It appears 2016 might be the biggest year for superhero movies yet. However, with the less than stellar reception of Age of Ultron and the possibility that those Justice League movies are going to be terrible, if Man of Steel is anything to go off of, it’s potentially the year the superhero stardom might finally collapse in on itself. Of course quality of content won’t actually mean anything until people stop going to the theaters in record numbers and making these movies earn billions of dollars. Either way, since we’re entering what might be the peak year of superhero films, now’s the perfect time to revisit one of the best movies that nobody likes: Mystery Men. This movie came out a little bit before its time, since 1999 wasn’t exactly the best time to release a parody film about superhero films. Then again, the movie has transcended whatever purpose was originally intended for it and reached cult status for a few different reasons that I think are worth revisiting this year.
What Is Mystery Men
Mystery Men was released in 1999 and stars several actors you actually know quite well. Ben Stiller, William H. Macy, and Hank Azaria are the three main characters. They play three normal guys who are trying to be superheroes because they want to be somebody important. The thing is, they’re really not that great and their pseudo-powers are obvious shams. It also doesn’t help that in their universe there’s already an acclaimed superhero named Captain Amazing, played by Greg Kinnear. Captain Amazing doesn’t seem to have any powers outside of being a capable fighter and having some useful gadgets, but the opening scene of the film is the trio getting their asses kicked in a brawl and Captain Amazing saving the day. This leads the trio to question whether or not they should even be doing this hero stuff.
A turn of events occurs when nefarious villain Casanova Frankenstein, played by Geoffrey Rush, is released from prison and captures Captain Amazing. The trio realizes that there’s no one to save Captain Amazing but them. So they reunite, resolve to recruit more members, save the Captain, and the day, and become heroes once and for all. Well, sort of.
What Makes Mystery Men Any Good?
1) Somehow it’s the only superhero parody film that you’d actually want to watch. Outside of Superhero Movie (a film as inspired as its title), Mystery Men seems to be the only film that’s ever poked fun at the absurdity of the story of superheroes. The analogies between Superman and Captain Amazing are obvious and the film really runs wild with how much of a megalomaniac a crime fighter would become when they have a 100% success rate. Captain Amazing’s outfit is adorned with logos from companies that he endorses. At a few points in the movie you can see him appearing in commercials advertising for products like Mighty Whitey Toothpaste “because I want my teeth to look… amazing.”
Even my plot summary above doesn’t do justice to the sheer audacity of Captain Amazing’s ego. The “turn of events” that leads to the villain Casanova Frankenstein being released is after Captain Amazing has a meeting with his publicist, who informs him that people don’t think they need him because he’s already defeated all the bad guys. In an effort to rebuild his brand, Captain Amazing puts on his lawyer alter-ego “Lance Hunt” to argue an early release for Casanova, just so he can beat him again. Just in case you’re wondering: “Lance Hunt” looks exactly like Captain Amazing, except he wears glasses. A clever ruse that fools most people. There’s plenty of other quality jokes in each scene but at a certain point I’m just re-telling you the jokes.
2) It has one of the best casts in movie history. I don’t just mean that in the “go to IMDB page and be wowed by all the names you recognize” kind of way. I mean the casting of this movie has taken a life of its own. Let me frame it this way: In the movie Moneyball, a baseball movie about the general manager of the Oakland A’s changing how he managed his team, there’s a small scene where Brad Pitt’s character talks to the owner of the team. The owner is very business orientated, talks about meeting expectations with the resources you have, and other businessy stuff. The person they got to play the owner in that scene was CEO of Activision-Blizzard and multi-billionaire Bobby Kotick. Pretty good casting right?
Almost as good as getting William H. Macy, the most accomplished actor of the cast, to also be the fatherly mentor of the group. Or for Paul Reubens, mostly known for being Pee-Wee Herman and later for his weird public masturbation arrests, to be cast as the weirdo whose superpower is deadly farts. Or having Kel Mitchell cast as “Invisible Boy” in conjunction with his career absolutely evaporating (while his co-star from Kenan and Kel took off). You’ve also got Tom Waits showing up toward the second half of the movie practically playing himself as a guy who messes with weird instruments and gadgets. Eddie Izzard also plays some demented version of himself as one of the leader of a disco boys, not to suggest that Eddie Izzard likes disco, but he’d probably be down to dress up and be weird for a day. Finally every time I see this movie I find Geoffrey Rush’s involvement more and more hilarious, since his career as a “serious” actor is such a strong contrast to this absolute moronic movie.
A lot of people rag on Mystery Men for being a “bad” movie. Some of my friends have called it “one of the worst movies they’ve ever seen.” I chalk this up to hyperbole every time simply based off of the actors alone. These are quality actors and most of them are essentially playing themselves. They’re not playing roles that they had to study or “get into.” It’s also a comedy film and half of the cast is comedians, it’s not like they’re missing punchlines. The other half seems to know what’s expected from them. After all, this is the movie that casted Michael Bay as a frat boy.
3) It is unbelievably stupid. Everything about this movie, the events, the characters, is really dumb, and I’m saying this in the most positive way possible.
Take this scene from early on in the film when Captain Amazing gets the idea to release Casanova Frankenstein from prison to revive his brand image. At first glance it seems like a throwaway scene to set-up essential plot, but it encapsulates Mystery Men. The visual image of a superhero throwing a fit because he lost his sponsor, a character who says “I’m a publicist not a magician,” being played by a well-known magician, and finally the simplicity of a silly joke like “get Death Man!” “Death man is dead.” Because what else would death man be?
That last joke might seem corny but I think it points to how Mystery Men may have been before it’s time because of the type of humor it was going for. It helps to know that Mystery Men is based on a comic series called The Flaming Carrot where the “heroes” of the story are not known for their cunning but for their mortality rate. The titular character’s main ability was entering a state of “Zen Stupidity.” Although the actual carrot was replaced with Captain Amazing, and all the heroes in Mystery Men were created for the film, the adherence to “so stupid it’s funny” remained. In 1999, comedy films were still focused primarily on jokes and punchlines in the most traditional sense. The highest grossing comedy that year was Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me, a very different type of comedy. Mystery Men’s comedy isn’t best when there’s a joke set-up by the script and delivered well by the actors, it’s when your mind is overcome with bewilderment at the absurdity that you just have to laugh. I’d even argue there are moments made funnier when you think “did they really write that joke?” That type of humor has become more popular since 1999, especially on the internet to the extent that there are entire channels dedicated to it. Which seems to indicate that Mystery Men may have only gotten better with time as our collective tastes have adapted to it.
So this might sound too good to be true, but the fact remains that many people don’t like Mystery Men, so let’s air that out.
Why Might You Hate Mystery Men?
1) They didn’t trust the stupid. There’s a scene where the crew decides to hold formal recruitment of more heroes, which is the movie’s excuse to show off their ideas of other crappy heroes. There’s a little montage that includes cameos from Dane Cook, and other actors, and they introduce themselves as heroes like “The Waffler,” a guy who carries around a waffle iron and burns his enemies. Or PMS girl who’s very irritable and gets disinterested in the audition halfway through. Then a man approaches the audition in all black, with a dark hood, and after dramatically unveiling his cape he introduces himself as the ballerina man. I hate this part of the movie. It plays out like the typical comedies of the 90s and it’s not consistent with the adherence to idiocy like the rest of the movie. A lot of the movie tries to fight its way back to normal and these are almost always the weakest part of the film. It’s as if the early days of shooting they had a vision and at some point everyone realized they were making something weird and wanted to pump the breaks and make something marketable.
