If your curiosity leads you to rent 1983’s The Return of Captain Invincible because it’s got Alan Arkin as the drunken, disgraced eponymous superhero and Christopher Lee as his arch-nemesis Mr. Midnight, you’d better be sure your fast-forward button (or skip-search if you rent the DVD) is working. It’s entirely unfunny, with intentionally campy dialogue that falls flat and songs to match.
Oh, did I mention it’s a musical? There are about ten songs, each worse than the last. Three of them — sorry, I’m not sure which, though the entertainingly pervo “Name Your Poison” is probably one of them — have Richard O’Brien’s name on them. O’Brien, I clarify only for those not in the know, was the lyricist behind such Rocky Horror perennials as “Time Warp,” et cult-classic cetera. (And, yes, the playwright/screenwriter behind the whole shebang.)
But please, if you respect O’Brien, do not sully said respect by renting this merely because of his glancing participation. Fully half of the songs are seemingly about how America was great once, when Captain Invincible was in his prime (in the ’40s), and can be great again. There’s one 30-second song early on, composed entirely of the word “bullshit,” that will make you blink blankly at the screen and realize it’s going to be a long hour and forty-one minutes.
I happened to catch up with the flick in late 2001, and for a while I was worried that Captain Invincible might actually be re-animated as a post-9/11 gung-ho semi-cult comedy, though we seem to have sweated out that particular national fever. Blatheringly patriotic and nostalgic as it is — not to mention passive-aggressively reactionary (does this movie long for the days when men were men, women were servile, and Negroes knew their place?) — this feels like a 1976 movie that stayed on the shelf for seven years. It’s probably in heavy rotation on Bill O’Reilly’s DVD player.
Captain Invincible is lured out of retirement by Australian cop Kate Fitzpatrick when the U.S. government’s HypnoRay is stolen. It’s the work of Mr. Midnight, of course — his nefarious plot is to sucker a lot of “racially impure” New Yorkers into buying shoreside cottages and then send the whole community off into the ocean. Cute.
You’d think Alan Arkin would at least be fun to watch — his presence usually guarantees some off-center mirth — but the idea of him as a caped superhero is funnier than anything he actually does with it. Arkin is okay in his early embittered scenes (and has some good parodic moments in the film’s opening newsreel footage — probably the movie’s highlight) but then falls back on mugging more often than not and seems bewildered by the movie’s rampant stupidity.
As for the movie’s other cult-film draw, Christopher Lee looks dapper and evil, effortlessly outclassing his surroundings, but he just makes you wish he was in something better. He has a nice baritone when he does his big number “Name Your Poison,” which is really not a bad bit on its own and should probably be filed onto a clip tape of Christopher Lee’s Greatest Moments (it would earn inclusion solely by virtue of being a rare musical foray by the master, and for its kitsch value — not remotely because it’s a career highlight, or anything).
It all ends with a big speech from the Captain about how we Americans are “the toughest, bravest, kindest, bestest gang in the world.” If you’re going to torture yourself with this it might as well be as a double feature with 1990’s equally inane Captain America, which shares certain plot points with it (little boy is inspired by the hero back in the old days and grows up to be the President, etc.).