It’s been about 3 weeks since I last posted, not because I don’t have a TON to say (I do!) but because I went back to Boston and spent every day running around seeing family and friends.
But now I’m back, with a cult movie that I believe should be compulsory viewing for anyone thinking about writing a Superhero movie.
Just a warning, THERE WILL BE SPOILERS IN THIS POST.
This movie started out on an absurd note, and only gets better from there. It knows it’s ridiculous, it doesn’t take itself seriously at all, and it packs in a bunch of Easter eggs for those devout Superhero fans. Ultimately it’s underrated because it was a very well done parody, who established its tone, and characters early on, and plays with them throughout.
Now, for those of you who are unfamiliar with this film, it was based on a graphic novel and the film came out in 1999, just two years after the disaster that was Batman and Robin. It was a time when Superhero movies were not the summer blockbusters they are today. Sure, they were popular. But Superman was out of commission for about 15 years at that point, and those were really the only two big name heroes America put on screen. Until 2000 when X-Men came out and revamped the Superhero concept.
So here’s the plot: Captain Amazing (played by Greg Kinnear) is the resident superhero of Champion City. Captain Amazing seems to be so amazing he put all the villains away, and thus his corporate sponsors (yes, he’s sponsored) are pulling their support. To rectify this situation he arranges for Casanova Frankenstein (Academy Award winner, Geoffrey Rush) to be released from the mental asylum. That goes according to plan, but everything after that falters. Amazing gets kidnapped, and the fate of Champion City rests in the hands of the Mystery Men. This rag-tag crew of “crime fighters” spends most of the film being incompetent, and arguing with each other. But in the end they all come through and save the day. Just like The Avengers. Only the cast of The Avengers were all ridiculously famous before the film, interestingly most of the Mystery Men team didn’t get huge public recognition until after.
Mystery Men crafts its own Superhero filled world, which explores the extreme personas created by “superheroes”, parodies popular Superhero films and comics, defines a world very clearly without pushing it to dystopian extremes. It’s also got an amazing cast, and the main female character is strong, independent, and saves the fucking day.
The world created in Mystery Men looks and feels a lot like the Gotham City George Clooney inhabited. The design is similar, and a few sets were shared between the movies. But Champion City retains its own dark, twisted feeling. It’s a world where America appears to be taken over (or in cahoots with) Asia. Billboards pass by with Asian language characters instead of English text. Captain Amazing rips off a Pepsi logo which doesn’t say Pepsi, but instead shows more characters. The money Roy slams on the diner table when the group discuss “getting a publicist” looks closer to Euros than American dollars.
Something shifted, and now the city relies on a super hero to save it instead of the brave men and women who work in public service, and America isn’t really America anymore, it’s a dark sinister place.
This is exactly what comic books (especially those in the DC universe) do to set the tone of the story. You must first understand where you are before understanding the characters and the immense task they must undertake. If The Avengers started by just showing them fighting giant aliens the audience would be quite confused. Who are these people? Why are they fighting crime? Where did the aliens come from?
Visually, the film sets the tone early on by showing a city drenched in darkness and neon. This isn’t a happy place to live, it’s full of half-assed villains only staved off by Captain Amazing. Clearly this universe has come to accept having one Superhero, but these the Mystery Men feel they can be just as good as him. It’s not a world based on powers, but a world based on doing what needs to be done to feel like you’re moving forward.
Once immersed in the visuals, you can really take in the lengths these characters go through to develop, hone, and fight as their Superhero (or villain) personas. Sure, some of them are better than others. Ben Stiller’s character, Roy, claims his power is rage. Yes, just getting really really mad so his adrenaline sky rockets and he can do anything. But shoveling well (very well), is a pretty valid skill to turn into a super power, as the Shoveler (William H. Macy) proves in the end.
