1983 | Australia
Director: Philippe Mora
Despite passes at the superhero genre by film industries as far-flung as India, Italy, and Indonesia, the perception of the superhero as a quintessentially American creation remains undimmed. This, of course, makes him an ideal target for satire. Probably the most well-remembered example of this is the 1966 Batman TV series, which buttered its bread on both sides by aligning itself with the counterculture while, at the same time, selling millions of dollars worth of toys to kids who were too young to see its irreverence. Less well-remembered, and certainly less well regarded, is Australian director Philippe Mora’s The Return of Captain Invincible, which is widely seen, even by its director, as being something of a mess. This may be due in part to the fact that, at the time, Mora’s sense of structure, pacing, continuity, and normal human behavior was still recovering after coming off his debut feature, Madman Morgan, a production that was largely at the mercy of a coke-addled Dennis Hopper.
On the other hand, it could just as easily be that Captain Invincible’s lack of focus was due to its subject matter providing just too many avenues for satire. This was 1983, after all, which meant that the film’s flag-waving superguy could stand in not only for America’s perceived exceptionalism and sense of superiority but also for the toxic nostalgia and infantile moral certitudes of the Reagan era. And let’s not forget the opportunity it provided to take potshots at Richard Donner’s Superman: The Motion Picture, a film whose inverse ratio of content to self-importance would still have been fresh in the public memory.
The specter of Reagan hovers over much of Captain Invincible, not the least in Australian actor Michael Pate’s portrayal of a very Reagan-esque American president. There is also a faux newsreel footage prologue that is resonant with “Morning in America” platitudes. In it, we see clean-cut, jocular, and unmistakably all-American hero Captain Invincible nabbing a gang of bootlegging mobsters, defeating Hitler’s air force, and encouraging a young Boy Scout’s presidential aspirations. Throughout this section we see the familiar face of second-billed star Christopher Lee popping up repeatedly as a series of mysterious evil presences, first as a mobster and then as an “industrialist crony” of Hitler. Finally, we see him as part of a House Un-American Activities Panel that is in the process of framing Captain Invincible as a Communist. Outraged at having his patriotism questioned, Invincible turns his back on society and disappears, only later to emerge as a crusty alcoholic bum who, for reasons most likely having to do with The Return of Captain Invincible’s travel budget, has taken up residence in the Australian Outback.
Now in the modern-day, we join the President of the United States (Pate) as he arrives in Sydney for a conference with his top military advisors at an American military research facility. This bunch consists of the usual war-mongering stereotypes and even includes, in a naked riff on Dr. Strangelove, a black-clad fellow with a metal hand. They inform the President of the theft of the top-secret Hypno-ray, a device that makes people prone to hypnotic suggestion. Their recommendation, of course, is to start bombing Russia immediately.
What they don’t know that we do, however, is that the ray has actually been stolen by a shadowy figure called Mr. Midnight, a man later identified with Reagan-esque hyperbole as “one of history’s most evil men” and again played by Christopher Lee. Midnight’s plan for the ray is to hypnotize all of New York City’s minorities into moving into a series of ethnocentric housing developments—“Sicily Acres”, “Afro Acres”, “Israeli Acres”, etc.—that he has built, which he will then detach from the island and cast out to sea by way of a catastrophic manmade earthquake. Despite his ignorance of this fact, the President soundly rejects the counsel of his trigger-happy advisors—and does so in song.
Yes, I have so far neglected to mention that The Return of Captain Invincible is a musical, which is one of the reasons it is today regarded with so much ambivalence. It is, in fact, known by many as “that movie where Christopher Lee sings”. In its defense, however, I must say that—to my eyes, at least—no one involved has anything to be embarrassed about. There are no “Pierce Brosnan in Mama Mia” moments, and certainly nothing as risible as Russell Crowe’s vocal performance throughout the entirety of Les Miserables. Lee, in fact, has a lovely baritone, which he employs with confidence and characteristic authority, which enables him to easily breeze past some of the missed notes. It also has to be said that the novelty and humor of Christopher Lee performing rousing musical numbers while doing jazz hands is clearly lost neither on the filmmakers nor on Lee himself. He commits to all of the silliness with a lot of enthusiasm and is a lot of fun to watch as a result. After all, would he have signed on to Mora’s next film, Howling II: Your Sister is a Werewolf, if he hadn’t had fun? It certainly wasn’t for the script.
As for Captain Invincible himself, star Alan Arkin, having a background as a folk troubadour, acquits himself well in the singing department, especially on those swingy numbers where he’s required to deliver a Sinatra-esque croon. His imminent likability goes equally far toward selling his musical numbers, just as it does his spending most of the film in a form-fitting superhero costume and spit-curled wig. It’s a mean feat for an actor most associated with a kind of lumpen, everyman appeal, the fact that it works at all being a testament to the infectious good nature of the film overall.
Lastly, it has to be said that the songs in Captain Invincible, if a bit lightweight, are at least competently written, a few of them having been composed by Richard Hartley and Richard O’Brien of Rocky Horror Picture Show fame. Indeed, it would be nearly impossible to understand the camp sensibility on display in the film, or its preponderance of dancers in revealing S&M attire, without some familiarity with Rocky Horror. Each exhibits a sensibility that is equal parts glam rock and cabaret, celebrating sex, rebellion, and irreverence while at the same time being committed to providing a good time for all. This, of course, goes hand in hand with the very similar attitude of Australian exploitation cinema in general, as evidenced by the film’s inclusion of a lot of frontal nudity for no manifest reason.
All of this aside, the musical elements of Captain Invincible do contribute to the film’s overall unevenness. The numbers, though often good in themselves, are not always integrated well into the surrounding action, and frequently seem to come out of nowhere. However, as longtime fans of Bollywood know, this does not necessarily prevent a film from being enjoyable. Captain Invincible is a film that offers many pleasures, and it would be a shame to miss out on them for trifling reasons of it being somewhat confused and unfocused.
For one thing, Mora and cinematographer Mike Molloy should be credited for creating a film that is, if not always coherent, always beautifully composed. Take for example the gorgeous aerial shot that introduces us to the post-drop-out version of Captain Invincible, standing atop a towering peak and braying out a drunken rendition of “New York, New York” into the Australian wilderness that stretches out majestically below him. This is the first of many sweeping shots of awe-inspiring natural vistas that happen throughout the film, which are matched in visual appeal by the interior work, which benefits from the colorful, comic book-inspired set designs of Kate Duffy.
When we catch up with Captain Invincible he is not even aware that he is in Australia, nor of how he might have gotten there. This finally dawns on him once he staggers into Sydney and saves policewoman Patty Patria (Kate Fitzpatrick) from a gang of gun-wielding thugs.
The President of the United States, meanwhile, has put out a call for information as to the long-missing Captain’s whereabouts. He, you see, was that young Boy Scout whose presidential aspirations were encouraged by the Captain all those years ago, and he now sees him as the only hope for recovering the Hypno-ray.
Recognizing him by his display of super abilities, Patty convinces the Captain to head back with her to the President’s compound. Once there, he proves difficult to recruit to the cause, preferring to crawl into a bottle rather than save a country that he feels has forsaken him. The president then reminds him of a promise he made to him in his boyhood, that he would always be there to help him. Seeing this as a “sacred bond”, the Captain has no choice but to concede.
The Captain’s superpowers have become pretty rusty over his years of booze-swilling, so we are now due for a long series of training scenes. These powers include magnetism—which is primarily used as an excuse to show lots of lady’s shirts becoming unbuttoned and bra clasps unclasping—a computer brain, and the ability to fly. Upon regaining this last power, the Captain takes Patty on a flying tour of Sydney that serves as the film’s equivalent of the “Can You Read My Mind” sequence in Superman, although its romantic potential is undermined somewhat by the fact that Patty is mounted on Captain Invincible like a bicycle.
Once the Captain is dried out and once again in superheroic trim, he and Patty head to New York, where they hide out in the head of the Statue of Liberty and gradually unravel Mr. Midnight’s genocidal scheme. Sadly, this involves a lot of encounters with some pretty dreary ethnic stereotypes, the most groan-worthy being a scene set in a Jewish deli. Finally, the action comes to a climax with the film’s best musical number, Hartley and O’Brien’s “Name Your Poison”, in which the Captain is driven to temptation by both Mr. Midnight’s mean soft shoe and a very well stocked bar.
A strain that runs throughout The Return of Captain Invincible is nostalgia for the clear moral distinctions of the past—the type of distinctions that allowed Captain Invincible to partake in the wholesale slaughter of Nazis with manifest glee, as he does in the prologue. This is given particularly pointed expression in a song that the Captain sings called “Good Guys and Bad Guys”, a country ballad, appropriately, in which he laments his increasing inability to distinguish between the two. It is out of this nostalgic longing that the desire for heroes arises. In this way, Captain Invincible is the manifestation of a promise made to a young Ronald Reagan, his very own Morning in America. Measure that, then, against the fact that Mr. Midnight’s motivation for wiping out all of the minorities in Manhattan is his belief that it will make him a hero, and that he will be placed in power by a grateful populace as a result. This suggests that, if The Return of Captain Invincible can be said to have any unifying theme at all, it is the jaundiced eye it turns toward the idea of hero worship altogether.
In addition to some great visuals and catchy tunes, Captain Invincible also comes through with a few gags that really pay off. One of these is a bit that involves Mr. Midnight having a series of ever-larger companion animals—first a slug, then a frog, then a snake, then a buzzard—each of which ends its tenure on his shoulder by being fed to its larger successor. Then there are the seemingly endless secondary titles given to Captain Invincible, among them “Man of Magnets”, “The Caped Contender”, and “The Legend in Leotards”. A scene that takes place in a shop full of murderous vacuum cleaners is also both visually inventive and outright funny, making up somewhat for the film’s occasional lapses into Benny Hill territory, as well as its inclusion of that Altamont of screen comedy, a pie fight.
This is not to say that it does have a unifying theme, mind you. It’s just that I, poised as I am to now tell you that I actually enjoyed The Return of Captain Invincible, am trying to make a soft bed for myself to land in once I have taken that plunge. True, hating it might be the right thing to do; Australian audiences certainly avoided it in droves when it came out. But I prefer to focus on its relative merits, with a strong emphasis on the word “relative”. Relative thinking, after all, is what we Americans have in place of moral certainty.