Mystery Men (1999)
Mystery Men is the 1999 film adaptation of characters who first appeared in the pages of Flaming Carrot Comics, published at the time by Dark Horse Comics. The comic in question, about a man who dons a giant carrot mask to fight crime, eventually revealed in flashback that its title character was a founding member of a second-string, blue-collar superhero team called the Mystery Men. The Mystery Men eventually got their own movie, but not the Flaming Carrot himself, who was deemed “too bizarre” for a movie, but what we’re left with is plenty weird, if not quite as funny as it could have been.
In Champion City, an old folks’ home hosts a party, complete with schmoozing, buffet-style dining, and wheelchair dancing. Suddenly, a group of villains calling themselves the Red Eyes (due to their bright red goggles, of course) burst in to ruin their day. The leader of the group (Artie Lange) yells out that this is a robbery, and it doesn’t take long before a group of superheroes spring into action to save the day. But these aren’t quite the superheroes anyone expected.
First among them is the Blue Raja (Hank Azaria), who has the power to turn cutlery into weapons, and he begins the action by using forks to fire a lethal amount of cake into the Red Eye leader’s mouth. He’s backed up by the Shoveler (William H. Macy), who has extreme skills with a shovel, and rounding out the trio is Mr. Furious (Ben Stiller), whose superpower seems to be that he’s really angry.
Although the group try their best to defeat the villains, they’re quickly upstaged by the city’s favorite superhero Captain Amazing (Greg Kinnear), who flies onto the scene with a jet pack and NASCAR-inspired jumpsuit covered in corporate logos. He easily takes down the Red Eyes and enjoys the ensuing adulation of reporters and all the old folks he rescued, while the other three heroes are left to go sulk at a diner.
Captain Amazing heads home and learns that he’s losing sponsorship deals, because the public is becoming increasingly bored with his super-heroics. The main problem is that he’s done too good of a job defeating all of the city’s supervillains, including the brilliant but insane Casanova Frankenstein (Geoffrey Rush), who’s currently locked away in an asylum. But then Captain Amazing gets an amazing idea, and in his secret identity as lawyer Lance Hunt, he soon wins a pardon for Casanova.
Immediately after his release, Casanova begins plotting to destroy the city, starting with blowing up his former insane asylum. This lures Captain Amazing into his lair, where Casanova takes him hostage and begins the next stage of his doomsday plan. However, unbeknownst to him, the kidnapping of Captain Amazing was witnessed by Mr. Furious, who immediately reports what he saw to his fellow heroes.
They decide to take down Casanova, but they know their group isn’t quite powerful enough, so they scout around for other superheroes. They follow a lead to check out a kid named Invisible Boy (Kel Mitchell), who can supposedly turn invisible. But when they meet him, he admits that he’s only able to turn invisible when no one is looking at him, and the only proof he has of his powers is that he can “feel” himself turning invisible. But he claims to have connections to other superheroes, so they let him into their group.
At the diner, they’re accosted by another hero called the Spleen (Paul Reubens) who has the power to take down his enemies with his super deadly flatulence. Yes, they went there, and somehow, he too gets into the group. The men try to rescue Captain Amazing but are easily defeated by the Disco Boys, a ‘70s-themed street gang (led by Eddie Izzard and Pras) working for Casanova.
And so the five heroes decide to host open auditions for more members. This cattle call predictably draws out the super-weirdos, including everything from the Waffler (Dane Cook), who wields waffle irons as weapons, to the PMS Avenger, who can only fight crime four days out of the month.
But just as they’re about to pack it in, a woman calling herself the Bowler (Janeane Garafolo) shows up. She’s got the skull of her late father encased inside a transparent bowling ball, and she’s able to throw the ball around with extraordinary precision, proving she’s exactly what the team needs.
Now that the team is assembled, they have their first encounter with Casanova Frankenstein, which mostly involves jumping on his limo, scratching it with forks, and being just plain annoying. Despite not really accomplishing much of anything, the superheroes take off feeling victorious.
But then Casanova’s gang comes after them, and they’re soon rescued by a hero called the Sphinx (Wes Studi), whose superpower is being “terribly mysterious”. He promises to train them in using their powers so they can rescue Captain Amazing.
