With the success of Avengers: Assemble still sending ruptures through all manner of box office records, it feels appropriate to remember a film that may well have been more successful in today’s superhero obsessed film market.
“But Mystery Men hasn’t got a bad reputation” I hear you mutter in the future (my super power obviously being the ability to perplex my readers) and you are indeed correct. It seems to fit neatly into 3 star reviews and average ratings, some people like it and some people think its ok. I personally think it is one of the funniest films of all time, and was unfortunately made 13 years too early (ergo it needs defending because it should have been more successful).
Think back to the time of 1999 and the year 2000. We were just getting over the endings to The Sixth Sense, The Blair Witch Project and still reeling from a certain Tyler Durden. The summer that had gone before it was highlighted by the surprise smash hit The Matrix and a George Lucas film that he will seemingly never be forgiven for. Films were starting to surprise us Magnolia and Being John Malkovich were proof of that.
But do you notice something about all of these films? Not a superhero film in sight. It was a different time. Compare that to this summer of 2012 where we are peppered with comic book characters on an almost weekly basis. Indeed in 1998 Marvel had tentatively released one of its less risky characters to the big screen in Blade. It was only in 2000 that they finally released a film version of X-Men. This was also only 3 years after DC comics usually reliable Batman series had hit an all time low with Batman and Robin.
It was possibly seen as a wise move to release a satirical film mocking the liberties and clichés of superheroes when they were at their lowest point of popularity. Armed with a budget of $65 million and a talented comedic and in some cases award winning cast what could possibly go wrong? The film promptly tanked at the box office.
One can only presume that fans of their favourite comics were not ready to kick them when they were down and the audience it was intended for decided to stay away. The audience who didn’t know their Green Hornet’s from their Green Lantern’s would no doubt have missed most of the jokes and also have been put off. Imagine this film being released now with the last 13 years of superhero movies being imbedded into its audience’s nexus.
Mystery Men’s time and place meant that it was almost inevitable that the DC comic’s characters were the ones going to take the biggest hits in the gag ratio. Batman and Superman had proved to be box office juggernauts in the two previous decades but undoubtedly Marvel characters take their fair share of kicking as well. Director Kinka Usher keeps the tone of this film at downright silliness and it never fails to charm.
The film starts out with 2 clear strands. The wannabe superheroes lead by Ben Stiller’s Mr Furious (A Bruce Banner without the Hulk), The Blue Raja (Hank Azaria) and The Shoveller (William H. Macy). The other strand being that of the actual superhero world where Captain Amazing (Greg Kinnear) reigns supreme but who is more interested in drumming up publicity so he can land better sponsorship deals. Both elements are played with equal comedy effect and it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to know that these two worlds might well collide. One of its main strengths is in its interplay between its characters. They are all far too pre-occupied with delivering heroic lines and how they are perceived that they occasionally take their eye off the ball. Furious, Raja and Shoveller stand off against the disco boys and start to mock them when they realise that they haven’t thought their weapons through.
Mr. Furious: What? Guns? That’s your power, you shoot guns?
The Blue Raja: There’s no theme at all here.
Mr. Furious: Weak.
The Blue Raja: At best.
[a Disco Boy wields a pipe]
The Shoveller: Check out this guy, who are you supposed to be, the Disco Plumber?
They promptly get beaten the proverbial out of but they are not perturbed as they have the moral victory because they are aesthetically better designed.
They also aren’t immune to the clichés around them. Watch as they argue in the diner about the link between billionaire Lance Hunt and Captain Amazing.
Mr. Furious: That’s because Lance Hunt IS Captain Amazing!
The Shoveller: Oh, here we go…
The Shoveller: Don’t start that AGAIN. Lance Hunt wears glasses, Captain Amazing DOESN’T wear glasses.
Mr. Furious: He takes them off when he transforms…
The Shoveller: That doesn’t make any sense; he wouldn’t be able to see!
It’s a conversation you can imagine happening at a comic book convention. But it’s worth remembering that this film is not told with a mockery of comic books but with a love of the sheer stupidity of the world that they have created. Only in this world could you have an arch villain called Casanova Frankenstein (gamely played by Geoffrey Rush) who has a bolt sticking out the back of his head. Lines are delivered by the characters with a gusto that wishes that they were in a movie but ultimately makes them seem stupid.
Capt. Amazing: I knew you couldn’t change.
Casanova Frankenstein: I knew you’d know that.
Capt. Amazing: Oh, I know that. AND I knew you’d know I’d know you knew.
Casanova Frankenstein: But I didn’t. I only knew that you’d know that I knew. Did you know THAT?
Capt. Amazing: Of course.
All the actors throughout the ensemble are clearly having fun with their play on cliché’s. Even when in Paul Reubens case with the Spleen he is playing a character who works purely for the basis of toilet humour. Eddie Izzard heads up the unnecessary villains “The Disco Boys” and Once the Sphinx turns up with his Mr Miyagi like cod philosophy its clear the film isn’t going to let up on the level of humour.
The Sphinx: To learn my teachings, I must first teach you how to learn.
The film turns out be a collection of all superhero nuances and clichés that we have ever been made to look past when being truly charmed by our favourite heroes in tights. The irony in the end is that given all this knowledge by these characters we look past the same liberties that they eventually take to save the day. But it doesn’t really matter when we get to see The Invisible Boys power and an absurd fight with some of the disco boys who are more interested in dancing than punching.
The film is a laugh out loud superhero satire that relies on its audience to bring some of their own knowledge of their beloved comic book heroes to the table. It was always intended for this audience and considering now even the most casual filmgoer has a large knowledge of these worlds I would urge everyone to watch it. Who knows we might even get a sequel out of it.