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Mystery Men spoofed cinematic superheroes before their time

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Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by the week’s new releases or premieres. This week: About a year ago, we singled out some of our favorite unloved summer blockbusters. With the event-movie season upon us again, it’s time for the sequel.

Mystery Men (1999)

When Mystery Men was released in the summer of 1999, the genre it spoofed was still a specialty item. Over the previous 10 years, superhero movies had consisted primarily of the Batman blockbusters and assorted flops based on more obscure titles. This probably explains why Kinka Usher’s comedy (itself loosely based on an obscure comic) so closely resembles the noisy garishness of the two Joel Schumacher-directed Bat-pictures. The movie’s canted angles, outlandish backlot set design, and pushy close-ups all speak fluent Schumacherese, even when it’s unclear whether Usher—a commercial director who never made another feature—wants to satirize or chase those trends. Regardless, with Batman & Robin bombing two summers earlier and the first X-Men movie still a year away, Mystery Men arrived at exactly the wrong time to capitalize on interest in superhero tropes. If audiences had turned out, they would have discovered a disarmingly humane and sweet-natured comedy.


Though the movie’s technique is big and brash, its faux-superhero characters play against that bombast with alt-comedy looseness. The central trio of Mr. Furious (Ben Stiller), the Shoveler (William H. Macy), and the Blue Raja (Hank Azaria with a fake British accent) have no real powers to speak of, but they share a bickering chemistry that emphasizes dialogue as much as the movie’s weird (and sometimes off-putting) visual gags. As the super-team grows, the movie overflows with comic styles, from Janeane Garofalo’s vengefully disdainful Bowler to Greg Kinnear’s smarmy “real” hero Captain Amazing to the Tom Waits-y stylings of Tom Waits, playing an eccentric inventor who causes the Bowler to muse that in most situations, a “garden-variety scientist” is preferable to a mad one.

Because Mystery Men isn’t drawing on a particularly rich history of superhero films, it parodies a broader selection of comics-culture clichés, many of which were not particularly prevalent in the comics of the time, and now look even more outdated. But it’s still fun watching the ragtag group mocking the lack of thematic unity in a group of henchmen’s costumes before receiving a merciless beatdown, or Stiller reacting with mounting frustration to the fortune-cookie tautologies of The Sphinx (Wes Studi), a “terribly mysterious” mentor to the group. There’s also a tiny running thread of Stiller and Garofalo riffing on William Shatner lore, including his pronunciation of “sabotage.”


That last bit is an elaborate yet tossed-off in-joke, but Mystery Men works in large part because it doesn’t depend on familiarity with superheroes or comics culture to get laughs. Instead, it grounds its comedy in the absurdity of oddballs who consider “boundless rage” a source of potential superhuman strength or the ability to “shovel well” proper basis for costumed do-gooding. That this group actually gets its farcical act together and takes on a supervillain gives the movie an emotional boost that any number of modern comics adaptations lack.

Availability: Mystery Men is available on DVD and Blu-ray from Netflix or possibly your local video store/library. It can also be rented or purchased through the major digital services.