Mr. Furious gets fed up with the way the Sphinx only speaks in empty platitudes, and leaves the group, until a waitress at the diner named Monica (Claire Forlani) convinces Furious that he belongs with his friends. They also get help from a mad scientist named Dr. Heller (Tom Waits) who provides them with an abundance of weapons that, while they won’t actually kill anybody, are still effective.
At last, they take off to rescue Captain Amazing. Unfortunately, on the night they choose to do so, Casanova is hosting a party with all of the city’s top gangs so he can show off his new Psycho-Frakulator, which he plans to use to destroy the city. And we get plenty of sight gags as we meet the gangs, which include the Frat Boys (a gang hilariously led by Michael Bay providing a one-line cameo), and also the Not-So-Goodie Mob, played by the actual Goodie Mob (including Cee Lo Green, who’s a bit of a villain in real life, too).
The heroes finally locate Captain Amazing, but accidentally trigger a device that melts his entire body right before their eyes. This accident causes them to lose all hope, but they soon discover newfound strength and begin to take down several of the gangs. Unfortunately, Casanova has already activated the Psycho-Frakulator. He also reveals he’s taken Monica hostage, which sends Mr. Furious into a rage that helps the team out.
Before the night is over, Casanova dies after getting thrown into the Frakulator, and then the skull inside Bowler’s bowling ball (which is apparently still conscious and communicating with his daughter) destroys the machine. The movie ends with the group being celebrated as the new heroes of Champion City and christened the “Mystery Men” by a reporter. Roll credits to that Smash Mouth song that was in every movie that came out in 1999.
It’s pretty clear Mystery Men is a spoof of superheroes and superhero movies in general, with several digs at the comic book tropes we’ve all come to know and love. There’s a bit where Mr. Furious is convinced that Captain Amazing is really Lance Hunt, but the others point out that Lance Hunt wears glasses and Amazing does not, so they can’t possibly be the same person.
But other than the ridiculous costumes and a few clever jabs at Superman, there’s not really that much skewering of the superhero genre going on here, which even in 1999 was a pretty deserving target—the Batman films had just failed spectacularly a couple of years prior, and those movies alone could have provided more than enough material for a great spoof. Though, they apparently did inspire the look of the film, what with its outlandish architecture (including an abundance of obscenely large statues), and how it takes place in the same amalgamated time period where it’s modern day and yet half the characters are wearing fedoras.
Considering the two-hour running time, you’d think the screenwriters could have gone deeper and come up with funnier jokes and touched on more superhero clichés than they do here. It becomes a problem when there are long stretches of dialogue without a joke in sight. It seems like they could have cut out a few elements here and there to make this a tighter, sharper movie.
An obvious candidate for the cutting room floor would be the Disco Boys, a gang that exists to dress up in outlandish ‘70s fashions and add lots of KC and the Sunshine Band and Bee Gees to the soundtrack, and little else. And there are at least three other gangs I haven’t even mentioned. Including a huge army of tertiary villains was probably a bad idea, since none of them add much to the story.
I liked this movie’s main cast a lot more than the movie itself, with the exception of Ben Stiller, who’s playing another variation on the overly angry characters he plays in Heavyweights and DodgeBall (though, he’s gone on record saying he absolutely hated making this movie, which may explain his lack of effort). You could probably say the same for Janeane Garafolo’s signature bored character, but the “relationship” she has with her father, despite him being an inanimate skull inside a bowling ball, was still one of the more endearing parts of the film. William H. Macy as the Shoveler is also charmingly earnest and his interactions with his wife are touching, and throwing Tom Waits into the mix added a fun element to the film.
Mystery Men has plenty of gags, but they’re all pretty low-key, and there are only a few solid laughs to be had. And director Kinka Usher (who got the job because he directed the “Yo Quiero Taco Bell” Chihuahua ads, and never made a movie before or since) desperately tries to pick up the slack with lots of extreme close-ups filmed through fisheye lenses that were probably meant to be funny, but are mostly overbearing. A satire of comic books seems like a surefire concept, and they’ve assembled a great cast here, but unfortunately the script and the direction rob them of all their comedic powers.