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Sunday, 19 September 2010

The Return of Captain Invincible (1983)

Director: Philippe Mora
Stars: Alan Arkin, Christopher Lee, Kate Fitzpatrick and Bill Hunter

Everything's superheroes nowadays, it seems, with Marvel finally showing the big studios how to make such movies work on the big screen: Spider-Man and Iron Man and all the rest. Take a look at any Hollywood superhero movie that predates Spider-Man, though, and you'll cringe at how little anyone in film seemed to understand about what made the comics work. This Aussie movie from director Philippe Mora shows that some filmmakers understood all the basic concepts as far back as 1983 but simply chose to take a completely different tack from Hollywood. This is a post-modern superhero spoof, one that was a couple of decades ahead of its time. The approach it takes to its story fits far better with films like Mystery Men, Hancock or Kick-Ass, but its visual aesthetic is old school: part thirties pulp, part seventies futurism and part Rocky Horror, the latter hardly surprising as Richards O'Brien and Hartley wrote some of the songs.

The other thing to look for here is a wealth of political and cinematic references, which begin as the film begins, with newsreel footage from News on the March. Orson Welles invented News on the March as a spoof of The March of Time newsreel series, using it to show the official version of the life and death of Charles Foster Kane at the beginning of Citizen Kane, before proceeding to dig deeper through drama. Mora does the same here, showing the official version of the life and disappearance of Captain Invincible, a vague hybrid of Superman and Captain America, before proceeding to dig deeper through drama, comedy and song. In fact the comedy is there even in the newsreel footage, as Captain Invincible relaxes on the fuselage of German Stukas, smoking cigars in front of the pilots to block their view. Alan Arkin shines from moment one here as the title character, as smugly superior as Superman always should have been but never was.

These newsreels are joyous, ably spoofing the fact that they weren't actual footage of events but later dramatisations of those events, with every liberty taken. So we find ourselves back in the thirties, in the mysterious warehouse of a 'mystery big shot racketeer' who is nameless but looks vaguely like George Raft. He doesn't notice the cameras that are all over his warehouse, which know precisely where to pan to pick up Invincible breaking through the wall. He even picks up a barrel for the gangsters to shoot at, though everyone knows full well that he's bulletproof and the only possible outcome is something that looks cool on film. It's all great pulp fun. Captain Invincible Smashes Gangsters! Captain Invincible Crushes Nazis! Captain Invincible Inspires American Youth! Those are just the intertitles but the man lives up to them and he knows full well just how awesome he is. It oozes out of his every pore.

However, while most superheroes seem to be stuck in the eras they were created to protect, this one is forced to move with the times and the McCarthy era doesn't look kindly on someone in a red cape. HUAC cites him for flying without a license and wearing underwear in public, turning every heroic deed into a suspicious one. Captain Invincible storms out and is gone, dramatised neatly by News on the March with people looking up in vain at the skies of Manhattan. Where could he be? Well given that this is a Philippe Mora movie, it shouldn't be too surprising to find him in Australia, but he's no longer what he was. Now he's an alcoholic bum, a shadow of his former self, sleeping in burned out buildings. Even when he's hit by bits of Skylab falling to earth in the outback, the news takes his comments as drunken ramblings and ignores them. This is a microcosm of the film's central theme, that superheroes can never escape who they are.
It seems strange to think about a central theme here because the film is all over the place, albeit deliberately, so much so that every time we think we know what's happening, the picture veers off in a completely new direction and we find ourselves in a whole new movie. Nothing seems remotely compatible but the result ends up as something of a patchwork quilt, one that tells a story but tells much more in the framework it chooses. That's more of a story than the story itself and really deserves professional annotations that explain just what this stole from other movies and what other movies stole from this. Of course there are Superman jokes, and The Godfather, Raiders of the Lost Ark and Blazing Saddles are ably spoofed, but was that a Basic Instinct shot in 1983? Maybe I'm looking too hard but there are references and memorabilia everywhere, with a Casablanca here and a Dr Strangelove there. Was that a Maltese Falcon or a Nazi eagle?

Every style in the book seems to be touched on at some point. Some of the comedy is subtle and left in the background for us to notice if we can. In the newsreels, the Nazi maps of London have Buckhaus circled. When we meet the Aussie street cop who will become the leading lady, she's reading a book called New South Wales Detective Test: Boost Your Score in 10 Days. The police station fax machine sounds like a game of Pacman. Yet much of it is blatant, the US President being given a song that consists entirely of the word 'bullshit'. There are aliens here, puns too. A fight scene in a New York Jewish deli is straight out of Monty Python and even includes pies. The whole history of film comedy seems to be here in references. Most blatant of all is the character of Captain Invincible's nemesis, the supervillain Mr Midnight, which Christopher Lee took as an opportunity to explore the absurd: part Python, part Dali, part people who hadn't been born yet.

Introduced as an 'industrialist crony' of Hitler, standing next to him at a Nazi rally in newsreel footage, he crops up again and again in the background, even at Captain Invincible's hearings in front of HUAC. In public he looks consistently sinister but in private he's completely batshit crazy. He breaks into opera or Shakespeare at the slightest provocation. He has a swimming pool that contains a 3D reproduction of Manhattan. He has a collection of bizarre pets. His ragtag minions include some guy in drag who looks like an old Bette Davis, a punk with only one side of his head shaved, a midget in a Santa Claus outfit, even a some sort of hybrid man/goat called Julius. He has black Volkswagen Beetles with flamethrowers under their bonnets and personalised number plates. When Captain Invincible calls him 'a sociopath paranoid schizophrenic with delusions of grandeur,' he takes it as a compliment. The world notices him when he uses his giggle gun.

Up to now he's been entirely obscure, only Captain Invincible having heard of him, but after he attacks a US Defense & Space Research Facility with his giggle gun, leaving the entire base in stitches and mostly naked. The attack was to steal the hypno ray, which he uses as an insanely convoluted ethnic cleansing plan. Forget just killing people, why not herd them up and hypnotise them into buying houses on ethnically segregated estates like Sicilian Heights and Afro Acres, then destroy the estates? The US President, played by the very Australian Michael Pate, decides that, 'What the world needs right now is a hero,' and just to emphasise that, backs it up in song. Yes, this is a musical, albeit one that doesn't see a song until almost twenty minutes in. The hero is Captain Invincible, of course, who had once unwittingly promised a young boy that when he became president he could call on him at any time. The boy made good. Now he has to.
I wonder how much of this was improvised. IMDb credits only two writers, plus a third who added dialogue, but it feels like the product of twenty or at least one schizophrenic with twenty distinct personalities. It's almost as if everything was deliberately inconsistent just to keep us guessing. It goes far beyond the confluence of stock footage with flashbacks, gag routines with musical numbers, technical gimmickry with stark realism. One moment there's clever dialogue, the next offensively bad puns; one moment natural acting, the next outrageous slapstick; one moment astute social commentary, the next jiggling aliens. Perhaps the scenes where Captain Invincible fights the DTs through stock footage resonated with the filmmakers and they just decided to pull out all the stops with bleeding hoovers and Jane Fonda reading On Walden Pond. No wonder someone with as delightful a sense of the absurd as Terry Pratchett is a confirmed fan.

The connection between the superhero and supervillain is explored, just like in Brent Triplett's Super Sam, but the two characters are far from two sides of the same coin. Captain Invincible is explained through realism, a man who feels lost in time, yearning for the innocence of 1950, even though 1950 still needed him. As he sobers up he starts realising what has changed while he was curled up inside a bottle. He doesn't understand bottled water, women's lib, the absence of Kate Smith. It's when he explains that the US has 'lost something vital, like honesty, pride, integrity and a sense of the future,' that he finds his place again. Mr Midnight doesn't care about any of these things. Far from being explained through realism, he's explained through insanity, surrealism and absurdity. A real Mr Midnight couldn't exist in society because he's incompatible, a bad guy with no motivation except to be evil. He's even sadder than the alcoholic Captain.

With such inconsistency it's hard to judge anything except the big picture. It can't succeed as a drama, a musical or a comedy because it's never only one of those things. It's too stupid to be a work of substance but it's too intelligent to just be a dumb comedy. It has a sense of children's fun but there are too many naked breasts and dominatrix dancers for it to be a family film. The only way it can work is either as that patchwork quilt with all its diverse pieces, or as individual pieces with their own individual charm, especially to Aussies. I loved Graham Kennedy's turn as the Australian prime minister, for instance. 'I'll concur if you want me to,' he keeps stuttering at the Americans who aim to nuke everything. 'As prime minister of Australia I ought to get back to the caravan.' As Captain Invincible starts to sober up, he discovers why Sydney doesn't look like Wall Street. 'I knew everything looked different,' he comments, 'but I thought it was the booze.'

So what are we supposed to think? I have a feeling that director Philippe Mora and writers Steven E de Souza and Andrew Gaty deliberately crafted an unholy mess that still contained substance for those who lasted past the first song. It's certainly a polarising movie, those who don't like it unable to watch it and those who like it finding new lines to quote to people who have no clue what they're talking about. 'Gefilte fish!' I'm now fascinated to discover just who those fans are, beyond Terry Pratchett. Are they die hard Rocky Horror fans, relishing more songs by Richard O'Brien and Richard Hartley? It's entirely obvious which they wrote. Are they film nuts, who have great fun identifying each cinematic reference, from Anna Christie to A Clockwork Orange? I'm sure I missed plenty and will have to return in a few years to see how many more I catch. Or are they just absurdists? If so this should be an inevitably obscure but much loved underground cult hit.

4 comments:

jervaise brooke hamster said...

My favorite song in this movie is "BULL-SHIT". By the way, Christopher Lee is a load of old rubbish simply because he is British.

Servicable Villain said...

I loved Capt Invincible when I saw it on TV. Its sloppy/tidy production fits the storyline, it's a parody without being cutting toward the original material and it invites the viewer to laugh at it without demeaning itself or it's intent.

You asked who likes CI? I'm not really a Rocky Horror fan although I'll watch it again in the future.

What's great about CI?

1,2 & 3: Alan Arkin

4: Christopher Lee. (Especially his singing - what a great surprise)

(No particular order now)

5: The songs of Richard O'Brien and Richard Hartley

6: The beautiful Blue Mountains!

7: Great Aussie Cast esp. Kate Fitzpatrick

8: Director Phillipe Mora (IMHO Australia's Tarantino).

9: Good premise. "Superhero battles ingratitude."

10: Complements one of my favourite TV shows "The Greatest American Hero". Same accessible charm.

That's about it. It's in my Top 20 favourite films.

Hal C F Astell said...

Thanks for your reply, SV!

I watch a lot of films and a lot of them fade away over time, even the good ones. It's the memorable ones that are to be treasured most and this one has stayed with me.

Usually films come back to mind because of reference points, moments that remind of other films. That's where the value of The Room really lies, for instance, in providing reference points for badness.

Yet that isn't it with this film. It just crops up in my brain for no apparent reason and doesn't quit. It feels good too.

Philippe Mora said...

Thanks for this great essay on my film. The other writers on the film were Peter Smalley (credited somewhere) and myself, uncredited. Also a
contributing factor was my determination and direction to make it a musical and to have at least one gag per page and/or per minute of ANY kind. To the best of my knowledge this is the first film influenced by both Citizen Kane and Airplane! Since I made this film EVERY superhero now has a personal problem.