Rethinking Mystery Men

Feature Aliya Whiteley 25 Mar 2013 - 07:12

In the aftermath of The Avengers, isn't the underrated 1999 superhero movie Mystery Men worth reassessing?

In 1999, between the body blow of Batman And Robin and the kiss of life that was X-Men, the superhero movie was temporarily revived by a loose adaptation of the Flaming Carrot Comics. It was called Mystery Men.

It was panned, lost a lot of money, and years later the lead actor announced that it had been a terrible movie and he was ashamed of it. All of this suggests that it should be pushed under the carpet and left to rot, but there are so many great things about Mystery Men that it really doesn’t deserve that fate, no matter what Ben Stiller says about it.

To start with the plot - at heart, Mystery Men is a film about all pulling together. It’s not a novel idea; The Avengers uses it too. If we learn how to work as a team, the ensemble superhero movie tells us, we can overcome even the strongest of foes. The difference in this case is that the superheroes in Mystery Men aren’t super at all. Some have unhelpful talents, and others have made-up talents that wouldn’t be much help in any situation. And they tend to all annoy each other, so learning to get along is not going to be easy.

They live in Champion City, home to a professional superhero by the name of Captain Amazing (Greg Kinnear) – he’s defeated a number of diabolical villains, including Casanova Frankenstein (Geoffrey Rush). Unfortunately, there’s nobody left to defeat and Amazing’s corporate sponsors are losing interest, so he arranges for Frankenstein to be released from the asylum, just to have a baddie to defeat. Except this time things don’t go as planned, and that leaves only the keen amateur population of crime fighters to save the day. 

The relationship between hero-worship and emulation is explored so well in Mystery Men, and it normally never gets a look-in in superhero movies. Yes, we know that the hero and the villain feed off each other. Books and films have made a great job of showing us that in the world of Batman in particular; for instance, Nolan’s The Dark Knight and Frank Miller’s amazing graphic novel The Dark Knight Returns. Miller’s novel also looks into the danger of Robin’s hero-worship for Batman, and we get a feeling for the dark side of that adoration in Mystery Men.

In a city watched over by a superhero, wouldn’t everyone want to be one? Wouldn’t that become the model of how to take care of your loved ones? William H Macy’s character of The Shoveller embodies this perfectly. His super-ability is wielding a shovel. He shovels well. He’s proud of his shovelling, and he wants to fight crime with his shovel, to make his wife and children proud of him. It’s not enough to simply be a good husband and a good father any more. His relationship with his family is threatened by his determination to be something he’s not.

But it’s not a heavy film, and the message is subtle. Some of the wannabies are there simply for quick laughs, such as The Spleen (Paul Reubens) who has a deeply unpleasant ability, and The Blue Raja (Hank Azaria) who throws cutlery at the enemy (But not knives - “I’m not Knifey-Boy! I’m not Stab-Man!” he insists when the team points out that throwing knives instead of spoons might be a better move). However useless or horrible their talents are, they are fervent in their desire to help, and that makes them all so likeable. 

Ben Stiller’s Mr Furious is the heart of the film, desperate to be taken seriously and to impress the ladies, and determined to lead his band of heroes to greatness. He’s lots of fun, but my favourite performance is by Janeane Garofalo as The Bowler. She is determined to avenge her murdered father, and has had his skull placed inside a mystical bowling ball that does actually have some special powers for once. She doesn’t become anybody’s girlfriend by the end of the movie. She doesn’t have a skimpy costume and she doesn’t get kidnapped. The sheer relief of a female character not being present simply to provide one of those three things is immense. Instead, she’s intelligent and collected and not afraid to piss the group off when she thinks they’re wasting time. She’s a breath of fresh air.

And it’s not as if The Bowler gets all the best lines. The dialogue is brilliant throughout, for all the characters; lines get stuck in your head and pop back into your mind at odd moments. I’ve been quoting Mystery Men at people for years. I wish more people would see it so they’d know what I’m talking about.

So why didn’t people like it? Could it be that Batman And Robin is partially to blame?

Joel Schumacher’s film was released in 1997 and received terrible reviews (although the box office performance was still strong overseas) mainly because of the camp jokiness of the approach. The tongue-in-cheek performances of the bad guys, Poison Ivy (Uma Thurman) and Mr Freeze (Arnold Schwarzenegger) pushed it over the edge into pantomime. Although Mystery Men had a more intelligent outlook on the superhero franchise, maybe the public had simply had enough of being asked to laugh at the genre. 

