Rethinking Mystery Men

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. 

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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?

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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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