Mystery Men is a superhero movie that came out in 1999. It follows the story of inept superheroes that become the world’s only hope after a super-villain kidnaps the best superhero and holds him hostage. Starring Ben Stiller and Hank Azaria, this comedy came out and was panned. Failing to recoup the budget and slated by all, Mystery Men was said to have squandered the potential it had and still now is met with tuts and scoffs. But is it really a good movie? Does it have a blossoming cult classic?
Cookie and Paul battle it out in this For/Against feature.
Ever since I was a child, I had wanted to see it because there was a certain appeal to the characters. And even now, watching it recently, the rag-tag team of misfits and superheroes are great. And I know this is going to make me sound soft, but it’s because a lot of heart has gone into them. There are good stories written underneath the silliness (we will get on to the siliness,) and you follow their tales as they rise to the occasion.
Captain Amazing, played by Greg Kinear, is an amazing anti-hero. He is a jerk who releases Casanova Frankenstein (played by the talented Geoffrey Rush) in order to earn more endorsements for his muscle bound suit only for it to back fire, badly. This plot is genuinely hysterical, and it leads the way for our heroes to show what they are (with the help of The Sphinx)
There is a clear satire here. From the sweeping set pieces, to the Gilliam inspired style and the looming buildings of Champion City, it is all a send up of the poorly misjudged Batman films by Joel Schumacher. The style here is to poke holes in the flashy way directors had treated comic book heroes. It's a roast of all things awful. Neon and colourful, Mystery Men does very well in parodying the poor movies. People are inevitably going to compare it to films such as Kick-Ass or Super. The problem here is that those movies are heavily violent and are set in realistic ways. Mystery Men doesn’t actual state that. It is a fictional town and these are comic book characters that have seriously misplaced powers. It is over the top and over blown but it sure is fun.
Mystery Men is a comedy and parody, it is what happens when people try to be something they are not, which is ironic because that is how people view the film. The main problem here is that people have tied ridiculous expectations to this film and when it flopped, people couldn’t see it for how it is. I am not saying it is perfect and it certainly sours in the middle, becoming stale. But it has everything you’d want from a movie. Maybe it is more relevant now with the saturation of superhero movies, or maybe that will cause a worse reception. But it is energetic and lively. Any movie boasting a stellar cast (Eddie Izzard is also a disco villain. Yes, a disco villain,) full of gag jokes, slapstick and satire, is great enough to be on my DVD shelve.
It is there, it is brilliant and Mystery Men gets my approval.
Charm can be a very important thing for a film. A flawed film is a flawed film, but if it’s got charm, then it can win back a lot of points. I think that’s how guilty pleasure movies work – ‘I know it’s bad, but I found it somehow charming, so I can like it’. So long as it has enough charm to balance those flaws, I can sit back and enjoy pretty much anything.
That said… I’m not sure I can consider Mystery Men as something charming enough to overcome it’s, in my opinion, several flaws and drawbacks. Ultimately, I come away from it thinking it’s too much of a waste of good potential, so it frustrates me far more than it amuses me.
Conceptually, I have difficulty placing this film. It would seem to be setting itself in the “real world,” where superheroes (that is, those with super powers who fight crime) don’t actually exist. There are mostly just wannabes who long to hold the stature of Superhero, with enviable powers and the glory of fighting the good fight. So, this would seem to be a world comparable to our own… but then why is the world of Mystery Men so stylised? The sets, the colour, the costumes, everything screams “This Is A Comic Book!”, so it’s not really possible to make any kind of distinction between Superhero and Regular Joe. It’s one thing to pay homage to the style of the source material, but when it actively impedes on the central conceit of the project, undercutting the “there are no superheroes” ideal, it’s a poor creative decision. It’s not style over substance, but style actually voiding substance.
I also have a problem with this world’s one superhero - Captain Amazing. A man of wealth, bravery and gadgetry, he’s basically this world’s equivalent of Batman, minus the dark and troubled past. And with this role comes a pretty great concept: the hero is not only an egotistical jackass, but also a massive whore for corporate sponsorship deals. This is a fantastic idea, brimming with satirical potential… and yet it never really feels as barbed as it should. I think it’s the casting of Greg Kinnear that causes this. In all fairness to the man, he does a really fine job. He’s every bit the arrogant jerk Captain Amazing needs to be, but he lacks the real star power needed to make this one superhero shine, to stand out like he should. This miscasting of the role is largely a case of a short-sighted gamble than anything else. At the time, Greg Kinnear was expected to be the next big thing, a star in the making, thanks to his much-lauded turn in As Good As It Gets. Only, this never came to fruition and so the role is something of an admittedly well-acted damp squib.
I don’t really hate Mystery Men. I actually do think there is some charm to it, and I love most of the cast (Geoffrey Rush, Janeane Garofalo AND Tom Waits!!!)… but like I said, for me there just isn’t enough charm in it to make up for the flaws. Mystery Men could have done something really cool. Hell, it could have been Kick-Ass over a decade before that film came along. That over-stylisation, an under-developed script and short-sighted direction ultimately undercut all of this just drags the film down too far for me to want to follow.
Who do you agree with? Let us know in the comments!