Thursday, March 13, 2008

The Return of Captain Invincible

Before “The Incredibles” (2004) there was “The Return of Captain Invincible” (1983), a satire about a fallen superhero’s return to grace. It’s a really odd film in many ways, and not very good, but I give it high marks for attempting to do something different.

In faux black and white newsreel footage, we see Captain Invincible (Alan Arkin), a World War II superhero fighting Nazis and earning the love and devotion of the American people. In the 1950s he is brought before the House Committee on Un-American Activities and questioned about his loyalties. What exactly was he doing operating behind the Communist lines during the war? He tries to explain he was fighting Panzer tanks, but they don’t believe him and he is branded a traitor to his country.

In disgrace, he disappears for decades until he is tracked down in Sydney, Australia, living on the streets as a bum. The President of the United States (Michael Pate) needs his help, because an arch criminal, Mr. Midnight (Christopher Lee) is set to take over the world, and America needs Captain Invincible back in action.

The first 15 minutes are smart and funny, and I thought this was going to be a real sleeper. About the 20-minute mark the film becomes a musical, when the President launches into the song “Bullshit”, the phrase repeated seemingly hundreds of times as he sings about the help he is getting from his staff. It sounds funnier than it actually is.

I think director Philippe Mora was going for a “Rocky Horror Picture Show” vibe, even hiring the composer, Richard O’Brien, of that score. The songs are pretty bad, unfortunately, but its fun to see stolid Christopher Lee cut loose in a couple of numbers.

What’s strange is this Australian film, set in Australia, filmed in Australia with an Australian crew, and loaded with “guest stars” unknown by me but obviously well known to Australian audiences, is so concerned with the American spirit. There are several scenes with Captain Invincible lamenting what went wrong with America, how can we get our spirit back, we can be the great country we used to be if we just returned to our core values, etc.

I know Australia is a good friend to the United States, but it’s just odd to me that the focus of an Australian film would be the re-birth of American ideals. (Not to mention a musical superhero satire.)

Ultimately by trying to be so many things, it doesn’t do any one thing particularly well. If the songs had been jettisoned and they went straight for the superhero satire, it may have worked better.

But high marks for trying to do something different. For all its faults, “The Return of Captain Invincible” is a one-of-a-kind movie. There hasn’t been anything like it before, or since.

Rating for “The Return of Captain Invincible”: Two stars.

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