Monday, July 04, 2011

Academy of the Underrated: The Return of Captain Invincible

DVD cover and Amazon link
This Fourth of July, America’s got all sorts of problems, from a bad economy to unpopular wars we can’t quite seem to end to the fact that the usual political infighting has degenerated into all-out warfare. Patriotism itself is being used as a political tool, with the implication that anyone who likes “freedom” and “liberty” must invariably also hate the existence of social welfare programs. Times are tough, so we get angry and selfish. But once in a while it helps to look up to the skies.

The Return of Captain Invincible is a genuine obscurity, released just as its distributor was going out of business and more or less vanishing from view for a very long time. It’s a fascinating and very odd picture whose execution doesn’t match its conceptual potential, but as superhero comedy musicals go, it is... well, the only one I know of so far. Leave it to the Australians to come up with one of the most interesting patriotic American movies ever, one that satirizes the shortcomings of our nation while holding up its ideals.

Alan Arkin stars as the titular Captain Invincible, the Man of Magnets, the Legend in Leotards, a superhero who fought gangsters and Nazis all through the period which just happens to be the comics Golden Age. As the 1950s dawned, however, the Captain fell afoul of HUAC, and fled from questions about why he was helping the Russians (during World War II), flying without a license, and wearing his underwear in public. He disappeared into drink and has ended up in Australia, apparently shot down by Skylab and now not knowing where he is or how to use his powers. When an American base in Australia is raided and thieves make off with an experimental hypno-ray, the US President (Michael Pate) puts out an APB on the MIA superhero. Fortunately, Sydney detective Patty Patria (Kate Fitzpatrick) has just recently happened across a drunken vagrant who flipped a car into the air just by standing in its path, and she and the President persuade the Captain to try and sober up and help the free world once more. The Captain and Patty soon find out that the hypno-ray has been stolen by arch criminal Mister Midnight (Christopher Lee), who is using it in an elaborate scheme to ethnically cleanse Manhattan, driving minorities into suburban housing developments that will then be targeted by nuclear missiles.

The casting of Arkin in the lead was something of a stroke of genius. He can’t sing that well, which is a problem, but he captures that paternal wisdom and affability that we expect from our superheroes, especially the ones that wrap themselves in the red, white, and blue. With a grab bag of powers (flight, magnetism, and an amazing computer brain, all voice-activated), and a memorable if busy costume, Invincible is a little bit piecemeal, but Arkin finds a certain reality to his disillusioned self, and his likability gets us in the movie’s corner as well. It helps that he doesn’t look like most movie superheroes- he doesn’t have the square-jawed ethnically-indistinct face we expect, and the actor’s Russo-Germanic-Jewish origins tie in not just to the movie’s plot, but to the fact that Superman, Captain America, and many other legends of that time were generally the creation of first- and second-generation immigrants.

The songs for this film are an odd lot, composed by a number of different teams. It’s no surprise that the most memorable of the lot- including the two showcases for Lee as Midnight- are by Richard O’ Brien and Richard Hartley, of Rocky Horror and Shock Treatment fame. (If such a thing as Shock Treatment fame exists, and it ought to.) The very first song is simply the President singing the word “bullshit” over and over again, and while Arkin has a bit of trouble with the singing bit, Fitzpatrick is dubbed over completely in her character’s one number. The music works more often than it doesn’t, but the uneven quality and the rather abrupt shifts into musical mode mean this doesn’t feel a lot like a proper musical, more a comedy with some numbers on top.

If there’s one thing that dogs this picture it’s inconsistency. It can never quite figure out the tone of humor it’s going for, from vulgarity to broad slapstick to subtler jibes (the Captain fingers a traitor at a Jewish deli when he puts mayo on a pastrami sandwich.) Some of it is quite funny, but you’ll get whiplash. The film was budgeted at five million dollars Australian, and though I’m not sure how strong the currency was back then it didn’t seem to buy a lot- the special effects extend mostly to rear projection and a lot of stock footage, and all sorts of shortcuts are apparent in the more elaborate scenes. Director Philippe Mora’s editing style is a bit clumsy, though he does get some very striking visuals. A certain sloppiness extends a bit to the characters and plot as well- the idea of a traitor in the group rehabbing Invincible is never quite explained, and the film is somewhat undecided as to whether Mr. Midnight is specifically racist or if he’s a primal force of terror (who would then, logically, want everyone of all ethnicities to suffer).

So what saves this film? Well, a lot of it is the sheer charm of it. Arkin, as explained above, is wonderful, and Christopher Lee is in his element. (You will note I did not criticize his singing. That is because there is not a damn thing wrong with it.) Fitzpatrick is sharp and charming as well, and she and Arkin play off each other nicely. Both the actors and the characters they portray are compelling, and even if Captain Invincible’s world isn’t as explicitly developed as a proper comic hero’s, it has that certain mythic resonance.

What’s more, the film seems sincere in a way that not many are. The filmmakers, not Americans themselves, are willing to show off the country's faults but also respectful of the dream. Like Superman and Captain America, Captain Invincible’s allegiance is not to the President or the flag or our country right or wrong, but to the ideas behind the country. And specifically he is devoted to the melting pot, to the Golden Door, to the nation of immigrants who have made America what it is. There’s a simple beauty in the film’s final images under the credits, affirming that belief and holding out a wistful hope that just maybe everything could be just great again.

Written by Andrew Gaty and Steven E. DeSouza (additional dialogue by Peter Smalley)
Directed by Philippe Mora

Grade: B

No comments: