The Guilty Pleasures: “Mystery Men”
A world in which Greg Kinnear plays the biggest superhero in town is a strange one indeed. Released in 1999 and directed by Kinka Usher, Mystery Men tells the story of a group of wannabe crime fighters who are forced to go pro in the absence of Champion City’s shining superhero, Captain Amazing. It stars Ben Stiller, Hank Azaria, and William H. Macy, among others.
It’s critical reception was less than stellar. It grossed just under $33.5 million worldwide, but cost about $68 million to make. So, yeah. Didn’t go too well. It was also a supposedly difficult movie to be a part of. There were reports of the cast arguing over the tone of the film – Ben Stiller admitted to having an argument with Greg Kinnear during his interview with David Letterman in support of the film. Kinka Usher himself, having never directed a film before, reportedly decided to step away from directing feature films, instead focusing on the television commercials he was used to. Mystery Men remains his only directorial credit.
Speaking of Kinka Usher, there is a prevailing rumor that Tim Burton actually directed the film under Kinka’s name. Though this has never been admitted publicly by either Kinka or Tim, there are supposedly clues that Burton really did the work here. It could be true, or it could also be something that someone really wanted to be true. It’s kind of like a horoscope or a fortune in a fortune cookie: if you try hard enough, it fits.
One of the great things about Mystery Men is its commentary on the superhero genre. From the moment Captain Amazing crashes through the window of a nursing home in the opening sequence, uniform emblazoned with company logos like Ray-O-Vac and Reebok, you can sense the bit of fun the movie is poking at the genre. After Captain Amazing sweeps the floor with the Red-Eye Gang, his publicist shows up (played by famous magician Ricky Jay, who of course utters the line “I’m not a magician, I’m a publicist.”) to facilitate a quick press conference with the local reporters. Captain Amazing throws out a couple of one-liners, but is completely thrown for a loop when one reporter asks him about the rumors that Pepsi dropped him as their sponsor. After Ricky Jay escorts Captain Amazing into his limo, the two discuss the problem with being so great a superhero – once he’s locked up all the truly evil masterminds, all that’s left are the chaff like the Red-Eye Gang. After running through the options of old nemeses, Amazing formulates a plan to free one of his great arch-enemies, Casanova Frankenstein, played with the perfect amount of cheesiness by Geoffrey Rush, from the mental asylum that holds him.
Having seen the movie a few times in the theater, I think what resonated most with me was the ridiculousness of the humor and the premise. However, what made me think was the needling it gave the superhero genre. In 1999, the genre was suffering pretty badly. 1997 brought us the genre-killing Batman & Robin, and the superhero genre wouldn’t receive its revitalization until the next year’s X-Men.
The problem with this commentary on the genre, however, is that the movie didn’t stick with it. The opening sequence is when the movie gets the majority of its jabs in, and then the rest of the movie is just a quirky underdog story where the little guys are forced to go to the big leagues.
That being said, the strong cast does its best. Ben Stiller plays Mr. Furious, a man whose trigger temper gets him beat up more than he deals out the beatings, Hank Azaria throws forks at people and dons an English accent as the Blue Raja, an obscure history reference I still don’t understand, and William H. Macy plays the Shoveler, a man who, you know, shovels…stuff. Along the way they pick up Kel Mitchell as the Invisible Boy, who can only turn invisible if absolutely no one, including himself, looks at him, Paul Reubens as the Spleen, who is a sharpshooter of farts, and finally Janeane Garofalo as the Bowler, who carries a bowling ball encasing the still semi-sentient skull of her dead father, a previous owner the Bowler mantle. The group’s outfitter is Doc Heller, a genius inventor who only makes non-lethal but effective weapons, played inexplicably by musician Tom Waits.
Mystery Men is, at the very least, an incredibly interesting movie. The overall design of it is bizarre. It lives in sort of a modern, but somehow 1950s retro-futuristic world where being an aspiring superhero is just as commonplace as being, say, a diner waitress. No one seems to really bat an eye at them; it’s really the only world in which the characters make sense. As a matter of fact, the whole movie is bizarre. There are some really entertaining moments, like when the newly formed gang celebrates their first victory, which consists entirely of vandalizing the main villain’s vehicle. There are also some misplaced moments, like when Janeane Garofalo gets into arguments with her father’s skull, encased in the bowling ball. All of these elements, and my enjoyment of them, make this movie a prime Guilty Pleasure. I know it’s kind of a garbled mess, but I like it just the same, in spite of itself. Mystery Men is my garbled mess.
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