Director: Phillipe Mora
Stars: Alan Arkin, Christopher Lee, Michael Pate, Bill Hunter, Kate Fitzpatrick
Last year marked the end of my long infatuation with superhero films. For almost two decades I regularly made the pilgrimage to the multiplex to see the latest superhero joints, and while I retain some anthropological curiosity about the genre, 2016’s unfortunate double whammy of X-Men: Apocalypse and Suicide Squad killed most of my affection for and investment in it. Even so, as a former genre apologist and a writer on Australian film, I’ve long had a hankering to see Phillipe Mora’s 1983 film The Return of Captain Invincible, one of Australia’s very few attempts at a superhero movie, albeit a parody.
In recent years films like The Incredibles and Hancock (which the cover for Captain Invincible’s new Umbrella DVD namechecks as a reference point) have mined superhero tropes to comedic effect in. Yet where those films riffed on an active commercial genre, Captain Invincible hails from a very different era; in 1983 there weren’t five major superhero projects a year, but five in as many years between the Christopher Reeve Superman films, television’s Greatest American Hero if you cheat, and Flash Gordon or Condorman if you squint. Mora’s film revolves around its titular hero, played by Alan Arkin. After being accused of anti-American activities during the McCarthy trials in the 1950s, Captain Invincible flies to Australia and bums around for decades. In 1983 he’s discovered and urged out of retirement by the American president (Michael Pate) to defeat the nefarious plans of supervillain Mr Midnight (Christopher Lee).
I won’t mince words: Captain Invincible is a tough sit. While I’ve struggled with some of the other genre-minded, internationally-tailored fare of the 1980s previously discussed on Down Under Flix, such as Sky Pirates and The Time Guardian, I at least got what those films were going for and who they were made for. This one totally flummoxed me, and at times angered me. I get the impulse of local filmmakers like Antony I. Ginnane and Richard Franklin who strove to make genre films of broad international appeal in the 1980s, and a number of their films are terrific, tremendous entertainments (I’ll go to bat for Roadgames any and every day of the week). But Captain Invincible is a misfire and does more ill than good for the cause. The closest film to it tonally that’s been covered on Down Under Flix would be Les Patterson Saves the World, yet Captain Invincible is not as successful as that largely (and somewhat unfairly) maligned film. In its chintzy aspirations, pastiche inclinations, and use of musical numbers to punctuate the plot, it wants to be The Rocky Horror Picture Show, but ends up closer to its sequel-that-nobody-mentions Shock Treatment. On that note, a number of the songs are by Rocky Horror duo Richards O’Brien and Hartley and these sporadically lift the film.
Behind the scenes issues impacted the finished film, as they’re wont to do. According to David Stratton in his book The Avocado Plantation (p. 79), producer Andrew Gaty tinkered with the film in post-production to tailor it more to the American market. It’s unclear whether an alternative cut of the film would work, but I’d be curious. Director Mora is a fascinating character with a storied career, whose Mad Dog Morgan is a shaggy classic of sorts straddling the dividing line between Ozploitation and the arthouse. Mora is subversively and satirically minded, but he also has a schlock streak a mile wide, as displayed in his Howling sequels and Communion and here to a degree. Whatever content stems from Mora and whatever from Gaty, the finished product is not the sum of either creator’s intentions, and the combination of Mora’s iconoclasm and Gaty’s commercialism results in a film that’s neither fish nor fowl.
While imported talent usually attracts the ire of local productions (the aforementioned Roadgames being a noteworthy example), they’re the least of Captain Invincible’s problems. Arkin and Lee – working on a script co-authored by another overseas talent, Steven E. de Souza of Ricochet fame (well, at least on Down Under Flix) – are typically worth watching and are fine here. If one good thing came from the production, it at least helped a posse of Australian character actors pay their rent. Bill Hunter, David Argue, Max Cullen, Arthur Dignam, Chris Haywood, Gus Mercurio, Max Phipps, Virginia Hey, Brice Spence, Noel Ferrier, AND Graham Kennedy (as the Prime Minister) all make appearances, which basically means that if an explosive device went off at the wrap party there’d be no more character actors in Australian cinema in the 1980s. Thankfully there was no bomb at the wrap party, but the box office was another matter…
Ultimately, despite the talent before and behind the camera, some okay songs, and a few moments that click (see the image above), Captain Invincible is largely a misfire and epitomizes many of the worst tendencies of its era, a period of Australian cinema that bore some very fine fruit but also produced some fairly rotten apples.
Next time: From one of the weakest films of 1983 to one of the strongest, Carl Schultz’s Careful, He Might Hear You.