Every Sunday this summer, we'll be taking an historical tour of the Hollywood blockbuster by examining an older film that is in some way a spiritual precursor to one of the weekend's wide releases. This week: it is held that The Avengers represents some kind of unprecedented achievement, which is entirely true, from a branding standpoint at least. From a narrative standpoint? There have not been so very many movies about teams of supermen united against a foe greater than any of them, but they certainly do exist, even if the "Earth's Mightiest Heroes" tag doesn't quite work.
Mystery Men is one of them: by virtue of being excessively sarcastic and flippant and just plain oddball, even by the irony-chic standards of the late 1990s, the film was all but guaranteed to be met at the time of its release with incomprehension and indifference, and that is exactly what happened. This was not a fair fate for the movie, which has a clever idea and a killer ensemble, and a generally pleasing sense of humor. It was, as the kids like say, underrated. And because it was underrated, people who found it by accident (most likely because of one or more members of said killer ensemble) tended to cherish it and defend it, and have continued to do so ever since, and there came a point when if you listened to the right people, you might come away thinking Mystery Men was a lost masterpiece. This was also not fair, given the movie's slack direction, mishandling of at least half of that terrific cast, and a brutally overlong running time.
So here is that weird space: Mystery Men is one of those movies that, by virtue of firing up an intense cult and being largely discarded by everyone else, is both overrated and underrated at the exact same time: and thus it balances out, theoretically, although it somehow doesn't quite seem that way in practice.
But to the film itself, and not its cult in after years: based on a Dark Horse Comics title created by Bob Burden, Mystery Men is the story of three amateur superheroes in Champion City, a metropolis protected by the suave, handsome Captain Amazing (Greg Kinnear). Hoping to carve out a piece of the superheroing pie for themselves, we have Mr. Furious (Ben Stiller), who gets extremely angry, The Shoveler (William H. Macy), who is really good at shoveling and hitting things with a shovel, and The Blue Raja (Hank Azaria), a first-rate fork thrower who speaks like a combination of Boris Karloff and Jerry Lewis and dresses in chintzy Indian robes that look like they were rejected for use in an Alexander Korda movie from the '40s, and contain absolutely no blue. They're friends and colleagues, and not all that good at stopping crime; in the movie's first scene, a gang of miscreants roughly as polished and bright as the wannabe heroes manages to stymie them until Captain Amazing himself shows up to deal with the problem.
Captain Amazing, sadly, is bored, and in his other role as Lance Hunt, billionaire, he endeavors to have the local insane asylum release disco-loving German supervillain Casanova Frankenstein (Geoffrey Rush), just to have a worthy opponent again. This ends up backfiring when Casanova is able to capture Captain Amazing, and preparing a death ray that will explode the whole population of Champion City in a particularly nasty way. Our boys find out and gleefully throw themselves at the case, but in order to fight Casanova and his extremely effective goons - unsportingly, they use guns rather than themed weaponry - they must cull the streets for other superheroes to join their ranks. These end up including Invisible Boy (Kel Mitchell), who can only turn invisible when nobody is looking at him, including himself; The Spleen (Paul Reubens), who was cursed with military-grade flatulence by a gypsy, though he at least has the ability to aim it; The Bowler (Janeane Garofalo), who has her father's skull embedded in a bowling ball, and since his wrathful spirit is able to fly around and collide with things at extremely high speeds, this makes her the only member of the team with an actual useful power; and The Sphinx (Wes Studi), who makes cryptic remarks that have no actual meaning when you unpack them.
A big part of the film's charm is that it's able to find space for comedy as disparate as a character who is nothing but a feature-length fart joke, Garofalo's tart Gen-X wanderer comedy, and parodies of classic superheroes both overplayed (a long conversation about whether Lance Hunt and Captain Amazing can possibly be the same man, when only one of them wears glasses) and powerfully subtle (the Captain's willful freeing of a dangerous arch-villain as a sly comment on the revolving door policy at Arkham Asylum, home of Batman's surprisingly jail-resistant foes). And equally charming, from the remove of nearly a decade and a half, is how quintessentially '90s this feels in both the broad strokes and the details: Smash Mouth on the soundtrack, the sparing use of not-quite-there CGI, Claire Forlani. Even the incongruity of combining onetime alt-comedy icons Stiller and Garofalo with a budget that was not ever, ever going to be recouped by a Stiller/Garofalo vehicle has a certain '90s tang to it, reminiscent of those heady days when mass media knew of hipsters but had not yet perfected the art of selling their culture back to them without being obvious about it.
