For whatever reason, a lot of the early superhero movies were also superhero-movie parodies. Before the genre was fully formed—before it was even close to fully formed—movies were using it as grist for jokes. The idea, I think, was that the superhero was a ridiculous and outdated form of American cultural lore, the sort of thing that deserved to be lampooned. It was like the ’50s-sitcom nuclear family: an ideal that could never possibly exist, and that needed to be deflated. Even in Richard Donner’s 1978 Superman, the first real big-budget and high-profile superhero blockbuster, we get stuff like the guy on the street who tells Superman that he’s got a bad out-fit.
A comic-relief scene is one thing. A movie that’s nothing but comic-relief scenes is something else. And yet there were so many of those: The Toxic Avenger movies, Howard The Duck, The Guyver, The Meteor Man, Blankman, The Mask, Orgazmo. If the whole point of the Deadpool series is to satirize the self-importance of our moment’s most dominant movie genre, then maybe it’s late to the party. Or maybe it had the good sense to wait until the tires were fully inflated before it started letting the air out.
Mystery Men, the big-budget 1999 adaptation of a little-known Dark Horse spinoff, is a curious beast. It’s a comedy, obviously, but it’s hard to say whether it qualifies as a satire. The movie looks a lot like the Joel Schumacher Batman movies, with director Kinka Usher’s camera whizzing through colorful and expensive-looking fake cityscapes and lots of neon green cutting through night air. But those Schumacher movies were pretty much already parodies of themselves, which renders them parody-proof. So it’s hard to say whether Usher was trying to send them up or to re-create them as closely as possible. I’d be willing to bet that Usher, a TV commercial director who never made another movie, didn’t know either.
The premise: The fictional metropolis of Champion City has one true superhero, a fatuous lug named Captain Amazing who gets sponsors to put their logos on his super-suit and who misses the days when he still had real villains to fight. Bored and looking to keep his sponsors happy, he engineers the release of his greatest enemy: Casanova Frankenstein, a hissing dandy with an inexplicable German accent. Casanova obviously immediately outsmarts Captain Amazing, forcing a ragtag group of misfit superheroes to band together and save the city. Those superheroes happen to be played by a wide array of cultishly beloved comedians and character actors. Someone decided to give this thing a $68 million budget.
Ben Stiller, a year after There’s Something About Mary and a year before Meet The Parents, is the closest thing that Mystery Men has to a star. He’s Mr. Furious, and his whole superpower is that he gets really, really angry—a conceit that I still, 19 years later, find way too funny. Stiller has fun with the role, playing around with the whole idea of the dark, tortured superhero. Mr. Furious works a shit job at a junkyard, can’t get it together to ask out the waitress he likes, and blows it every time he tries to come up with a pithy comeback (“Sweet dreams, Lilac!”). He deserves a better movie. Consider the moment where Mr. Furious breaks away from the rest of the group, muttering, “I guess tonight, the lone wolf hunts… alone.” That’s pretty funny! But then he immediately bangs his balls on his motorcycle. The movie can’t stop undercutting its smart jokes with dumb ones.
And there are plenty of smart jokes! Or, in any case, there are enough jokes smart enough to keep me reasonably entertained. Casanova Frankenstein leads a whole mob of colorful gangs, the most dangerous of which is the Disco Boys. (Keep in mind: This movie is so deeply 1999 that its end-credits song is literally Smash Mouth’s “All Star.” That means that the leaders of the Disco Boys are Pras from the Fugees and Eddie Izzard.) One of the bad-guy gangs is the Frat Boys, two of whom are played by Michael Bay and Riki Rachtman. Another of the gangs is the Not-So-Goodie Mob, played by the actual Goodie Mob. (If you happened to hear someone let out a delighted guffaw at this in a Baltimore movie theater in 1999, that was me. I was the guy, the one-man target audience for this joke, and I apologize.)
