From Captain Invincible to Cleverman: the weird and wild history of Australian superheroes

<span>Photograph: Album/Alamy</span>
Photograph: Album/Alamy

The phrase “nobody makes superhero movies like Australia” has, I dare say, never before been written. Our humble government-subsidised film and TV industry is no more than a lemonade stand in the shadow of Hollywood’s arena spectacular, unable to compete budget-wise with the deep pockets of Tinseltown or produce bombast on the scale of American studios.

But scratch the surface of Australian film and TV history and you will find a small but rich vein of super strange locally made superhero productions with their own – forgive me – true blue je ne sais quoi. Their eclecticism and off-kilter energy provides a refreshing counterpoint to the risk-averse kind falling off the Hollywood assembly line.

The first port of call is the riotously entertaining 1983 action-comedy The Return of Captain Invincible, a stupendously odd and original movie that proved ahead of the curve in many respects. From Mad Dog Morgan director Philippe Mora, and co-writer Steven E. de Souza (who co-wrote Die Hard) the film stars Alan Arkin as the eponymous, ridiculous, frequently sozzled hero, drawn out of retirement to combat his nefarious super-villain nemesis (the great Christopher Lee) who has stolen a “hypno-ray” with which he can take over the world.

Related: Is The Suicide Squad the beginning of the end for the superhero movie?

The protagonist begins in high-flying mode, literally, taking down Nazi fighter planes. But – as old mate Harvey Dent famously opined – you either die a hero or live long enough to see yourself become the villain. Thus the “Legend in Leotards” (as señor Invincible is also known) falls out of favour with US authorities, who put him on trial for flying without a pilot’s licence and wearing undies in public. The captain hangs up his cape and decamps to Sydney, where he becomes a hopeless drunk.

The DVD cover reads “Before Hancock there was ... CAPTAIN INVINCIBLE”. In other words, this film presented its superhero as a bitterly flawed human way before it was cool. Using images of propaganda films and sound stages, Mora also comments on super-heroism and media management (way before The Boys) and how changing sociopolitical context alters perceptions of right and wrong (before Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ seminal graphic novel Watchmen).

US poster of The Return of Captain Invincible, Alan Arkin, 1983.
US poster of The Return of Captain Invincible, Alan Arkin, 1983. Photograph: Everett Collection/Alamy

Oh! It’s also a musical (because why not?) with songs written by The Rocky Horror Picture Show’s Richard O’Brien. This one is my favourite, featuring the Cap crooning about the difficulty in defining modern concepts of morality: how “the line is so fine between heaven and hell / Not even a hero can tell.”

It’s not the difference between good and evil that forms the thematic core of 2010’s Griff the Invisible – instead the line (and overlap) between vigilantism and mental illness. Ryan Kwanten plays Griff, a social misfit who is a boring office worker by day and arse-kicking superhero by night, fighting crime (in a spiffy black and yellow suit) in the community around his inner-city Sydney apartment. Mercilessly bullied by colleagues, and in fact a person who has suffered bullying for many years, Griff clings to his alter-ego for strength.

Christopher Lee as Mr Midnight in The Return of Captain Invincible.
Christopher Lee as Mr Midnight in The Return of Captain Invincible. Photograph: TCD/Alamy

Except (this paragraph contains a significant spoiler – skip it to avoid) we discover Griff’s after-hours life exists mostly in his head.

Writer/director Leon Ford’s film shares the protagonist’s delusions; what he sees, we see. High-tech surveillance equipment observed early in the film is later revealed to be just a bunch of crappy old monitors. The spiffy suit is actually a dodgy DIY job, like the protagonist’s costume in Kick-Ass. Griff is mentally unwell, like Rainn Wilson in James Gunn’s underrated Super. Griff the Invisible, Kick-Ass and Super all arrived in 2010 – a supremely odd year for superheroes.

Robert Mond’s 2015 curio The Subjects is a step down from the universes of Griff and Captain Invincible, in both budget and aesthetics, with a single setting and low-rent special effects. But his film is fun, kooky and unpredictable (more than you can say for most Marvel Comic Universe instalments) with a premise reminiscent of Netflix’s Project Power, in which people take pills that give them unpredictable superpowers.

A group of strangers are trapped in a soundproof studio for eight hours, having agreed to be guinea pigs testing a bizarre new drug. The pills they swallow give each different powers, including teleportation and time travel, though one unlucky fellow spontaneously combusts. Billed as an “anti-superhero movie”, The Subjects oscillates from long streams of yakkety-yak to blasts of CGI mayhem, best approached with generosity and a sense of humour.

There is nothing funny about Cleverman, creator Ryan Griffin’s hard-hitting series that merges dystopian concepts with superheroism and, crucially, comes from an Indigenous Australian perspective. This is a TV show rather than a movie, but it must be included in any discussion about Australian superhero stories.

Cleverman is set in a deeply divided authoritarian future world containing a discriminated group of people known as “Hairies” who live in District 9-esque shanty towns. Koen (Hunter Page-Lochard) inherits extraordinary powers from the enigmatic Uncle Jimmy (Jack Charles) and becomes the titular hero, graduating from experimenting with his new abilities (which include a body that quickly heals all wounds) to taking his role more seriously. There’s a lot going on, from social critique to Orwellian world-building and allegories tackling big subjects such as racism and border protection.

Barry Humphries (centre) in a scene from the bizarre 1987 film Les Patterson Saves the World.
Barry Humphries (centre) in a scene from the bizarre 1987 film Les Patterson Saves the World. Photograph: Everett Collection Inc/Alamy

In addition to the bizarro Australian superhero productions mentioned above, there are many that don’t have characters with special abilities per se but involve heroes who could be considered super – particularly after a few drinks. The Indiana Jones knockoff Sky Pirates, for instance, starring John Hargreaves as a hotshot pilot; the insane James Bond parody Les Patterson Saves the World starring Barry Humphries; the sci-fi film Upgrade, featuring a protagonist super-powered by a computer with an agenda; and the noirish Dark City, starring Rufus Sewell as a hero who, one year before the arrival of The Matrix, developed reality-bending abilities allowing him to puncture through a simulated world engineered by aliens.

If these productions aren’t weird enough for you, well there’s always reality. But have you stuck your head outside lately? I wouldn’t recommend spending too much time in this confusing world of dread, disease, disaster and dobbers – where the line is so fine between heaven and hell, not even a hero can tell.