When The Specials was released in a handful of theaters in 2000, the superhero genre was at low ebb. The once-vaunted Superman and Batman series were locked in a state of suspended animation, having lapsed into camp in their later installments, and Mystery Men had just belly-flopped, suggesting that the public's appetite for quirky comedies about second-rate superhero teams was limited at best. Five years later, however, the genre has experienced a spectacular comeback, as two of last year's most satisfying blockbusters (Spider-Man 2 and The Incredibles) exploited the juxtaposition of the superhuman and the mundane that lurks at the heart of The Specials' humor.
The timing couldn't be better for the DVD release of The Specials. A superhero movie nearly devoid of superheroics, not to mention special effects, the film documents the angst and ennui of the Specials, the "sixth or seventh" greatest superhero team in the world. Less an action flick than an inaction movie, the shaggy comedy follows a group of misfits imbued with a questionable and wildly eclectic assortment of superpowers (including the lamentable ability to lay eggs) as they talk, brood, and unsteadily navigate a series of personal and professional crises. While contemplating abandoning the glory of superhero life for the security of private-sector work, clean-cut leader Thomas Haden Church tries to salvage his failing marriage to Paget Brewster. Faded heartthrob Rob Lowe ponders joining a hotter superhero team, while profane, hard-living Jamie Kennedy tries to live down his dark past as a supervillain and unsuccessfully hits on the Specials' female members. The team's future seems to rely heavily on the success of a signature line of action figures, but their hopes die a bleak, instant death when they watch a commercial for the figures that gets their powers, personalities, accessories, and even their skin color wrong. Worse still, one of the figures inexplicably boasts the face of Richard Dawson, just one of the bizarre, random details that makes the faux-commercial's dead-on spoof of the manic, Pixie Stick-addled hard sell of kiddie ads so hilarious.
On a surprisingly candid and bitter commentary track, screenwriter/co-star James Gunn, who went on to pen the blockbusters Scooby-Doo and Dawn Of The Dead, criticizes first-time director Craig Mazin for pitching the comedy too broad, but the film is more deadpan than Gunn makes it out to be. Like The Incredibles, Mazin and Gunn's movie manages to eke a surprising amount of pathos out of its superheroes' pain. Church's character, for one, functions as a clueless buffoon, but like Ronald Reagan, he seems to genuinely believe in his windy platitudes, and there's poignancy in the gulf between his lofty values and the glum realities of his life and career. Shot quickly and cheaply with a deft cast heavy on TV also-rans, The Specials is the weird little sleeper Mystery Men should have been, a darkly funny portrait of wayward superhumans at their least super and most human.