Mystery Men

Mystery Men. Dark Horse Entertainment 1999.

Before watching the movie:

I have hardly any idea what this movie is like, and it kind of occupies the same headspace with Mystery Team, another cult movie that I think is ensemble-based that I need to get around to, but it looks like of the large ensemble there are a lot of big names, but only one I’d expect to be involved in something like this. My early impression is something like Watchmen by way of Kick-Ass. A deconstruction of superhero narratives, but as a farcical parody.

The timing of the movie should make an interesting tone. The late 90s were a time where superhero movies weren’t very popular, and sometimes not very well made. After Superman and Batman fell apart, the superhero genre struggled in movies, but the technology was starting to provide the ability make more convincing effects than the stunning work of the Christopher Reeve Superman movies, but the cynicism and assembly line pop culture of the post-Dark Knight/cinematic universe era hadn’t yet come in. Without global tentpole scrutiny from the studio, maybe a superhero movie could even Say Something. That’s probably a lot to ask of a failed spoof, but the possibilities are there.

After watching the movie:

Mr. Furious (don’t get him angry or he’ll strain himself trying to hulk out), the Shoveler (really good at shoveling), and the Blue Raja (master of cutlery) are trying to do hero work in Champion City, but they aren’t good at it, and also whenever any crime happens, Captain Amazing comes in to clean it up before any other do-gooder has a chance. Captain Amazing is so good at keeping Champion City safe that all the city’s supervillains are in custody or dead, making him lose relevance and thus the favor of his corporate sponsors. In order to save his own livelihood, Amazing’s alter ego Lance Hunt argues for Amazing’s nemesis Casanova Frankenstein to be released from the insane asylum. Frankenstein then immediately outwits and captures Captain Amazing, and the bumbling trio see a chance to make their names in rescuing Captain Amazing and thwarting Frankenstein’s plan to use his Psycho-frakulator to destroy the city, but they need more help, recruiting heroes like Invisible Boy (can only turn invisible when absolutely no one is looking), the Spleen (explosive farts) and the Bowler (wields a bowling ball with her father’s skull inside which is animated by his restless spirit).

The bigger plot didn’t seem to develop much past setting up Captain Amazing’s sellout ego and giving the wannabes an opportunity to step up. Amazing pretty much exits as soon as the heroes have their objective, and Frankenstein’s people are relatively static obstacles. The real focus of the movie is the personal growth of the core trio and their colleagues, and that is a little distracted by the jokes that come out of their superhero personas, especially Bowler.

The tone seems like it’s trying to play straight a concept it knows is absurd. Or rather, it puts absurd characters into a fairly serious plot. Therefore, it’s never all that funny or all that deep. Everything is done well, but the tonal dissonance means the main thing that emerges as exemplary is the design of the world. There’s some really good CGI for the 1990s, Champion City feels alive and unreal, but the neon city backdrop stands out more than the story being told against it.

This is fun and satisfying, but not remarkably memorable. It could have done well to try to be either satire or earnest, but it goes for both with equal zeal and the result kind of cancels itself out. Add to that a cast full of “what are you doing here?” performers and it’s more of a singular oddity than anything truly special. Maybe it was made at the wrong time.

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