It is good that the film has this charm, for after a certain point it doesn't necessarily have anything else. The whole thing is damn peculiar, for all sorts of reasons: foremost among them being that Mystery Men is parodying something that in 1999 didn't really exist in the form that the film is parodying. The superhero film as a really significant genre wouldn't come into being until the release of X-Men, almost a full year after Mystery Men; meanwhile, the only superhero of any serious cinematic note was Batman and his increasingly degraded adventures that had culminated two summers earlier with the nightmarish Batman & Robin. Several of Marvel's future movie stars had done well for themselves throughout the decade preceding as television cartoons, but outside of easily-ignored failures like Steel, superhero movies weren't a thing, and superheroes weren't a ripe target for parody at all. Meaning that Mystery Men existed in a vacuum that it was specifically predicated on not existing in, if you follow me.
That rather naturally gave it a bit of an identity crisis, and particularly as it stretches on through a two-hour running time that a parody cannot even begin to conceive of justifying - and it's still 112 minutes without the credits, which really isn't any better - that part of Mystery Men which is a comedy at the expense of ridiculous superhero tropes slowly shades into comedy indulging in those same tropes. And this not a trend that screenwriter Neil Cuthbert (whose career survived just long enough for The Adventures of Pluto Nash to plunge him into the abyss) or director Kinka Usher (a commercial veteran who never got another shot at a feature) are remotely equipped to fight: Cuthbert having largely punted on the project anyway - it's no secret that most of the good lines and even character concepts were ad-libbed - and Usher seriously mishandling really simple issues of comic pacing and shot progressions and how to make sure that actors are interacting with each other and not projecting at each other that one of the producers should have noticed by the end of the first week of shooting, or better still the first day. It really is just a criminally clumsy piece of filmmaking: direct-address shots that are only distracting, far too much reliance on letting dialogue drive the editing, which results in an unpleasantly fragmented visual flow, moments that linger when they're obviously begging to be shortened or cut outright.
And yet the film is still, well, charming: for this it has to thank its cast almost entirely - besides those I mentioned, a very enthusiastic Tom Waits and a very under-utilised Eddie Izzard are on hand as well - though the amount of money Universal unwisely through at the project allows it to take place in a particularly well-designed world for an indie comic adaptation, with the costumes in particular being a very nearly unending source of delight. As I was saying, though, the cast: very few of them are good constantly (only Macy and Garofalo, and she only if you are one of the people who like her shtick - I do, but I also get that plenty of people have a nails-on-chalkboard response to her), and Reubens was saddled with an unplayable character that he elected to make even worse by virtue of a spittle-flecked lisp. But there are certainly moments for all of them that work beautifully: Kinnear's smugly corporatised Clark Kent is affably loathsome in a way that serves as a pointed reminder that he had the potential to be really good when he aimed to be; Azaria's intense commitment to the blustering unreality of his character is admirable even as the joke wears thin; seeing Studi with a chance to goof off and have fun with his Wise Indian persona is worth the rest of the film existing all on its own. Far more of the jokes land than fall flat, and many of those that don't are forced running gags that are more a victim of the film's indefensibly bloated running time than they are reflective of some lapse in comic intelligence.
And so we're back to where we started: too ramshackle to count as a successful film, let alone a forgotten classic; but too conceptually smart and relatively consistently funny to let it languish in the memory hole. I have little doubt that if it had come out even five years later, when the indulgence of the superhero movie was starting to make itself known, the film would have been much better-received and probably more focused; though maybe focus would have compromised too much of its idly barbed humor, and certainly that cast was never going to be assembled at any other point in history. And hell, the weirdness and miscalculation of so much of the film feel too much a part of its personality to snip them out; some films can only ever really work as cult objects, and this is probably one of them. I say that as someone who isn't ever going to make it into that cult, though a considerable part of me rather wishes I could.