As for the good guys, Greg Kinnear is genuinely delightful as the full-of-shit Captain Amazing, the superhero who turns into a raging asshole when things start to turn against him, and his fate might be the movie’s one clever plot twist. I liked the moment when the team goes to visit mad scientist Tom Waits, who’s really just there to be Tom Waits on-screen for a few minutes, and Janeane Garofalo walks away disappointed: “That’s why, in general, a mad scientist is less desirable than a garden-variety scientist.” And the movie’s one great treasure might be William H. Macy’s Shoveler, an earnest square who really thinks he’s doing good in the world: “God gave me a gift. I shovel well. I shovel very well.” And when he doesn’t believe Mr. Furious’ theory that billionaire playboy Lance Hunt is really Captain Amazing, his line reading is perfect: “Lance Hunt wears glasses! Captain Amazing doesn’t wear glasses!”
To enjoy those characters, though, you also have to deal with a full smorgasbord of one-joke characters whose one joke only barely qualifies as a joke. You have to deal with Kel Mitchell, Kenan Thompson’s onetime Nickelodeon comedy partner, as a kid who turns invisible, but only when nobody’s watching. You have to deal with Paul Reubens, with fake zits glued on his face, as a superhero named the Spleen, who has toxic-fart powers. And you have to deal with Hank Azaria. Azaria’s many years in the Simpsons voice cast, and his many other contributions to American culture, grant him comedy-treasure status. But in Mystery Men, he’s the Blue Raja, a guy who lives at home but who, in his superhero character, speaks in a fake British accent, wears a turban, and throws cutlery at people. And I do not understand what’s supposed to be funny about him. His entire role leaves me utterly flummoxed.
The movie’s whole tone is antic and noisy but not necessarily funny. There’s always chaos erupting somewhere on-screen. A party at an old-folks home that looks like something out of an early Jeunet movie is attacked by a bad-guy gang whose members, for whatever reason, wear goggles and dye their hair bright red. A death ray turns its victims into melting CGI monstrosities like the ones in Timecop. The members of the Not-So-Goodie Mob, hit with some sort of discord ray, start bickering and fighting among one another—something that the actual Goodie Mob would begin doing a year or two later.
When I saw Mystery Men in the theater, I thought I was seeing something truly subversive and funny, and I honestly don’t know what I was thinking. There were certainly a few jokes that worked, and that made me feel smart for getting them. (This is a comedy tactic that always works and never ages well.) There was plenty of accumulated goodwill for the different people in the cast, and for how much fun they were having. There was a probably-expensive soundtrack. (I’m more likely to give multiple Disco Boys scenes a pass when Chic is playing in the background.) Still, 2018 me does not like this movie anywhere near as much as 1999 me did. I remember being genuinely incensed when The Sixth Sense, which opened on the same weekend, utterly obliterated Mystery Men at the box office. I just did not know what people were thinking.
If Mystery Men has value today, it’s as a time capsule, for a period when expensive movies had no idea what to do with funny people and when satirical superhero movies didn’t really have much to satirize. Consider the scene where the team interviews a whole mob of hopeless superhero wannabes. A not-famous-yet Dane Cook gets a few seconds of screen time, and so does Doug Jones, now best-known as the sexy fish-man from The Shape Of Water, eight years before he’d get a CGI superhero role in Fantastic Four: Rise Of The Silver Surfer. The Violent Femmes play on the soundtrack, and the assembled cast of late-’90s comedy semi-stars dismisses this crew of single-joke superheroes altogether. Then, a year later, X-Men came out, rendering movies like this obsolete and, eventually, giving movies like this something to make fun of.
Other notable 1999 superhero movies: You have probably already guessed this, but Mystery Men was a pure default pick, since there were no significant superhero movies in 1999. I should’ve maybe written this column about The Iron Giant, solely for the part where the Giant calls himself Superman. One movie that might qualify—and it’s a stretch—is Inspector Gadget, in which Matthew Broderick plays the clueless robot detective guy from the cartoons and Michelle Trachtenberg gets in some pre-Buffy practice laps. Beyond that, we’re dealing with stuff like the sassy-kids adventure P.U.N.K.S.
Next time: With X-Men, the superhero movie finally reaches something like maturity.