Spread the love

Second Chance Review: MYSTERY MEN

Written by: Jason M. Lucia – February 10th, 2020 7:10am pst

In today’s second chance review, it’s time we took another look at the bizarre but heartfelt super-hero comedy of Mystery Men, a film whose time has come…20 years after it was made.

credit: Universal Pictures

In the wake of the MCU’s Phase Two (which sounds ominously like a military operation) and DC’s initially desperate but increasingly interesting attempt to catch up, you’d think a general super-hero fatigue would be setting in. But that doesn’t seem to be the case.

Marvel’s Phase Three is gearing up and both corporate mythologies (in movies and TV) are cracking open whole multiverses of franchise-ready IP. The public thirst for super hero content seems unquenchable.

The genre is already starting to deconstruct itself in projects like HBO’s Watchmen and Amazon’s The Boys, but with a self-consciously cynical, funereal tone that still asks us (sometimes begs us) to take the inherently ridiculous tropes of the genre seriously.

The super hero seems ripe for parody…and its perfect parody is MYSTERY MEN, which strangely premiered in 1999, when the super-hero genre didn’t quite exist yet (cinematically speaking).

credit: Bob Burden/Dark Horse Entertainment

There’d been Burton Batmen and Raimi spider men flapping and scuttling across our screens, but Mystery Men was extrapolated from the world of Bob Burden, whose principal hero is a muttering cretin in a giant carrot costume called Flaming Carrot.

The super heroes are played by nuanced character actors like William H Macy, Ben Stiller, Janeane Garofolo, Hank Azaria, Tom Waits, and Paul Reubens. The villain (played by Geoffrey Rush, fresh from an Oscar win) is a decadent, glassy-eyed lunatic called Casanova Frankenstein whose henchmen are known as the Disco Boys.

There was no way it could have been normal.

credit: Universal Pictures

Directed with style, ambition, and quirky wit by Kinka Usher (who emerged from the world of advertising and apparently returned to it after Mystery Men’s staggering commercial failure), the film has a unique look that riffs on the nightmarish super cities and diabolical chateaus of previous comic book films, but through the world-view of characters we have never seen before in a world like this: loser super-heroes who cobble together crimefighting identities out of shovels and silverware and haunted bowling balls and canned tornadoes, critiquing each other’s vigilante antics in all night diners like a struggling indy band that’s been at it forever and hasn’t broken through and seems always to be on the verge of breaking up.

credit: Universal Pictures

All the performances are impeccable and interesting, doing what all great comic book characters do: they make you want to follow them into their own world of stories. Seeing these would-be crimefightning icons pursue their vocation on a budget and without any real powers or even talents to speak of puts the whole super-hero enterprise into perspective.

The humor is dark but affectionate. Much of the film grew through improvisation. We feel the energy of actors who love these characters and who are all on the same page, living in this same odd world. Greg Kinnear’s Captain Amazing is the closest thing we see to an MCU style sci-fi supercop, but here’s a spoiler for ya: imagine Ant-Man accidentally killing all of the Avengers in the middle of his first movie, setting up an absurd but bleak Infinity War where there’s no one to stop Thanos but him and his goofy work friends.

credit: Universal Pictures

Mystery Men by its very nature doesn’t have that scale, of course. Its action is fantastical at times, but never cosmic. And as much as we might like having our minds blown in that true  crackling Jack Kirby  fashion, there’s something moving and more deeply inspirational about messed up humans who want to do good but who feel so disempowered in their lives that they compulsively cobble together new identities from a flock of sad obsessions to affect the world around them as someone new.

The ravishing charm, beauty, and mostly unlimited resources of the Marvel and DC super heroes can feel a bit oppressive at times, like we are celebrating more and more loudly the victories of the wealthiest, most popular, most brilliant, most powerful people in the world, ordained by fate to save us mere mortals from vague space monsters and imponderable god-things while we go to work and try to mean something on the scale of life we are allowed.

credit: Universal Pictures

We’ve been spending a lot of our mental and emotional lives in a world where Ant Man is a misfit because he’s slightly less smug and ripped than his colleagues, where the oppressed and misunderstood mutants of the X-Men mythos are born in a million flavors of sexy and get to party like strange angels when the human genome expires.

The Mystery Men are just weird real folks who hope that their obsessions make them special, stepping out of their depth, messing everything up, accidentally murdering the ideal hero who could do the thing they strive for in his sleep. It sounds like a sentimental cliche out of context, but they save the day with pure heart, by believing in themselves so desperately that their secret identities become irrelevant and their loved ones at last see the beauty and power in their eccentricities and they feel like we would feel in those suits, sometimes awkward but inspiring people by default.

credit: Universal Pictures

When the Mystery Men go public at the end, it’s in a world where authentic, imperfect goofballs win over more sadistic eccentrics who use their kinks to hurt people and perfect super citizens who do the right thing mainly for money.

So Mystery Men is a neglected gem on many levels, as a complete artistic thought, as a hilarious entertainment, and as a showcase for the frolics of one of the most eclectic ensembles ever assembled. It’s a perfect film to revisit not just because it pokes fun at the pretensions and power dynamics of the multimedia Valhalla Disneyland we practically live in these days, but also because it reminds us why the hero matters, what the hero is made of, and why, in the end, the heroes must be US.

…Mystery Men is available for streaming on Starz, Starz Play Amazon Channel, and DIRECTV…

About The Author:

Jason M. Lucia is a media critic, columnist, and professional ghostwriter whose work has been published under several pseudonyms.  He was raised in Medford, MA.  He went to school in NY.  He lives to rhapsodize the stories he loves on the page and in the flesh.

More News

Instagram/Kerri Strug
credit: Paramount Pictures
Warner Brothers