– It’s like The Avengers if The Avengers were really stupid
– Some good comedic setups and execution
– Fantastic one-liners throughout
– Surprisingly all-star cast (Ben Stiller, William Macy, Geoffrey Rush, etc.)
– Manages to just not take itself seriously enough
– The Sphinx is my life coach (“He who questions training only trains himself at asking questions.”)
– The odd-ball humor will be grating on some
– The weird dissonance regarding whether or not they have actual powers get a bit confusing
– The Spleen’s character is painfully unfunny
Mystery Men came to me in a weird way. My freshman year in college, we were going to the Blockbuster Video (dating this anecdote instantly) to rent Mystery Men on a recommendation of a friend. Upon arriving we found it was checked out, so instead we went to the nearby Best Buy to browse. There, I found a copy of Mystery Men…for $3, which was less than the cost of a DVD rental at the time. So, for whatever dumb reason, I bought a film I knew literally nothing about, and still have it to this day.
Story over, on to the review.
Mystery Men I’d often describe as Watchmen if Watchmen were written by a bunch of middle schoolers. While Watchmen used it’s themes of “everyday superheroes mixed with actual superheroes” to critique an entire genre, Mystery Men uses it to lampoon the entire concept. It’s a bit like Kick-Ass only without the super-violence (and completely impossible-to-swallow concept of “Hit Girl”) and also without a horrible sequel. But where Mystery Men shines (and why I find the film so endearing) is it tries so hard to be so very, very dumb. The movie never attempts to be anything aside from completely moronic, and it succeeds in nearly every way.
The plot is rudimentary. Supervillain Casanova Frankenstein (Geoffrey Rush) is released from prison and believed to be “rehabilitated.” This doesn’t sit straight for his old nemesis, Captain Amazing (Greg Kinnear), who has used the villain’s absence to get corporate sponsoring all over his superhero uniform, much like a NASCAR driver. Breaking himself away from public appearances at nursing homes and his painfully un-altruistic charity work, Amazing confronts Frankenstein only to find that while Amazing has gotten rusty (and become a huge jerk), Frankenstein is still on his a-game. One captured superhero later, and it looks like Frankenstein is prime to take over the city.
Enter our titular “Mystery Men,” though they don’t identify themselves as such until the end. This film follows an arch almost identical to that of the first Avengers movie, with our heroes starting all from separate walks of life until they are united under the mentor character (the Avengers have Nick Fury, the Mystery Men have The Sphinx). They they have to use their combined powers (?) to save the city from Frankenstein, and try to rescue Amazing while they’re at it.
What makes this band of silly people amazing is that you’re never quite sure if they have any powers or not. Captain Amazing clearly does, with the ability to fly and have super strength turning him into a massively pompous ass, but the rest of the heroes have crummy day jobs and may-or-may-not actually have any powers. Ben Stiller as “Mr. Furious” is supposed to gain his powers from his anger, but in reality it just seems to make him angry and that’s about it (exemplified in a hilarious “car attack” scene vs Frankenstein). Macy’s “Shoveler” tells his poor wife that he “shovels well. I shovel very well,” much to her dismay upon realizing he isn’t going to give up his dream. Hank Azaria as “The Blue Raja” is a turbaned stoner who lives in his mother’s basement and attacks by throwing forks (but no other utensils), and whose name is often brought into question as he doesn’t wear anything blue. .
From this core cast they recruit a few others, most of which are hit or miss (though the recruitment scene is a hoot). Janeane Garofalo is the only female Mystery “Man” as “The Bowler,” a superhero whose dead father’s skull was put into a mystical bowling ball seeking revenge on Frankenstein. Kel Mitchell’s “Invisible Boy” can only go invisible if nobody is watching (including himself), and when his powers are questioned he responds that “when you’re invisible, you just feel it.” The low point is clearly Paul Reubens “Spleen,” whose powers are…farting. That’s it. Probably the lowest brow humor in the whole movie, and it never pays off to anything interesting (though this is a 90s movie, so it had to have a “pull my finger gag”).
The Sphinx is by far the funniest character in the film, the mysterious mentor of the crew. He also serves as the best set-up gag in the entire movie (“I’ve heard he can…cut guns in half with his mind!”), being that nebulous Gandalf character but really only serving them up awful puns. Even better is Mr. Furious calls him out on it, but that still doesn’t stop him from spouting nebulous garbage meant to be motivational.
Mr. Furious: Okay, am I the only one who finds these sayings just a little bit formulaic? “If you want to push something down, you have to pull it up. If you want to go left, you have to go right.” It’s…
The Sphinx: Your temper is very quick, my friend. But until you learn to master your rage…
Mr. Furious: …your rage will become your master? That’s what you were going to say. Right? Right?
The Sphinx: Not necessarily.
All together, the crew has to battle Frankenstein and his band of wacky henchmen, with the help of a crazy non-violent mad scientist and some really bad jokes. While the Spleen’s obvious gags are groan worthy, the rest of the payoffs actually work, with a lot of innocuous things mentioned early on in the film returning later with some silly (but decently executed) gags. Mr. Furious’ love interest getting captured did seem kind of pointless, though, but I can’t decide if it was meant to be a spoof of the genre or just lazy writing.
One of the best (or possibly worst) jokes that permeates the movie is questioning whether or not any of these guys have actual powers. Some are played off as just being personal traits (Mr. Furious’ anger, The Shoveler’s shovel-related combat prowess, Blue Raja just being good at throwing stuff), but others seem genuinely mystical (The Bowler’s magic bowling ball, Invisible Boy having an actual invisible power, etc.). It technically works as we’ve seen Captain Amazing has actual powers, so there is precedence for it. But as it isn’t really explained in any great detail, you’ll be left scratching your head as to who has powers and who was just lucky a stray bullet didn’t catch them. Part of me thinks this is part of the joke, and again…the other part makes me think it’s just bad writing. That tends to be a theme of Mystery Men.
The movie is stupid, yes, but chock full of some great one-liners. Most of them come from either The Sphinx or Mr. Furious, though The Shoveler and Blue Raja get a few now and again. The problem is when the movie isn’t self-indulgent in its obvious idiocy, it can feel like a drag. Any time the movie takes itself even the least bit seriously it feels tonally off, and not only that but extremely boring. This film is best when it’s being silly, and not trying to do anything besides barf one-liners and continue to up the ante of ridiculousness. It reminds me a lot of Army of Darkness, where that film just kept ramping up and up it’s absurdity until the final climax. It worked there because Army of Darkness didn’t hesitate. Mystery Men hesitates every now and again, and it brings the film down.
Regardless, Mystery Men is certainly a tad better than other Z-level superhero movies that came out in the 80s and 90s ( The Phantom, etc.). Is it a perfect ride, with some biting satire and smart writing? Not really. Is it going to rock the superhero scene like Watchmen (the comic, not the movie adaptation)? No way. Is it a load of really stupid fun filled with insane amounts of camp and some phenomenal one-liners? You bet.
If you’re in for a dumb superhero movie, you could do a lot worse. And since I’m pretty sure you can stream it off nearly everything, you can watch it for free! No dollars! What a steal! I’d suggest checking it out if you want a good, stupid time.