It doesn’t help that there are similarities between the sets of the two movies. Gotham City and Champion City are both shown as neon-heavy sprawling masses of skyscrapers and tunnels; when you look at the theatrical trailers for both films the same images crop up (although Mystery Men thankfully spares us the codpiece shots). Maybe the film would have been more successful if director Kinka Usher had gone for a fresh approach to the superhero stomping ground. Certainly when a reimagined take came along in 2000 courtesy of Brian Singer with X-Men, audiences much preferred the realism of the setting and the serious approach to superpowers.

But surely now, in the aftermath of The Avengers, we’re ready to laugh at our heroes again, and accept that the whole ‘dressing up in costumes to threaten and/or save the world’ is a bit ridiculous at heart? Having said that, Geoffrey Rush’s Casanova Frankenstein is one of those evil characters that transcends the genre to feel really menacing. When he manages to turn the tables on Captain Amazing there’s a brilliant sense of triumph to it, and I wonder whether we haven’t all been hoping sometimes that the villain would have his moment.

Mystery Men understands the genre, and isn’t afraid to play around with our expectations. There’s a tremendous amount of fun in this irreverence, and the supporting characters in particular embrace it. Tom Waits, Lena Olin, Eddie Izzard and Wes Studi convey this with very little screen time.

When you put all those actors together, you have an incredible cast working with a strong script. So, if you’re new to Mystery Men, I’d suggest making up your own mind about it before you believe Ben Stiller when he tells you it’s not worth watching. And try to block out the memory of Batman And Robin while you do so. You’ll enjoy it a lot more if you do.

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I can't help but note the irony of overlooking 1998's Blade in an article about overlooked comic-book movies.

This was the first movie I bought on DVD. It's not perfect (for example, Lean Olin seems to disappear half way through) but it's pretty enjoyable.

The script is peppered with quotable dialogue, like this great exchange between Ben Stiller and Janeane Garofalo:
"Seems there was a little controversy there regarding your father's death."
"Yes, the police said he fell down an elevator shaft. Onto some bullets."

Sorry but this film was awful. What is to blame for it being so bad... Nothing to do with any other movies, purely the fact that it is painfully unfunny and it wastes an amazing cast with nothing jokes.
The source material was never strong enough to carry anything other than a B movie and that is exactly what we got.

I always thought of it as a very clever take on superheroes. Glad to see there are others who feel the same.
Also, Tom Waits is in this one. That alone makes it exceptional in my book.

This was the Galaxy Quest of Superhero movies... sadly it went mostly unrecognized.


one of my favourite movies as a kid and still a favourite now. it's stupid, sure, but it's funny as hell and imaginative, with a real flair of directing and design that carries the picture past the ropier plot moments. and the quotes!

My favourite scene is when the Shoveler and Blue Raja are completely unable to comprehend Mr. Furious's insistence that Captain Amazing IS Lance, because "Lance wears glasses, while Captain Amazing DOES NOT wear glasses." When Stiller insists that he takes them off to fight crime, the others ask "How does he see then?" HY-STERICALL

I unashamedly enjoyed watching this film back in the day. An easy watch that doesn't pretend to be anything it isn't. One or two great moments and some of the ideas are brilliant. With a bit more effort, this film could have been epic.

I loved this film, it was the pre-Kickarse of its day. Funny, good lines and some great ideas, for example the non leathal weapons expert - classic. It bombed becuase it was for those that understand superheros and comicbooks, and not the zombie hollywood masses. However that all said, LEAVE IT ALONE, the orginal worked - Job done, something new please.

Don't worry, Kick-Ass 2 looks like a Mystery Men reboot.

I was living in Atlanta when this came out, and as my Wife was back in the UK i'd often make a midweek trip to the Multiplex to save on beer money and stay out of trouble.

I watched The Matrix, Austen Powers 2, Star Wars Ep 1, Deep Blue Sea and many others in rowdy, packed auditoriums.

When I saw Mystery Men (the week it came out), I was the only person in the room...

I loved this film & I must admit I don't understand why people don't like - comedy, emotional beats and (as the article pointed out) a strong female lead character. I understand why it bombed at the box office, Batman and Robin etc. and the way that superheroes weren't zeitgeist-y as they are now

Spot on. Excellent film unjustly forgotten. Geoffrey Rush is great and Tom Waits growls through his cameo like a champion.

I just love this film. We quote Mr Furious on quite the frequent basis...twice over the weekend IIRC.

Only by reappraising Mystery Men, do we observe the mystery that it did not reap men's praise.

Yup. Wanted so much to like this upon release - great cast, great characters but the jokes just aren't funny. There is something as dead as the bowler's dad underlying everything.

