Besides the nod to The New York Dolls, this article is really about Mystery Men, the best superhero film you have never heard about.
Flight and invulnerability, spandex outfits and ludicrous sidekicks. The concepts of superheroes are childhood fantasies which crumble in the adult world. In the goofy bedlam of Mystery Men’s Champion City, reality reveals superheroes to be losers, oddballs and dreamers. Instead of scowling vigilantes, powerful gods and aliens, the ‘Mystery Men’ are ordinary people pretending to be something more, except for the odd possessed bowling bowl and potent flatulence. Therein lies the wonderful magic of Mystery Men, it looks at itself and superheroes and laughs at the joke.
Released in 1999, the immediate target of Mystery Men’s lampooning is the vaudevillian gaudiness of the Batman films under Tim Burton and Joel Schumacher. Beyond that Mystery Men satirises dystopian films of the 1980s and 1990’s. Champion City’s architecture nods to the mega metropolis of Blade Runner’s Los Angeles, while the film’s aesthetic of old and new technologies living aside each other mimics Terry Gilliam’s Brazil and 12 Monkeys. The gags come from the inherent silliness of superheroes and super villains which Mystery Men exaggerates with a gleefully deadpan take. The real source of laughter lies in the ‘Mystery Men’ of the film; Mr.Furious (Ben Stiller) who has slightly mild anger issues, the Blue Raja (Hank Azaria) a mystic knife thrower haphazardly flinging forks and sometimes spoons and The Shoveler (William.H.Macy) who tackles crime with a shovel.
The Shoveler is confronted by his wife
The ‘Mystery Men’
Later bolstered by new members, the ‘Mystery Men’ remain endearingly hopeless underdogs stood against villains who break the rules of comic books. In an odd premonition of Christopher Nolan’s Bruce Wayne, Mystery Men’s director Kinka Usher opens up the vulnerability of his superheroes. This vulnerability is not an Achilles heel but the humanity behind the mask or the shovel. Mystery Men, at its deepest level, concerns men and women dreaming of making it big but struggling against their own ordinariness and doubting whether they can save the day. All of us at some point have shared that fear of being ordinary, of questioning how we are different from everyone else in the crowd.
A film before its time
Created before the Marvel-Disney conveyor belt of melodramatic superhero films was even conceived, Mystery Men’s teasing of the genre has made it a refreshing tonic for the staple of today’s box office. Even if you are oblivious to the litany of D.C and Marvel films, Mystery Men’s is objectively funny. Neil Cuthbert alongside Bob Burden, creator of The Flaming Carrot Comics which inspired Mystery Men, crafted a script brimming with hilarious sound bytes. A personal favourite is the Shoveler’s statement to his wife that;
‘God gave me a gift…I shovel well, I shovel very well.’
It is shame that Mystery Men, given its inexhaustible quotability, came out before the YouTube age ushered in highlight reels of comedy films which propelled Anchorman to universal popularity. Alongside the excellent writing are cast whose calibre is something to behold. The initial trio of Ben Stiller, William.H.Macy and Hank Azaria as Mr.Furious, The Shoveler and the Blue Raja are a powerhouse boosted by the later additions of Paul Reubens as The Spleen and Jaeneane Garofalo as Baby Bowler. The list of actors goes on but most importantly Tom Waits plays mad scientist Dr.Heller who cooks up non-lethal weapons in an abandoned circus full of mannequins and chickens. Somehow I think Tom Waits had no difficulty in playing his role. Plus if you want more Tom Waits the DVD copy of Mystery Men has a wonderful deleted scene of Dr.Heller flirting with retirees. Bonus appearances are Eddie Izzard as leader of a disco gang Toni P and Cee Lo Green as a minor gang member.
Tony P (Eddie Izzard)
Being his only feature film to date, director Kinka Usher brings the attentive detail of creating commercials to Mystery Men. The result is a trove of gags in the film’s environment; from a retirement home’s bar being stocked with prescription medication to the Shoveler’s trophy cabinet for his weapon of choice. Mystery Men just gets better the more often you watch and the harder you look.
Sadly, Mystery Men followed its titular heroes and shuffled into obscurity after a release met with poor box office sales and poor critical responses. The story does sag in the middle but the reason for Mystery Men’s failure was it took superheroes, a thing Americans hold so earnestly as a reflection of themselves, and thumbed its nose at them.
By Saul Shimmin
For the trailer, see below;