don't know the one you're referring to. First thing that comes to mind whenever Iowa is mentioned is Kevin Costner in Field of Dreams. Who happens to be the dad of the guy from Kansas in Man of Steel

Star Trek. "I'm from Iowa, I only work in outer space."

Anyway, the cape thing doesn't have to be heroic. Vezon being a prime example, and I just cited an example of one non-cape wearing hero.
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Yeah, there are both "good guy" capes and "bad guy" capes. Just like the white cowboy hat/black cowboy hat thing.

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Jun 26 2013 10:27 AM
Well, clearly my readers are intelligent and thoughtful (and probably outrageously good looking).

There's certainly a distinction between the Vezon/Vladek/Vader/Victor Von Doom cape and the Hero Cape, right? The former usually looms, the latter billows.

Shoulda mentioned cape movement. IIRC, much of the cape in Man of Steel is CGI so they could get that really cool billowy movement.
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Jean Valjean
Jun 27 2013 12:08 AM

:kaukau: First of all, I'm loving that people are bringing up Iowa.  You make me feel so special.


Anyway, I have nothing wrong with TMD's interpretation of capes, since it makes a lot of sense, but as others have brought up, there's more to it.  They can make a hero seem more heroic, but they can also make a villain seem more villainous, and Count Dukoo, General Grievous, and Darth Vader prove that.  They bring a lot of extra presence to a character.  If we were to get down to the bare elements, I think their contribute power, regality, majesty/grace/elegance, and authority to a character.


First of all, Superman is powerful.  Duh.  That's usually the main complaint people have about him, but I'm not going to talk about the merits of that.  The discussion is about capes.  See, when I look at that cape, something about it brings out his shoulders, making him look even stronger.  He was, after all, modeled after circus strongmen.  And let's face it: he can afford the cape.  It doesn't really matter if it gets caught in something.  In fact, it usually helps more than it hurts, because I've seen him use it to help shield people.


Then there's the majestic qualities of the cape.  Snyder sure had fun waving that thing around.  It's like a banner or a flag that he attaches to himself, something bold yet delicate that he allows to flow in the wind.  I'm sure comic book artists always liked it because it was fun to draw.  No complaints there: it's fun to look at.  There's something similar going on with Batman.  There's a majestic quality to his presence, and it's very intentional because he's all about fear.  His cape goes beyond functional use, because he was taught to be theatrical.  Throw the cape on him and he has all the poise of the Phantom of the Opera.  There's definitely some grandeur there.


Still on the majestic train of thought, I also think of images I've seen where Superman holds Lois Lane in his arms, with his cape hanging down, and there's something grand and beautiful about that as well.  Why?  Well, I've just noticed that people have a certain inexplicable love for flowy things.  If it's not capes, then it's flowing hair, or flowing dresses, or flowing trench coats or tailcoats or scarves.  The more you can get away with, the merrier.  And frankly, Superman's cape can be superflowy while not obscuring his body.



But yeah, the main reason why I think the cape is there is because it represents authority.  Superman isn't necessarily authoritarian, but he is authoritative, which is a bit different.  He's a strong, powerful person who's very solid on what he believes and what he represents.  Kind of like Batman.  And let's face it, while Gotham may be Batman's city, the rest of the DC universe is Superman's world.  He defines that world.  He might not always be the leader, but everyone is affected by him, by his mere existence, and he always took ownership of that.  He's the de facto king of superheroes.  I've read comics where he arrives on the scene and all the other heroes step aside and let him to his job, no questions asked, because they're literally seeing a legend at work, and to them he's George Washington and Abraham Lincoln combined.  He's that grand, inspiring figure who knows what he's doing.


When I look at the other heroes who have capes, the ones who come to mind are Batman, Thor, and sometimes Wonder Woman.  These people are all symbols, icons, and people who are very sure of themselves and what they represent.  These are people who know that they are taken seriously, that they're the ones who wear the pants in their superfamilies (figuratively speaking, of course, considering Wonder Woman).  Wonder Woman is a representative, for example, of her people.  She's a diplomat and an emissary.  In my science fiction, I have often written of characters appearing before an audience for such purposes, and I usually depict them as wearing ceremonial capes.  And the people who wear the capes aren't just wannabes.  They wear the capes because they're important.  


So yeah, Superman might not act with the authority of the government, and he might humble himself to acting with of the law instead of on the behalf of the law, but he's still one of the primal forces that governs the DC universe.  I call that authority.  Just like that Phantom of the Opera I mentioned earlier is the great master of his craft, a man ahead of his time, Superman is the master superhero.  When you step into the world of music, you're playing the Phantom's game, and when you play superhero, you're playing Superman's game.


Meanwhile, it also seems that in various iterations, capes are part of Kryptonian formalwear, including this most recent movie.  Considering his prestigious lineage, it wouldn't surprise me that he would inherit a cape from his father.  Yeah, sure, some comics instead depict him as taking a blanket and wrapping it around his neck, which doesn't quite make sense for superboy to do spontaneously.  Though my favorite theory is that his suit is actually his father's Kryptonian pajamas, and that the cape is a build-in blanket.  Saving the planet daily while wearing your pajamas?  Priceless.


But ultimately, there was no way they would make that movie without him wearing a cape.  It's way too integral to his iconography.  You can potentially change a lot about his suit, but ultimately he must wear a cape, an S on his chest, and go without a mask.  You say that nothing is sacred in adaptations, but I say that there are a few things that are.  As the song goes, you just don't tug on Superman's cape.



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