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Entries in Mystery Men [1999] (1)

Wednesday
Sep212011

Mystery Men (1999)

Un-fork-gettable

I loved Mystery Men, back when I used to read comic books (because I can only justify one grossly expensive hobby at a time, I gave them up last year). Revisiting the movie yesterday was an eye-opening experience that reminded me of how little fandom and objectivity have to do with one another.

In 1999, I thought director Kinka Usher and screenwriter Neil Cuthbert perfectly captured the pathetic absurdity of Bob Burden's Dark Horse Comics characters. The over-the-top, Saturday-morning-cartoon villains; odd, yo-yo-ing comics panel angles; and goofy sound effects were a perfect big-screen reflection of all that was wrong in not only mainstream comic books, but also mainstream comic book movies (this film came out two years after Joel Schumacher's Batman and Robin). But if you have no idea of what Usher and company are parodying, specifically, Mystery Men is likely to be little more than a cute, eye-rolling fascination, a time-capsule that'll have you IMDb-ing furiously to see if the evil frat-guy character really is Michael Bay*.

The movie takes place in Champion City, the unofficial, toxic sister city of Blade Runner's technological nightmarescape. Crime is rampant, with strangely dressed gangs of psychos terrorizing citizens, and only a handful of unsuccessful, part-time vigilantes to stop them. Mr. Furious (Ben Stiller) is a bubbling cauldron of impotent rage. The Blue Raja (Hank Azaria) machine-guns forks and spoons at opponents. The Shoveler (William H. Macy) shovels things while spouting off do-gooder rhetoric. Despite their noble intentions, these three are terrible at their job, often paving a bruised path for real superhero Captain Amazing (Greg Kinnear) to clean up the mess and steal headlines.

Unfortunately, Captain Amazing is too good: he's hemorrhaging corporate sponsors because street thugs aren't nearly as sexy as supervillains--all of whom are either dead or locked away. The Captain employs his alter ego, billionaire philanthropist Lance Hunt, to appeal to the board of Champion City's insane asylum for the release of evil genius Cassanova Frankenstein (Geoffrey Rush). On his first night of freedom, he blows up the nut-house and captures the vain, clueless Captain Amazing, holding him until he can perfect the superweapon he'd been developing in secret for decades.

Of course, this leaves Furious, Shoveler, and Blue Raja to save the day. But they're no match for Frankenstein's recently returned henchmen, The Disco Boys, and their sub-contracted mobs of equally colorful thugs. Outnumbered, they hold try-outs in Shoveler's back yard, and watch in horror as every Champion City schizoid with a sewing needle and a dream tries out for their mission (Waffle Man and The PMS Avenger--who only works four days a month--are personal faves). The team eventually solidifies with the addition of master-farter The Spleen (Paul Reubens); Invisible Boy (Kel Mitchell), who has the power to be ignored into actual invisibility; and The Bowler (Janeane Garofalo), who talks to the bowling ball she'd had made of her dead father's skull.

Though their numbers are greater, the group's bickering prevents them from doing anything meaningful. The mysterious, aphorism-obsessed Sphinx (Wes Studi) seeks them out and offers team-building workshops in the woods outside the city. Mr. Furious sees right through his crap and quits the team, preferring to work on his budding relationship with a snarky waitress named Monica (Claire Forlani).

Eventually, he returns to the team with a funny non-apology that leads right into the climactic Raid on the Supervillain's Compound. There are few surprises, story wise, in the last twenty minutes of Mystery Men; if you've seen one superhero movie--especially from this era--you've seen them all. But the comedy somewhat elevates these standard-issue scenes. I was really impressed with the climax's special effects, which don't have the late-90s look that has killed so many geek-nostalgia-boners.

In fact, aside from the cast (seriously, have you read the bold-type names in this review? Incredible, huh?), Mystery Men's greatest selling point is the visual imagination that Usher, Production Designer Kirk M. Petruccelli, Art Director Barry Chusid, and Costume Designer Marilyn Vance unleash on this picture. This is one of the most fully realized, lived-in worlds that I've ever seen in a comic book movie, and it reflects the underdog-with-lots-to-prove spirit of its characters. The film's imagery alone was enough to keep me wading through the screenplay's thick cheese moat.

Ah, yes, cheese--the tragic staple of pre-Grim & Gritty comic-book-movies. Mystery Men teeters on the irony tightrope a bit too precariously for anyone not familiar with comics or comics films to enjoy. Cuthbert's script is loaded with winks and snide commentary about the story's silliness, but that doesn't keep the movie itself from being silly.

No, there's nothing inherently wrong with silliness, but there's a difference between keenly observed jabs at superhero tropes and "Boing!" sound-effects jumping out of the speakers every other time someone gets punched. It's as if Cuthbert knows his targets but can't remember why he started shooting at them in the first place.

While I've outgrown my love for Mystery Men, I still like it a lot. The movie isn't conisistently funny, but it has a tremendous amount of heart and a "Believe in Yourself" message that resonates, despite being corny as all hell. I'd love to see what a post-Dark Knight, post-Kick-Ass-era sequel to this film would look like: if the filmmakers could hold on to the earnestness, abandon the cheese, and comment on the genre's evolution, Mystery Men 2.0 could be the greatest comic book movie ever made.

*It is. Some other names to look out for include Eddie Izzard, Dane Cook, Doug Jones, Cee Lo Green (!), and Tom Waits (!!!).