Everyone loves a hero and even more, everyone loves a villain. The more broad chested the hero and luridly evil the villain, the better. This basic black/white viewpoint that people cling to like a spit stained security blanket is often the main impetus behind the superhero genre. A figure, often with extraordinary powers, becomes the pinpoint of hope for all that is fair and just. Real life is mired with red tape, corruption and the folly of our own nature. These are all reasons why the idea of a flawed superhero wasn’t terribly popular until recent years. (Though The Kinks get some major points with their song, “Catch Me Now I’m Falling” off of their album Low Budget.) But there was a film that predated all of them, way back in 1983 in the form of Philippe Mora’s The Return of Captain Invincible. Did I mention that it’s also a musical?
The Return of Captain Invincible stars Alan Arkin as our titular hero who is first introduced in a 1940’s style B&W newsreel, with our young, clean-cut Captain defeating gangsters, fighting the Nazis and representing everything that is good and wholesome about America. That is, until he ends up getting hit with charges of communism by The House of Un-American Activities, led by Joseph McCarthy. The witch hunt demoralizes our hero, who goes into hiding and ends up in Australia, liquor soaked and trading his spandex for stained, baggy clothes.
To passersby, he’s just a liver-crying-for-help derelict, belting out “New York, New York” to the rural hills Down Under, when he’s not inadvertently saving lives, particularly of tough police woman, Patty Patria (Kate Fitzpatrick). It’s only a matter of time before the superhero within the man has to come back out, especially with his old foe, the devilish and devilishly handsome Mr Midnight (Christopher Lee), back on the horizon. But it takes an old promise to a young boy who has now grown up to be the President of the United States (the incredible Michael Pate), to bring the hesitant, rusty but goodhearted Captain out of retirement. The question then emerges, will the once strong superhero be able to defend the world from the evil megalomaniacal clutches of Mr. Midnight and surpass his own inner demons?
The Return of Captain Invincible is a heartfelt, goony and surprisingly smart film. It is truly a strange creature, one that could have only be helmed by the same man that gave us the historical art film, Mad Dog Morgan (with Dennis Hopper) AND Howling II (with Sybil Danning’s shirt exploding breasts), Phillipe Mora. A wholly unique filmmaker who is never praised enough for his brass balls, not to mention creative flexibility, Mora pulled out all stops with this one. From the bright, comic-book style color schemes to the number of bizarre little touches,Captain Invincible is a superhero film like no other.
For starters, there’s our main character, played with typical perfection by Alan Arkin. Handsome and with a enough emotional gravitas to pull off a man who is solid in heart but whose spirit has been cracked by the very country he protected, Arkin’s Captain Invincible is a true hero with a human bent. We get to see him run the gamut from being your typical 1940’s strong-jawed hero to being a scruffy alcoholic suffering from the DT’s the night before he goes back into training, only to circle right back to being the chap that saves the day. On top of that, Arkin’s musical background comes into play quite nicely here, taking vocal duties on most of the songs featured, with the highlights being “The Good Guys & The Bad Guys” and “Mr. Midnight.” Arkin balances out the humanity and absurdity of it all so perfectly.
Speaking of absurd wonder, Michael Pate as the President is stupendously awesome. If he ran for office, my cynical booty would be hightailing it to the nearest booth in a hot flash of a second! A legendary character actor who had made his mark both in America and his native Australia, Pate is all Kennedy hair, Texan charm and big shouldered awesomeness, with the standout being the “Bullshit” number. This literally amounts to Pate saying the word “Bullshit” over and over again, set to an electronic beat. It is cathartic in its greatness.
Of course, there is the tall, cool, grim-in-his-beauty Christopher Lee as our villain Mr. Midnight. Lee is having a lot of great fun here, bringing a sense of intentional camp to his role. Lee is center point to the absolute musical highlight of the film with “Choose Your Poison.” Yes, Christopher Lee, in that wonderful Wagner-opera from depths of unknown bass voice of his, singing about the joys of drinking. It’s even better than “Bullshit!”
Kate Fitzpatrick doesn’t really get to shine quite as much as the others but is still good and realistically tough, as in you can halfway buy her as a real police officer. The aforementioned soundtrack, while a bit MOR in spots, has some absolute gems here. It should shock absolutely no one that the highlights, minus my much beloved “Bullshit,” were all helmed by Rocky Horror pioneer and flat out genius Richard O’Brien, along with another Rocky alumni, Richard Hartley, providing the music. His numbers, which include the title theme, “Mr Midnight” and “Choose Your Poison” are A+ O’Brien greatness.
Return of Captain Invincible is not a perfect film and it will undoubtedly off-put some with its strange brew of social commentary and goofiness bordering on surrealism. The idea that a bourbon soaked derelict muttering to himself down the road could be a superhero gone to seed is a smart and thoughtful one. Our hero and concept here could fit in any time period. A little flea-bitten and hardened by a flawed world but at the end of the day, still hopeful and willing to fight for a better future.