The Return Of Captain Invincible (1982) combines the wit and counterculture savvy of Richard O’Brien with Philippe Mora’s distinctly Australian view of American imperialism all within the aesthetic milieu of the superhero movie. However, back in the early days of the Reagan years the superhero movie was vastly different than it is today. The Return Of Captain Invincible had only Superman: The Movie (1978), Superman II (1980), Adam West’s Batman, and three decades worth of movie serials to mine.
A post-modern satire, The Return Of Captain Invincible is a dense exercise in intertextuality that rivals the films of Lucas and Spielberg in terms of repackaging established genre forms, tropes, archetypes, and narrative conventions. The Return Of Captain Invincible may look more like Superman: The Movie but its primary influence is actually George Reeves’ Superman television show. In combining both sensibilities Mora demonstrates how American patriotism has changed by examining a dichotomy of nationalist fantasies. The titular hero played by Alan Arkin represents the naive flag waving of Reeves while the world he exists in suggests the corrupt, post-Watergate political landscape of Christopher Reeve’s Superman films.
It’s telling that Cpt. Invincible’s kryptonite is alcohol. Gone are the delusions that superheroes are infallible gods fighting for truth, justice, and the American way. Cpt. Invincible is a hero more in step with Alan Moore’s run on Captain Britain and Supreme than he is with Superman of the Golden or Silver Ages of the comics. The combination of comedy with cynicism in The Return Of Captain Invincible is what makes the film so fresh and unique even today. The Return Of Captain Invincible is neither Mystery Men (1999) nor Watchmen (2009), but a perfect synthesis of these extremist tones.
The most disquieting piece of satire in The Return Of Captain Invincible comes in the form of evil Mr. Midnight’s (Christopher Lee) plan to move racial minorities out of urban spaces, rob them by selling them homes they cannot afford and then blowing them up. It’s a variation of Gene Hackman’s plan in Superman: The Movie but imbued with the racial overtones of Nazism. Midnight’s scheme is extreme and depicted as campy farce even though it contains a disturbing truth regarding the politics of gentrification.
All of this seriousness is buoyed by absurd set pieces, kinky imagery and subversive visual allusions. Director Philippe Mora consistently pulls the curtain back on how the fantasy of a movie superhero is produced while simultaneously putting that hero in the most reductively cliched scenarios imaginable. These moments range from a showdown with a nest of vacuum cleaners to a training session in front of some rear projection. Each sequence is set-up to be hilarious but also to reiterate the fragility of these illusions. In order to believe that Cpt. Invincible can fly, the audience must do most of the intellectual work, approximating the interactions that children had with the Superman and Batman shows of the fifties and sixties.
Songwriter Richard O’Brien’s contributions to The Return Of Captain Invincible are perhaps the most memorable part. These musical numbers are pure pastiche and feature some of his wittiest lyrics. ‘Choose Your Poison” is probably the best song overall even though “Mr. Midnight” features the best cinematography and choreography. Those familiar with O’Brien’s work will be delighted by the double entendres and the visual proclivity for corsets.
From the phony opening newsreels to the final showdown, The Return Of Captain Invincible is hands down one of the best superhero films ever made. As audiences begin to reel from “superhero fatigue” a film like The Return Of Captain Invincible would be a total palette cleanser. Even though The Return Of Captain Invincible may not be rooted in an established intellectual property, it still has more to say about the nature of superheroes than any film made since.