There have been more than a fair number of superhero movies based on characters found in the pages of either DC or Marvel Comics, it’s basically a cottage industry now, yet once in a while a little superhero gem will wander onto the scene that’s a truly original piece of superhero fiction, one that will catch the world by surprise. And what is more surprising than Alan Arkin playing a superhero who fought the Axis forces during WWII?
While the title may sound like this is a sequel it is actually referring to the return of a “Golden Age” superhero, known as Captain Invincible (Alan Arkin), who after successfully defeating enemies at home and abroad, taking out such nemesis as prohibition bootleggers and the Third Reich with a smile and a quip, he was called before a McCarthy-style government hearing in the 1950s and charged with such ridiculous accusations as “Flying without a proper license, impersonating a military officer, and wearing underwear in public.” Feeling betrayed by his own government Captain Invincible went into a self-imposed exile and over the following decades he became an alcoholic bum wandering the streets of Sydney, Australia. This leads us to the present where is needed most and the world prays for his return, well, not exactly the whole world but the United States President (Michael Pate), who as a boy scout was greatly inspired by Captain Invincible, and he sends out the call.
And what monumental threat is dire enough to seek out a disgraced superhero? Enter Mr. Midnight (Christopher Lee) an apparently immortal agent of evil who had been thwarted by Captain Invincible numerous times but now with that hero lost in a bottle victory is in his grasp. Mr. Midnight engages in a diabolical plan to rid New York City of its ethnic minorities, using a Hypno-ray stolen from the United States military to brainwash the ethnic citizens into moving to newly constructed coastal communities, with charming names like Afro Acres, Polish Palms, Israeli Acres and Sicilian Heights, and once fully occupied he will destroy these communities via his fleet of atomic submarines. Can Australian detective Patty Patria (Kate Fitzpatrick) find the disgraced and now alcoholic superhero before it’s too late? Will Captain Invincible sober up and regain his powers in time to stop this genocidal madman? And will this require Alan Arkin and Christopher Lee to break out into song? Only time will tell.
While there have been some rather interesting subversive superhero offerings of late, from Amazon Prime’s The Boys to their equally amazing animated series Invincible being a couple of good examples, most of the comic book offerings have been rather straightforward in the handling of the subject matter, which is why stumbling across this 80s gem was such a treat as not only does this film cast the amazing Alan Arkin as a washed-up superhero and Christopher Lee as a wonderfully over-the-top villain, it’s also a really bizarre musical, with songs by Richard “Rocky Horror Picture Show” O’Brien and Richard Hartley. The songs in this film create a nice satirical counterpoint to your standard “Good vs Evil” showdown that is typical of the genre and it makes the whole film feel quite ahead of its time, as its deconstructionist take on the superhero genre predates graphic novels such as Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns. One must wonder if comic book writers Alan Moore and Frank Miller had a chance to see The Return of Captain Invincible during its brief theatrical release.
• The opening News Reel shows footage of bootleggers loading up a shipment of illegal alcohol but who exactly is filming this? Were gangsters of the time okay with the newsmen filming them at work?
• Seeing Captain Invincible fighting the Nazis and downing Luftwaffe planes with ease does bring up the obvious question “Just what was DC’s Superman doing during WWII?”
• The birdlike motif of Captain Invincible’s costume gives off strong Condorman vibes, a Disney film that came out a couple of years earlier.
• If Mr. Midnight were around today his plan to eradicate the ethnic minorities of New York City would more than likely have resulted in him getting a spot on the Republican ticket.
• Apparently, muggers in Australia drive around in Volkswagens that are tricked out with flamethrowers, or perhaps even the average Ozzies drive these kinds of cars simply to survive all the wildlife that is trying to kill them.
• Captain Invincible’s powers stem from a bunch of horny and voyeuristic aliens who mentally bonded with his parents while he was being conceived, which wins this movie an award for having one of the most bizarre origin stories ever.
• Mr. Midnight’s underground lair is staffed with a goblin, a variety of exotic pets/food, and a lingerie-clad coterie of Solid Gold Dancers.
What may surprise some people is just how good of a singer Christopher Lee really is, whose operatic skills would often lead him to give impromptu performances of Wagner to passengers stuck on a London to Los Angeles flight, and when casting a villain with a Bond villain type plan it’s not hard to see Lee as being perfect the perfect choice as he’d already played the villainous Scaramanga in The Man With the Golden Gun. And Alan Arkin is no slouch either, while not as accomplished a singer as Christopher Lee he more than acquits himself as does his co-star Kate Fitzpatrick, but what is quite surprising is that there hasn’t been much in the way of superhero musicals over the years, aside from a couple of Broadway offerings the idea of singing and dancing superheroes remain barren – comedic bits like “Rogers: The Musical” from the Disney+ series Hawkeye notwithstanding – and while the current glut of comic book movies has offered genre mash-ups including spy thrillers, science fiction and even some with horror elements, I think it’s time for one of the big studios to bring the world a full-fledged superhero musical.
This was director Philippe Mora’s second team-up with the legendary Christopher Lee, the first one being Howling II: Your Sister is a Werewolf, needless to say, this superhero musical is the better of the two and if you can track down a copy I can’t recommend it enough, especially if the current state of superhero movies is getting you down and you need a lite and frothy number to cleanse the palate.
The Return of Captain Invincible (1983)
Movie Rank - 7.5/10
In what can be best described as “Marvel Comics Meets the Rocky Horror Picture” show we have a delightful rock opera that pits Alan Arkin as a drunk superhero against Christopher Lee as a wonderfully evil arch-enemy in a musical comedy that has to be seen to be believed, and seriously, how can you not fall in love with a film where Christopher Lee sings along with a bunch of half-clad dancing girls?