If you don’t already know, a lot of movie-making is the technical aspect, or the physical “showing up to work” aspect, but there is also a degree of politics and convincing people to do things that they said they were going to do. Believe it or not a lot of members of the cast have been asked about Mystery Men long after it’s been released, and Stiller, Azaria, and Janeane Garofalo (also in the film) have all said there was various fights on the set about the tonal direction. You can tell just by looking at it because the type of humor present in the film is all over the place. There are fart jokes, stupid humor, traditional punchline orientated, bickering chemistry focused, it’s very strange. It seems whichever humor is present in a scene is whoever won the argument that day. The director of Mystery Men, Kinka Usher, would never direct a film again, saying he rather work on “cool one-minute shorts than all this nonsense.” Usher would go on to direct commercials for the rest of his career, which are known to be experimental. As much as I love the cast for the film, it seems they were actively fighting against the soul of the project while on-set. These problems get worse in the second half.
2) The movie gets worse as it goes on. Closely tied to the previous point, Mystery Men becomes more traditional the longer it goes on. This means it becomes more ordinary, more bland, and not worth your time. A lot of the climax of the film is the crew dispatching lesser villains than Casanova Frankenstein, and they’re all one-bit jokes using gimmick gadgets that have cutesy jokes tied to them. Each gag is the equivalent of having a wink and a nod attached to them. Not that things get much better when the crew finally confront the main villains themselves.
Action sequences in a movie like Spider-Man can be exhilarating with the assistance of CGI, but do you really want to see Geoffrey Rush use a coke nail to combat Ben Stiller’s fists as “Mr. Furious?” What about seeing scene after scene of Paul Reuben as “The Spleen” farting to taking down enemies? These scenes feel like a writer’s room finding an answer to a script’s problem but not an audience’s These sequences are boring, and the entire last act is nothing but these moments. Eventually the film ends on a conclusion that brings the story to an end but it’s not the finale of lunacy that you may have hoped for.
3) The set design and music is really strange. There’s a (overwhelmingly disproved) rumor that this movie was actually directed by Tim Burton and he hated the final product so much that he made up a pseudonym. This isn’t true because there’s footage of Kinka Usher directing Mystery Men on set. However, many people believed the rumor because a lot about this movie feels like Tim Burton. The music is bizarre, the city is gloomy and filled with smoke and lights, and the few CGI effects in the film are nightmare inducing, although that was mostly brought about by rushed deadlines rather than design.
Usually for me, and I think most people, set design and music wouldn’t be enough to hold it against a movie but the mixture of elements in Mystery Men is so diverse and so at odds with one another that it really stands out in the worst way possible. This is literally a film that uses the same sets as Batman Forever and throws in guys with disco outfits. Later in the film they’re in a suburban backyard with a swimming pool, there’s also a junkyard, the middle of the jungle, an apocalyptic looking abandoned theme park, and Casanova’s mansion itself which is completely different style by itself. Contrasted with the outfits of the all the characters, the design captures how production on Mystery Men must’ve been like: “I got no idea what’s going on.” But if you’re not keen on these elements of movies then you might not notice it at all, but I have heard this complaint a few times.
Honestly the most frequent complaint I hear about Mystery Men is “it’s just bad.” So maybe you’ll hate Mystery Men because “it’s just bad,” but I disagree pretty strongly with that. There was clearly a vision in mind with what the film wanted to be, but there seems to have been some forces working against that. There was also a time and place when the movie was released, and that may not have been the best time to release the movie which is why it did so poorly. I’ll put on my crazy hat and say: THE WORLD JUST WASN’T READY!
Really though, our tastes as an audience have changed a lot since 1999. Our spectrum of comedy has been expanded, there have been a lot more superhero movies, our fatigue for them has increased, and even our appreciation for niche/cult films has arguably been expanded thanks to communities on the internet. I think the time is prime for a new found appreciation for Mystery Men. I saw this film in the theater when I was eight years old. My family bought it on DVD. I’ve seen it well over twenty times. I don’t know a single person who legitimately loves this movie as much as I do, and that’s a real shame. I believe if it’s a film that still holds up today, in fact it’s probably better today than it was in 1999. With the exception of that Smash Mouth song at the end, which I think I could go the rest of my life without ever hearing again.