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How the web series Caper comments on the superhero genre

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When “Let's be bad guys” isn't so shiny...

The cast of Geek & Sundry's superhero web series Caper, left to right: Beth Riesgraf as Alexia, Harry Shum Jr. as Luke, Abby Miller as Penny, and Hartley Sawyer as Dagr

Last week, Felicia Day's YouTube channel Geek & Sundry debuted their latest live-action scripted show, Caper. Created by Amy Berg (Leverage, Eureka) and Mike Sizemore (Slingers), it concerns a team of impoverished superheroes who reluctantly turn to a life of crime, only to quickly find that it's a big mistake...

Based on the first two episodes of the show's nine-episode first season, here's why you should be watching, and how it comments on the superhero genre and tells its own story within it.

First off, it's fun. The series is directed in a fittingly comic book style, and even capers gleefully into motion comic-style animation for the action sequences; presumably not only to save on budget (superpowers can be pricey), but also as an effective stylistic choice. Our heroes (or protagonists, at least—more on that later; or, to put it another way: to be continued) are the underdogs, at least in part because they're cash-strapped.

As with Doctor Horrible's Sing-a-Long Blog, this could work as a metaphor for the burgeoning (i.e. on the rise) new media industry. As one of Caper's characters says, “The best stuff is online nowadays.” (As such, he breaks the fourth wall, demonstrating one of his many superpowers. But breaking the fourth wall is so ubiquitous nowadays, is it even a superpower anymore?)

While this statement flippantly ignores the terrific stories being told in movies and TV and comics, it nonetheless makes a valid point: increasingly, web series are rivalling the longer-form content of traditional media in quality, and Felicia Day and Geek & Sundry are leading the way. (It would be Joss Whedon too, but Doctor Horrible (which should have earned Joss and co. honorary PhDs in Web Series), while not exactly a one-off, was his last proper foray into web video, and he's kind of busy at the moment with Marvel.)

Marvel Studios (and the other studios that are imitating their marvellous cinematic universe model) have big budgets which to tell these stories (and, comparably speaking, medium-sized budgets for their TV series), whereas the web, while being better and better funded through a variety of means including crowd-funding platforms such as Kickstarter, still works on a relatively modest scale.

This fuels the metaphor of Caper, that of plucky under-funded superheroes facing vastly richer opponents. Of course, as Doctor Horrible would say, “It's not a perfect metaphor...”, since big studios are not the enemy; in fact, they're producing a lot of brilliant superhero movies, and helping to further the golden age of superheroes on the silver screen. Those characters are the heroes we deserve, and the ones we need right now.

But there's room for many types of superhero stories (as Doctor Horrible's Captain Hammer sings, “Everyone's a hero in their own way...”), including small, scrappy underdog stories. In a sense, almost all superheroes start off this way. One of the appeals of Spider-Man / Peter Parker is that he's the perpetual underdog; perhaps the quintessential Marvel character in that he's heroic, but also very human and relateable.

Caper takes this underdog template, and subverts it, showing us characters who start out good, but then try crossing the moral line for believable, pragmatic reasons, but soon regret it. In fact, the opening sequence is a heist gone wrong, with our likeable protagonists panicking as they realise what they've got themselves into, before the show flashes back to their lives shortly before they decide to embark on the heist.

While we're only two episodes in, the show could be dealing with the territory of supervillain origin stories, exploring the mundaneness of evil, and just how easy is it to become a supervillain (or villain, anyway; but when characters have superpowers, or pseudo-superpowers, the drama is heightened, hence part of the appeal of the genre). This would put the series in the same realm as things like Captain Blasto and the aforementioned Doctor Horrible's Sing-a-Long Blog, not to mention the music video by The Doubleclicks, Lasers and Feelings (which, presumably not coincidentally, lends its name to Episode 5 of Caper).

As Yoda says, “Once you start down the dark path, forever it will dominate your destiny.” However, that didn't stop a certain Star Wars character having an epic redemption arc...

Caper teases the possibility of exploring the main characters' quest for redemption, of transcending the fun, comic book-style action comedy level on which it currently operates (and does so in an assured way) and making it also resonate on a deeper, more dramatic, human level. This is far from unprecedented in comics and comic book movies (c.f. Iron Man 3, for instance), with many characters having arcs which are epic chronicles of epic redemption.

Joss Whedon, for one, has been heavily influenced by this comic book-style of storytelling, and it would seem that so have others, such as the people making Caper. After all, it is executive-produced by his friend and collaborator Felicia Day, and makes reference to some of the characters and actors Joss is currently working with at Marvel, so it's highly likely that Whedon fans would also enjoy Caper.

For instance, the four main characters all bear distinct similarities to some of the Avengers: Penny (Abby Miller), who's “liberated” her flying suit “The Machine” from the villainous Sam Clarke of Clarke Industries, is essentially a female Iron Man; the patriotic Luke (Harry Shum Jr.), aka The Trooper, who can fly and stuff, is essentially Captain America; Dagr (Hartley Sawyer), a Norse twelfth son who's sent to our world on some quest or other that he's “pretty laid back about”, instead “rolling with the punches” and enjoying his time on Earth, is essentially Thor; and Alexia (Beth Riesgraf), the Amazon turned assassin turned hero, is essentially Black Widow.

(Or at least, Alexia's kind of also modelled on Wonder Woman, which confuses things since Wonder Woman is not only not a member of the Avengers, but she's also a DC character rather than Marvel. Although Wonder Woman is a member of the Justice League, which is like the Avengers but for DC. In fact, Justice League actually preceded the Avengers in comics. Perhaps incorporating a DC reference as well is because Caper is not simply an Avengers parody, but attempting something altogether more complex and sophisticated, as well as being funny on the level of parody; in a similar way to Galaxy Quest, which is a great Star Trek spoof, as well as working in its right as both a comedy and a sci-fi action adventure movie.)

Also, there are one or two nice casting references to Marvel's Agents of SHIELD, such as the fact that the main characters' landlord, aka The Landlord, is the villain Edison Po (Cullen Douglas). Also, when Penny mentions Alexia's day job in voice-over, the show cuts to her being a tough personal trainer, pushing her foot down on someone's back. While the actor isn't credited, it looks a lot like the superhero Mike Petersen (J. August Richards)... [Correction: It's actually Aldis Hodge, from Leverage, which Amy Berg and Beth Riesgraf both also worked on.] (Uncredited cameo squee!)

At the end of Buffy's musical episode, Once More, With Feeling, the characters sing “Where Do We Go From Here?” This applies not only to that specific moment, but also to serialised storytelling in general (as employed by many comic books and comic book-inspired stories). Caper is no exception, as the refrain applies not only to the end of the pre-credits teaser, but also to the cliffhanger at the end of each episode. With a new episode set to be released on Hulu, Hulu Plus, and YouTube every Wednesday (incidentally, the day that new comics are typically released), I can't wait to see what happens next.

Here are the first two episodes:

(NSFW language)

Episode 1:

Episode 2, where the show really starts to get going:


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