Hahahahaaaaaaaaa dude that made me laugh hard

Waffle mayun!!! I'm the waffla! Wom n crispy, bad guys are histry (air guitar solo). This transpires every time we have waffles. It wasn't til much later that Dane Cook was exiled from the collective human consciousness. Didn't even know it was him

Thanks for finally recognising that which we all knew when it came out. It was brilliant

Never understood why it wasn't loved if only for the immortal line 'Leaving so...spoon?'

bravo, sir!

Who loves Orange Soda...?

Kel loves Orange Soda!

Is it true?

Mmm Hmmmmmmmm, I do, I do, I d....ooooooooo

The same happened to me I was the only person at the holloway odeon on a Saturday night the staff kept oping in their heads and giggling

Once you learn to love Mystery Men, only then will you learn to love yourself.

One of my favourite movies, silly, entertaining, joyous, quotable, stylish and it has Tom Waits, what more could a person want!

How is it that the fat guys from Kenan and Kel, and drake and josh are both huge now but they're much funnier skinny counterparts are gone the way of all flesh? Well their careers anyway

I always liked this movie, glad to see it getting some praise on here. And come on - isn't Casanova Frankenstein one of the best names for a villain ever? ;)

I solved it. I know why people didn't like this film. Tropic thunder. Tower heist. Madagascar. Dodgeball. What go these movies have in common? Everybody makes you laugh except THE PROTAGONIST (antagonist in dodgeball... Well the protagonist in that sucked too). Ben stiller thinks he's way funnier than his cast members and he's constantly being loud and obnoxious to prove it. And it's a shame because his films are of a much higher quality than say Adam sandler's. I particularly remember not liking him in mystery men. The ripple fell far from the tree because Jerry stiller absolutely floors me. His line delivery is on point. Ben and Jerry? More like Haag and Dazs.... I don't get it

Ripple? Apple.

Hey now, you're an all star

Also the first appearance in a movie by Cee-Lo Green.

I didn't know it was so underrateds, I've always liked this film a lot !

Back when he was still in Goodie Mob, who were also in the movie, and at the end they got hit with the BLAMETHROWER hahaha

Definitely under-rated. I still giggle at the fact Kel's character can only turn invisible when nobody is looking. Genius.

One of our favourite family quotes is 'I knew I should have brought my large pie slice"

Michael Bay is in this, isnt he? Thats allways a good sign.

Step 1. Pick a film with a decent fanbase that probably didn't make any or much money. Not hard, hundreds to choose from.
2. Say how little it made (even though it probably broke even or turned a profit in home entertainment sales) and how it was critically mauled (even though it probably wasn't, and still holds a respectable rating on both imdb and rotten tomatoes). This will provoke minor outrage at the lack of taste a general cinema audience and add a bit of drama.
3. State all the positives about the film and few or none of the negatives. This will provide a sense of unity to those who already like it and those smug few who saw it at the time.
4. Compare the film to a more contemporary example in the same genre or sub genre. This makes the subject matter look more relevant or ahead of its time.
5. Imply that if it came out now, we might be savvy enough to go and watch it. As opposed to missing it, then bitch about it online, then join a group called 'we want a Dredd sequel' until years later, a website picks said film for step 1.

Still, not a bad choice for a retrospective, even though it was clearly far more popular than DoG might have you believe.

If it's like the comic, KA2 is going have seriously disturbing undertones...

"We are number one. All others are number two, or lower."

You try and say pithy things, but your wit is a hinderance and therefore nothing is provocative. Just mixed metaphors.

I am still looking for a Herkimer battle-jitney, the finest piece of non-lethal military hardware ever made! That, and I really, really want a blame-thrower! My dad and I loved it and on occasion would have our own "weapons check." Want a fun evening? Watch it with The Specials.

I absolutely LOVE this movie, and it's LOADED with great quotes! I even statted everybody out and ran a RPG (role-playing game) session with all of the characters at a convention, and everybody loved it (they fought the Disco Boys, Armagezzmo, etc.). Everyone should DEFINITELY check this one out, as it's incredible! :)

True ! I love and own both Galaxy Quest and Mistery Men, but they're so underrated and unrecognized ! :/

it was boring and unfunny

I GREATLY enjoyed MM (and GQ). Anyone I know who has actually seen it, instead of just hearing about it, has loved it as well.

Dane Cook was the Waffler in this movie

Yup. He was the head of the Frat Boys. He asked if they could bring the brewskis. Now if only he did that before deciding to make Armageddon...

It took me a cpl viewings to discover that Mr. Furious didn't actually refire some long lost powers but was enhanced by the ability of the machine to bend reality and gave Mr. Furious his super powers but only for as long as the machine was active. Once destroyed, his powers went also.

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