These personas take a lot of time, effort, blood, and sweat to make real. They aren’t like Spider-man who seems to come up with his costume, persona, and superhero in a day or two. Some of the personas aren’t based on skill alone, Hank Azaria’s “Blue Raja” flings forks at his enemies and chose his character based on the British rule of India. The Bowler (Janeane Garofalo) had her father’s skull put into her bowling ball, so he can seek revenge on his murderer. These aren’t taken lightly, and they’re not half assed.
In fact, they devote an entire montage to the Mystery Men sewing their new and improved costumes. Which, really, only serves them in the long run. But it’s what they feel they have to do to become the Superheroes Champion City needs. How awesome is a montage of shovel fighting, fork flinging, and fire walking all set to SmashMouth’s “All Star”? The kind of awesome that puts you on my underrated and under appreciated list.
The movie depicts what it would be like if normal people decided to become Superheroes and fight crime. Sure, Kick-Ass tried to do the same thing, but in a much more gruesome way. Mystery Men picks at the very essence of Superheroes, wanting to fight injustice using whatever skills you have available. The Mystery Men just so happen to have very few actual super powers.
It gets to a point where the Mystery Men believe themselves better Superheroes because they have better crafted personas. It’s a very important part to the Superhero archetype, which we take advantage of in today’s flood of Marvel powerhouses. These are the underdogs, the poor, the kicked, the lonely. They’re trying to do the right thing because they feel there is no other option. The movie portrays that message better than any other underdog Superhero story.
Ultimately though, this movie is incredibly underrated because it parodies other Superhero movies unbelievably well, and no one had the chance to see that 15 years ago. From the jokes about Lance Hunt being Captain Amazing (which he is) to the evil gangs, this movie pokes fun at it all. It does what any good parody does, by taking the expected and turning it on its head. How do other Superhero groups form? The government decides it’s a good idea to have a Supergroup. Or they all meet in some intergalactic prison. Or they form to protect the world from the Legion of Doom.
None of them hold a barbecue. None of them have a female team member who kicks ass, speaks her mind, angers everyone, and wears real clothing. The movie takes every expected and turns it on its ass, proving the little guy can win the war.
My favorite reason that I believe this movie is underrated is the cast. Just looking at the Mystery Men team, you have Ben Stiller as Roy, William H. Macy as The Shoveler, Hank Azaria as the Blue Raja, Paul Reubens as Spleen, Janeane Garofalo as The Bowler, and Kel Mitchell as Invisible Boy. That’s at least three heavy hitters, two pinch, and one on the bench. They work amazingly together, creating a family. They fight, and argue, and say stupid things to one another, but in the end they’ve got each others backs, and the actors make all of it completely believable. Oh and Corbin Bleu plays William H. Macy’s son, years before he gets his head in the game in High School Musical.
But, the best part of the cast is the cameos. You’re served up a buffet of amazing celebrities at Casanova’s mansion. Actually, I lied, the best part is Eddie Izzard in full disco get up (through the entire film) with a flaming bottle of hairspray. He’s head of the Disco Boys, the villainous mob of… guys who dress like it’s 1977 and carry gold and silver weapons.
Cee Lo Green and his Goodie Mob play the Not So Goodie Mob. Michael Bay (yes, THAT Michael Bay who gave us Pearl Harbor and Transformers) plays the head of the Frat brothers. And did I mention all these people share a screen during Casanova’s big feast for all of Champion Cities villain mobs? Yeah, they do, and it’s a beautiful, beautiful moment.
Over all it’s just a well crafted, punchy movie. I believe if it came out this summer, or even in the fall, it would have a much bigger and better reaction. People would watch it and instinctively compare it to the other Superhero super groups they’re familiar with. It would resonate better now, and fans would have a chance to really laugh at the ridiculousness of Superheroes. Because over all, that’s what the film does best. It shows how these Superheroes that you idolize and fawn over have no idea what they’re doing. It’s all a big game of cat and mouse, but Mystery Men is by far the most underrated cat in the game.