Rewatching the 1999 superhero comedy Mystery Men was not a good decision. But it was a decision I made for specific, good reasons. I saw Mystery Men when it was originally released and didn’t quite care for it. Didn’t hate it, just didn’t care for it. But, as we all know, in the years since its release, the pillars that made Mystery Men unique at the time have become much more mainstream.
For starters, it was a superhero comic book adaptation—still somewhat novel at the time. See any of those in the past 15 years? Plus it was a comedic take on that material, something you’d imagine audiences a decade removed from Tim Burton’s Batman, and two years away from Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man, might not have fully appreciated after watching more daring 1999 fare like The Matrix or the South Park musical. Spoofs work best when they’re spoofing something very popular. At this time, comic book films were nowhere near that popular. So with the film having just popped up on Netflix, I figured maybe my steady diet of spoof movies and superhero epics in the last two decades might help shine this film in a different, better light. It did not. Like, at all. In fact, it probably made it worse.
Based on a Dark Horse comic created by Bob Burden, Mystery Men is directed by Kinka Usher (who had never made a feature before and hasn’t made one since) from a script by Neil Cuthbert (writer of Disney’s Hocus Pocus as well as the 2007 Eddie Murphy film The Adventures of Pluto Nash, which was his last screenplay). It stars Ben Stiller, William H. Macy, and Hank Azaria as wannabe superheroes named Mr. Furious, the Shoveler, and the Blue Raja. The trio lives in Champion City, which was seemingly designed to look very much like Tim Burton’s Gotham City, and is mainly policed by a hero named Captain Amazing (Greg Kinnear). Amazing is so good at his job that there are no villains left, so he nefariously works to break out one of his greatest foes, Casanova Frankenstein (Geoffrey Rush), to drum up more personal publicity. Casanova is having none of that—and betrays and captures Amazing, leaving the trio as the only people who can save Champion City from the villain’s evil plan.
Mystery Men starts with that basic conceit and through Captain Amazing’s antics seems to suggest it’s going to dissect some notion of superhero celebrity, the dichotomy within the heroes, and more. Very quickly though, it’s very apparent the film has absolutely no intention of any of that. In fact, it has no idea what it wants to be at all. Obviously, it’s not supposed to be serious, but the characters are serious, completely oblivious to the silliness of this world. Certainly, there are supposed to be jokes, but the humor is almost nonexistent. And clearly, we’re meant to think this is a world where people have superpowers, but that’s never actually made clear. The whole thing feels like a bunch of incredibly talented actors showed up on set because they heard other incredibly talented actors were going to be there, put on some ridiculous costumes, got no direction, and just started saying lines.
Every facet of the film, from its characters to its plot, is borderline embarrassing. Azaria’s character, the Blue Raja, is an American pretending to be British but he’s dressed as if he is Indian. If this sounds problematic, that’s because it is. So much so that the film spends several scenes with Azaria—who also voiced Apu on The Simpsons until very recently—literally just talking about this being problematic. Rush’s Casanova Frankenstein tells Captain Amazing about his plan to kill him the following night at midnight, only for the film to then stuff in at least a week or two of plot into the meantime, only to circle back and pretend like everything is still on that timeline. Tom Waits plays a pacifist inventor who lives in an abandoned amusement park for absolutely no reason whatsoever. The Smash Mouth song “All Star,” one of the things the film is best known for, is played twice—once over the final scene into the end credits, which makes sense, and another time over what feels like something gearing up to be training montage but ends up being three characters running across hot coals over six quick cuts, before the song fades out. I could probably spend another 2,000-3,000 words running down every flaw the movie has, which continually stack on top of each other to reach new heights of awfulness.
Watching the film you truly question whether Usher had any idea what he was trying to do. Did he give these actors direction? Was there a basic understanding of this world? The movie reaches what it seems like is going to be a natural climax—with the team infiltrating the villain’s party—only for them to leave, regroup, and come back in the same night, all of which comprises the film’s final 45 minutes. Yes, just when you think Mystery Men is going to be over, there are still 45 minutes left. Plenty of time to force in a romance (thanks to a waitress character played by Claire Forlani) and to create some weird sexual tension between Azaria’s character and his mother.
The few times Mystery Men almost works is when it centers on the Spleen, a hero played by Paul Reubens. The Spleen farts—that’s his superpower—but Reubens seems to be the only member of the cast acting like someone who knows he’s in a ridiculous movie. Maybe he got the note this was supposed to be a comedy while no one else did. One thing is for sure, Ben Stiller didn’t get the memo. Coming off There’s Something About Mary, everyone loved the awkward, lovable Ben Stiller. And yet, that love completely vanishes thanks to a performance that’s angry and unlikeable, more akin to his earlier roles in Happy Gilmore or Heavyweights. (Of note, Stiller followed Mystery Men with Zoolander and Meet the Parents—which, in retrospect, almost feel like apologies.) Having Stiller’s mean, off-putting hero at the center of the movie gives the whole thing an unwelcome edge which, in turn, makes performances by Macy as well as late additions to the superhero team played by Janeane Garofalo and Kel Mitchell feel even more out of place.
I have to stop. Writing bad things about Mystery Men is too easy, which I wish that wasn’t the case. I wish watching the film again revealed something new, something interesting, something fun. But it did not. Instead, I was left enraged that this film, with this level of talent, turned out as poorly as it did.
Mystery Men is now on Netflix.
- At Casanova Frankenstein’s big villainous bash, he brings together “evil” stereotypes like mobsters and kabuki assassins. It’s all terrible. But there’s also a group of frat boys and the leader is played by none other than director Michael Bay. That particular casting is very, very weird, but also kind of perfect.
- For half the movie, Usher shows his dramatic scenes with the characters directly addressing the camera, a direction that later in the movie gets abandoned. Motives for this choice are unclear. It’s very awkward and borderline uncomfortable.
- I think it says everything that needs to be said about Mystery Men that when the film ends and “All Star” comes back, that’s an improvement. That song, cheesy and bad as it may be, is everything Mystery Men isn’t. Funny, fun, and memorable, even if you don’t like it.
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