Question The First; What if I told you we were going to get a superhero musical comedy?
Question The Second; What if I added that it was going to feature Alan Arkin as a washed-up old superhero, duetting with Christopher lee, camping it up as a song and dance man, all set to music written by the man who brought us The Rocky Horror Show?
Question The Third; What If I told you it already happened, back in 1983?
(I know, right?)
We like to think that the deconstruction of the superhero genre started in the mid-80’s. But The Return Of Captain Invincible predates both Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns. Alan Arkin stars as the titular hero, AKA, ‘The Legend In Leotard,’ ‘The Caped Contender,’ and, ‘The Man Of Magnet.’ We first meet him in old newsreel footage that evokes the serials of the 1940’s, as Captain Invincible defeats Nazis, hoodlums and racketeers, while finding time to hand out moral lessons to Boy Scouts. Christopher Lee makes an appearance in each clip; one minute he’s a suited and booted racketeer, the next he’s an “industrialist crony” stood beside Hitler. Who could this mystery man be. I mean, aside from being Christopher Lee.
Next up, the news footage brings us the the McCarthy trials, where our hero is being judged as a communist for wearing a red cape, along with wearing underwear in public, flying without a pilots licence, and impersonating a military officer by using the name ‘Captain.’ Our hero realises the climate is turning against him and retires, vanishing from public life for three decades.
Cut to the present of 1983. The U.S. government has, for some reason, decided it was a good idea to build a secret weapon called “the hypno-ray,” which, naturally enough, can hypnotise anybody into doing anything. A villain named Mr Midnight steals the ray, for a much more understandable reason, and sets about doing what all villains did in old-school superhero films; tries to commit land fraud. And –OH MY GOD- what a shock, this villain turns out to be Christopher Lee.
With nobody left to turn to, the U.S. President -who was one of the Boy Scouts in the opening footage- announces that what the world needs now is “a shining hero” and puts out a call for Captain Invincible to return. Meanwhile, in Australia, a cop by the name of Patty Patria has had some strange encounters with a drunk homeless guy. Bullets don’t hurt him. Cars bounce of him. She realises he is our missing superhero, because, you know, she’s a detective.
The Captain himself wants no part of it. He’s happy to spend his days wandering the countryside and drinking bourbon, and can no longer tell the good guys from the bad guys. Truth be told, he can no longer tell one country from another, and has no idea that he is in Australia until Patty tells him. “Things looked different,” he says, “I thought it was the booze.”
Eventually the hero is coaxed out of retirement and back into his costume, while trying to rid himself of the demon booze and learn to use his powers again. It’s only a matter of time before he is on a collision course with Mr Midnight.
The film is both a love letter to, and a critique of, the superhero genre. It plays to nostalgia for the mythic version of the 40’s that never really existed, the same 40’s that we still cling to in our fiction and pop culture, and aims a few hard kicks at how far off track the world had gone by the early 80’s.
It’s full of one-liners, visual gags, puns and musical numbers. One of the most memorable is when Christopher Lee’s Mr Midnight attempts to defeat Captain Invincible by exposing him to every kind of alcohol he can imagine, and making him relapse into his alcoholicm. As the chorus goes, while Lee dances around with his henchmen, “If you don’t name your poison, I’ll have to get the boys in, and you’ll never see another tequila sunrise.”
I first saw this film when I was seven or eight. We’d recently got our first VCR, and so were recording anything that looked of interest. My parents taped this for me because I liked superheroes, and nobody really did the due diligence to see if it was actually a kids film. It isn’t. But the idea of whether something is a ‘kids film’ or not is really only a concept that adults grapple with. For kids, all films are kids films. So I wore out the tape, missed half of the humour, and almost all of the satire went over my head, but I fell in love with a film about a hero in a costume who saves the day, and I learned all of the songs inside-out.
The trick of the film is that it’s playing with the concept of nostalgia, but for me now, at 34, watching the film itself is an act of nostalgia.
Okay. So there’s all of that going for it.
Question The Fourth; Is it any good?
Remember that time I tried to say Daredevil is a good film, and it totally isn’t? Remember that time I tried to say The Phantom is a good film, and it totally is? Well, The Return Of Captain Invincible pitches up tent somewhere between the two. The performances of the two male leads are great fun. Lee camps it up brilliantly as a singing villain, and Arkin superbly deadpans his way through the role as a washed-up prize fighter coming back for one last bout. The supporting cast is less effective, but everyone tries their best to sell the show.
The jokes, by and large, are still funny. Watching it back as an adult, I was surprised to see how many of the one-liners are phrases I’ve carried with me, quoting the film without realising it. And I found that I still know all of the songs.
The main problem is the budget. This whole thing looks like it was put together for five dollars and a pack of gum. The most effective sequence is the opening, the black and white newsreel footage hides the lack of funding and leaves room for the jokes and satire. Once we step forward into the ‘present’ of 1983…well….
It’s not a great film. To many eyes, it’s probably not even a good film. The lighting is poor, the locations look cheap and the effects have dated badly. I do believe that every dollar of the production is on the screen, but unfortunately I think I have more dollars in my pocket right now, sat in Scotland, than they had to work with on set.
I think this is well worth watching, and it deserves to be mentioned in the history of superhero films. Especially for doing in 1983 something that will probably be in the next wave of our movies, and starting to play with the basic concepts of the genre. I still love it. It’s camp, silly fun and I think the heart and intent win out over the lack of budget and, come on, you want to see Arkin and Lee duet about good and evil, right?