Under the Cape: An Anthology of Superhero Romance delves into that ubiquitous part of every superhero story—love and romance. With stories across the spectrum of romantic relationships, the book shares the sweet and steamy side of what brings two people together—and what can tear them apart when one or more participants have superpowers and secret identities.
Under the Cape: An Anthology of Superhero Romance
Rachel Kenley (Editor)
Riverdale Avenue Books
July 29, 2020
Before I begin my review of Under the Cape, I must note that I don’t usually read romance stories. But it’s 2020, the apocalypse is still raging, so I might as well step out of my comfort zone.
Under the Cape is divided into two sections—‘Super Sweet Stories’ and ‘Super Heat Stories’. The opening section delves into meet-cutes between superheroes, villains, or civilians, and determines what it is that attracts a person to another.
‘Super Heat Stories’ are heavy on the sexy times and generally feature more established relationships trying to rekindle their love or finally start a relationship after years of yearning.
As interesting as it was to spend time with superheroes who weren’t familiar but still felt lived-in, I didn’t enjoy Under the Cape as much as I was hoping to. I liked the superpowers on display—most were familiar, such as super strength, telepathy, super-speed, teleportation, fire-manipulation, and good old-fashioned skill—but not much else.
I felt the stories could have stretched the imagination muscles a bit more. I know superpowers weren’t the thrust of this collection of romance tales, but it would have been nice to read something a little different.
The only story that felt like it subverted the powers and abilities in the genre was Austin Worley’s ‘Love, Law and the Whippoorwill’, the final story of Under the Cape. It featured a Native-American hero, Topsannah Price/ Whippoorwill, who used a pepper gun that shoots ghost pepper balls. I haven’t seen that one before in the genre!
But let’s get to the romance, because that’s what Under the Cape is about. There are 11 stories, five heterosexual romances, six queer romances, though they fall into the M/M and F/F categories. None of the protagonists appear to be overtly non-binary, gender-fluid, asexual, or transgender.
While it’s great to read queer romances in such a collection, I really wanted more diversity in terms gender, race, and size. Most of the characters read as white and thin unless specifically described as having darker skin or curvy. ‘Where There’s Smoke’, the second story in Under the Cape, featured a Middle Eastern-Scottish immigrant protagonist in America, Smoke/ Sadiq Nasir. But Nasir was the only immigrant in the book, which is unfortunate considering the immigration problems that the United States is still facing.
I’m also not sure why all the stories were based in USA. There’s no reason offered for the setting and since Smoke was an immigrant, I couldn’t help but wonder why the rest of the world wasn’t represented in Under the Cape.
The middling diversity aside, I didn’t gel with the stories as much as I would have liked. And it started with the opening story.
‘Flying Fast, Falling Hard’ felt so trope-y to me. Antagonistic superheroes who fall for each other can be fun but in this story, it doesn’t feel earned—the attraction between Marta Livacek and Tom Sullivan seems more based on their physical attributes than their personalities. Though Livacek kept remarking on Sullivan’s humour, that’s not as much shown as told to us. He actually read as rude and sardonic and I rolled my eyes whenever he spoke. I would go as far as to say that Sullivan was downright insensitive about Marta’s loss. People react to grief differently. If she was still angry about her dead husband 10 years later, that’s her path, it wasn’t up to Sullivan to decide how she should feel. So why are we expected to ship them? Also, Livacek’s husband was a cop—not a great choice for 2020.
Antagonistic pairings turn up again in Under the Cape’s ‘Swiftly in Love’, where Swiftfoot not only objectified Portia, but he also constantly condescended to her. But somehow readers are supposed to want them to be together because of a heavy make-out session, even though it ends with Swiftfoot telling Portia to leave her hometown so he can be a hero there. And that’s exactly what Portia did—she stopped being a hero so Swiftfoot could get the glory. Please, just no.
‘The Little Push’ wasn’t as frustrating though I don’t quite understand the source of Marvella and Photon’s antagonism. But that story had me rolling my eyes because Marvella goes to the Oracle of Delphi to complain about man problems. I also felt the ‘San Junipero’ ending came out of the blue—there should have been some inkling as to the characters’ identities earlier to make the ending feel more earned.
Sticking with the M/F stories, I did find ‘Trust Paradox’ quite adorable. I love the strain that secret identities cause in a relationship and how it unfolded here. It came across as a natural conflict, and not solely for drama. Though once again there was antagonism between a straight couple in Under the Cape—this time because Mark, the love interest, hates superheroes because they keep their identities hidden from the public and thus can’t be trusted, which is a problem for his girlfriend, Mel, who is the superhero Asteria.
Four out of five of the straight stories feature antagonistic relationships, with ‘Just Be Yourself’ the only one where the characters don’t openly hate each other or what the other stands for. But with the pairing being a doctor and a patient, there’s dubious consent issues that made me uncomfortable.
The queer stories, even when featuring hero/ villain couples didn’t feel as driven by dislike. ‘Where There’s Smoke’ felt camp, yet modern, and Smoke fell for fellow superhero, Damager, because of their style and skills, with the romance slowly blossoming across a plot and action-driven story.
‘No Words Needed’ was one of the only stories to feature young superpowered individuals. It was a simple coming-out story where we only got the beginning of a romance but I loved the world-building and how the protagonist, Theo, didn’t mind not having powers in a world where almost everyone was a metahuman.
One of my favourites in Under the Cape was ‘Supergay’ which featured the hero Spitfire and the excitable villain Vixen. Both characters felt lived-in and true to life. Spitfire, though a great hero, was never given the opportunities in her superhero group to become a leader. Vixen, though deemed a villain, was only stealing artefacts from museums that were stolen from cultures in the first place. This story was also hilarious, full of action, and had an easy sexiness to it that felt organic.
‘Foolproof’ seemed to be the only story in Under the Cape with an obviously plus-size character but the story itself felt lacking, jumping from scene to scene without giving the reader much context.
While the sex scene in ‘Love, Law and the Whippoorwill’ felt crowbarred-in, the dynamic between Topsannah and her civilian ex, Madison Harper, felt genuine, as did the reason for the end of their relationship. When the characters got back together, it felt earned.
Having said that I don’t generally read romance, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that my favourite Under the Cape story was one that had barely any romance in it. In my opinion, ‘Time for No Mercy’ needs to be a series. Doctor Libertine, a feminist supervillain, was only deemed a baddie because superhero Captain Courage was sponsored by corrupt conservatives. This story reflects our world perfectly and I definitely need more of Doctor Libertine and her fight for the marginalised!
Anthologies are interesting reads—you get so many differing voices and points of views that there’s always going to be some stories you love, and others that fail to make an impression. However, with Under the Cape, I thought the stories were more miss than hit. In fact, despite being described as a romance anthology, far too many stories were about physical and sexual attraction than love and companionship, which I think misses the point of this exercise.
I also felt like some of the writing and editing could have been better—a couple of the stories felt like fanfiction written hurriedly on a phone.
In a way, I’m glad I stepped out of my comfort zone to read Under the Cape—it’s good to have different experiences in your entertainment. But this book only reinforced why I don’t like romance stories—there were too many tropes and unbelievable pairings that took me out of the book. As much as I had hoped for better, this was not the greatest reading experience for me. I’ll take my superhero romances spread over several issues and not front and centre of the story, thank you.