Batman and Robin (1997) has often been credited with killing off the comic book superhero movie for a few years. Admittedly, nothing much of any merit had been released until Bryan Singer’s first X-Men film in 2000. Studios, clearly wary of not repeating the financial disaster of Joel Schumacher's bloated opus, had stayed away from mounting any large-scale production – case in point: the scrapping of a Superman movie despite having director Tim Burton and actor Nicolas Cage attached to it. Therefore, the mounting of Mystery Men (1999), yet another super hero film based on a comic book, seemed like a risky venture with a $68 million price tag, and which ended up only making back less than half of it. Looking back, it’s not hard to see why. Mystery Men is such esoteric oddity – the costumed superhero equivalent of The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai (1984).
Based loosely on Bob Burden's Dark Horse comic Flaming Carrot Comics, Mystery Men focuses on the misadventures of a bunch of inept super heroes: Mr. Furious (Ben Stiller), The Shoveler (William H. Macy), and the Blue Raja (Hank Azaria). They've got the costumes and the shtick down cold, the only problem is that none of them actually has any super powers. Furious merely works himself into an angry rage, the Shoveler... well, has his shovel, and the Blue Raja hurls cutlery with awful accuracy. Hardly, the Justice League of America. The REAL super-powered hero, Captain Amazing (Greg Kinnear) is so good that he not only has vanquished every bad guy in Champion City but he has also snagged every corporate sponsor on the planet (his costume is decorated with logos of everything from Pepsi to Reebok). The problem is that he has no one left to fight and is in danger of losing his precious sponsors. He hatches a plan to free his arch-nemesis, Casanova Frankenstein (Geoffrey Rush) but it backfires and Amazing finds himself at the mercy of his old foe. Naturally, it's up to Furious and his friends to become organized and stop Frankenstein before it's too late.
Director Kinka Usher sets a wonderfully eccentric tone right from the get-go as a gang known as the Red Eyes (whose ringleader is comedian Artie Lange no less) busting up a senior citizens soiree to steal their false teeth, artificial limbs, and so forth. Naturally, Furious and his pals are completely ineffectual and Captain Amazing swoops in and saves the day only to then be immediately whisked away by his publicist (played by renowned illusionist Ricky Jay).
After Batman and Robin the only direction the super hero movie could possibly go was into self-parody (Schumacher's film tried and failed to do this). Mystery Men wisely opts for this approach, complete with a corporate whore Superman clone (Captain Amazing) and a whole slew of absurdly named heroes that include the likes of The Waffler (complete with a syrup sidearm), the Spleen (“Pull my finger!”), and the PMS Avenger (who only works a few days every month). Mystery Men even goes so far as to set all the action in a glossy, neon urban landscape a la the Batman movies but where they degraded into art direction and style over substance, this movie maintains a good balance of stunning visuals and interesting characters.
What really makes these characters so fun to watch is the actors that play them. Ben Stiller is quite decent as a guy who thinks he’s tougher than he really is and always trying to prove himself to others, trying too hard, which gives off a whiff of desperation. Conversely, Greg Kinnear nails Amazing’s air of smug superiority and complete lack of empathy for those he’s sworn to protect.
Hank Azaria, a character actor with a flair for accents, sports an outrageous faux-British accented as the Blue Raja, a mama’s boy with pretensions of fighting crime. Casanova’s henchmen are known as the Disco Boys, which means that every time they appear on-screen they’re accompanied by disco music. Comedian Eddie Izzard plays one of them and so we get to see him do his best Saturday Night Fever (1977) dance impersonation and a defiant attitude as he refuses to believe that disco is dead.
Geoffrey Rush has delicious fun playing an evil super genius complete with a vampy Eurotrash accent. He and Kinnear banter back and forth in an amusing scene as their smug egomaniac characters try to outdo one another. Rush, in particular, is a delight as he over-enunciates his dialogue, employing dramatic pauses between phrases. Claire Forlani, who was briefly a cinematic “IT” girl during the 1990s, appearing in notable films like Mallrats (1995) and Basquiat (1996), turns up as Furious’ potential love interest but thankfully isn’t given much to do.
To see the likes of Janeane Garofalo and William H. Macy – two actors you wouldn't normally associate with being in a costumed super hero movie – running around fighting bad guys in outrageous costumes is truly a delight to behold. Her first appearance in the movie sees her character bicker with Furious. Frequent collaborators during the ‘90s, it is a delight to see them playfully take potshots at each other like bratty siblings.
Best of all, Tom Waits appears as a mad scientist who only invents non-lethal weapons (i.e. canned tornado). His first appearance in the movie is almost worth the price of admission alone. In an inspired bit of casting, Wes Studi (The Last of the Mohicans) portrays the enigmatic hero The Sphinx who acts a wise sage mentor to the ragtag group. The veteran actor usually doesn’t appear in goofy comedies like this one, which is too bad as he is an excellent straight man, giving his quasi-Yoda-type wisdom an amusing faux-gravitas, while looking ridiculous in his crime-fighting costume.
You have to admire a movie that features cameos by film director Michael Bay as the head of a gang of frat boys (“Still on probation for lethal hazing!”) and CeeLo Green as part of a rapping gang of criminals. As more of these disparate personalities show up I began to wonder how Usher got all of these people in one movie? He came from the world of television commercials and Mystery Men was his shot at the big time for studio filmmaking. Sadly, he was not prepared for the rigors of working within the confines of Hollywood and had difficulty fusing CGI effects work with making a comedy. Hank Azaria shed some light on the trouble involved in working on the movie: “It was tough. It was really like trying to be funny in the middle of a math equation or something…Very long hours, very stressful and tough on the set.” The actor hints that Usher didn’t have a clear vision for what he wanted the movie to be and clashed with the producer and some of the cast who all had their own ideas about what it should’ve been. It got to the point where Usher told Azaria the middle of principal photography, “I’m going back to commercials when this is done. I’ve had enough. I’d much rather do my cool little one-minute shorts that I make than deal with all this nonsense.”
Mystery Men received mixed to negative reviews from critics with Roger Ebert leading the charge with his two out of four star review: “Comedy depends on timing, and chaos is its enemy. We see noisy comic book battles of little consequence, and finally we weary: This isn’t entertainment, it’s an f/x demo reel.” In her review for The New York Times, Janet Maslin wrote, “The jokes are smart in the screenplay by Neil Cuthbert, but they are allowed to wear thin despite the brief running time.” Entertainment Weekly gave it a “B-“ rating and Lisa Schwarzbaum wrote, “Call Mystery Men a sketchbook in search of a movie; it’s still a super idea in a summer of flackery.” In his review for the Los Angeles Times, Kenneth Turan wrote, “For watching Mystery Men is a bit like sitting next to a brilliant person at a dinner party who just won’t shut up. Because this film is so self-conscious and, like Mr. