Australia v. The Superhero Film 

A very short history

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WHILE AUSTRALIAN CINEMA has proven itself in most genres, the superhero film remains our kryptonite. We’ve made very few attempts, and they’ve been as bold as they are baffling, rife with McCarthyism, metaphysics and alien orgies. Join me, as I introduce you to The Return of Captain Invincible and Griff the Invisible: Australia’s two unlikely superhero movies, set apart by time and tone. 

A caveat: I’ve omitted The Subjects, a 2015 Australian film about people taking power-pills. It touted itself as an anti-superhero film, so it can go find an anti-superhero list to be on. This is a pro-superhero list, for the Australian cinema that has lovingly embraced the goofier trappings of the genre, for better and (arguably) worse. And I don’t want to hear any ‘Crocodile Dundee is technically a superhero’ takes. You’re better than that. 

THE RETURN OF Captain Invincible (1983) opens with the late Alan Arkin as the titular hero using his powers to fight the Nazis. Following World War II, he falls victim to the red scare, and a congressional hearing forces him into retirement. His career over, Captain turns to the bottle and finds himself in Australia. When Captain Invincible’s arch-nemesis Mr Midnight (the great Christopher Lee) re-emerges to steal a hypno-ray, Cap must sober up and reacquire his skills with the wavering support of the American president and the New South Wales Police.  

Arkin’s performance is characteristically excellent; with varied degrees of bitter frustration, he never plays it too big. This film skews more to American audiences than Australian, so it’s refreshing to hear genuine Aussie accents rather than Hollywood’s standard cockney/South African hybrids that oi puursonally kehn’t hawdly undah-stehhnd. Inversely, the American president is played by an Australian (Michael Pate), whose accent would be perfect if he was trying to sound like my dad doing an impression of a cowboy.  

And the origin of Cap’s amazing powers? Well. In a flashback, we see his parents making love on the lawn of the White House as a UFO flies over. Inside the UFO, six aliens do a stompy-stomp dance that blasts red energy at the lovers, resulting in a superpowered conception. Afterwards, the aliens all smoke cigarettes. I’m not joking

When it feels like it, the film’s also a musical. The songs are performed with gusto, even when choreographed with the vibrancy and co-ordination of your drunk cousin dancing the Nutbush at a wedding.  

The film’s finer and poorer choices make more sense if you consider co-writer Steven E de Souza’s CV. He’s co-written everything from Die Hard to Tomb Raider. I’m not being facetious when I say even his clangers are iconic; he co-authored The Flintstones, Street Fighter, Judge Dredd, Hudson Hawk and more. The man’s had more cult followings than L Ron Hubbard (by which I totally mean Battlefield Earth fans).  

Like so many films of its genre, The Return of Captain Invincible is uneven, but it’s nonetheless heartfelt. It’s the only superhero film Australia would make – until Griff the Invisible (2010). Starring Ryan Kwanten as the eponymous Griff, this film promised to be an exciting departure from Australian cinema’s modern export, the po-faced kitchen-sink drama. 

Though we see Griff fighting some generic criminals in the intro, the rest of the film focuses on interpersonal conflict; nothing wrong with that, but given the bevy of villains Australia can offer – media tyrants, far-right extremists, emus – it’s disappointing that the main antagonist here is ennui.  

Griff is getting bullied at work. His boss takes him aside and advises him to be more invisible. Griff takes this literally and stocks up at the hardware store so he can attempt to make an invisibility serum in his bathtub. This DIY superhero stuff is fun; I’d have loved it if this continued. Instead, we meet Griff’s brother, Tim (Patrick Brammall), who introduces us to his new girlfriend, Melody (Maeve Dermody). Melody is immediately smitten with Griff. Get ready for Griff to do something real heroic with that.  

Melody spends her time studying physics and trying to walk through walls. She holds a theory that cats can see people walking around in other dimensions. This indie cosmology is great, and I much prefer it to the lopsided love triangle.   

Melody and Tim have had three dates, two of which involved meeting each other’s families. When Melody’s parents grill Tim about marriage, he laughs, says, ‘Maybe,’ and smiles at Melody. She hisses back at him with a mouthful of chewed food, like a spoiled rich kid hazing the new au pair. Tim is meant to be obnoxiously normal, but beyond casting Patrick Brammall, I don’t think the filmmakers do enough to justify his vicious cuckolding. 

Melody discovers Griff’s a superhero, and wants in. Together, they plot against crime as they fall in love. She presents Griff with an invisibility suit that’s supposedly a gift from the government. It doesn’t work, and shit hits the bricks as we learn (spoiler alert if you’re still catching up on your 2010 releases) that Griff’s not a real superhero. It’s all in his head.   

Like Tim, the audience has been cheated. I came here for escapism. I already have nightly imaginary fights; it’s called anxiety. Moments before the credits, Melody phases through a door in a Hail Mary move to qualify this film as sci-fi. 

THAT BRINGS OUR list to an end. Will Australia ever make another superhero film? Now that the world seems fatigued by the genre, my guess is yes. Captain Invincible came five years after the success of the first Superman. Griff came five years after Nolan relaunched Batman. I think Australia’s about ready to try to cash in on that Endgame hype.  

Hell, I’d love to see these films remade. But how could this regurgitated IP possibly meet the modern nutritional needs of my baby-bird brain?  

I think a new Griff the Invisible would do well to lose the imaginary elements. It’s fine to have other people question the veracity of the heroics, but the audience needs to know they’re not being cheated by act two. Speaking of not being cheated, lose the love triangle with the brother. Set up Griff and Melody as two rival fringe scientists dabbling in DIY mass-energy trials. They meet-cute when they accidentally ruin each other’s experiments, and their heated rivalry quickly leads to a sexy team-up. They develop invisibility and intangibility powers, and harness them to fight crime. But their atomic antics rip a hole in the cosmic fabric, allowing something sinister to step through and raise the stakes in act three. 

A new Captain Invincible would ideally match the original film’s ambitions – it’d simply need to put a bit more effort into executing them. Punch up the jokes, choreograph the musical numbers, lose the ‘Return’ bit from the title so it doesn’t sound like a sequel. It should definitely keep the sobriety arc; the Marvel Comic Universe set up Tony Stark for one, but they bailed on it, meaning a) Tony died a high-functioning alcoholic, and b) the alcoholic superhero angle remains a fresh idea for a modern filmmaker.  

And once you make it clearer that the humans have consented: then yes, you could, should, absolutely must keep the alien orgy. May their heavenly stompy-stomps inseminate our film industry with life anew.   

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About the author

Fabian Lapham

Fabian Lapham is the writer and co-creator of the anthology horror comic Wunderkammer, and has also worked in animation as a writer, a director...

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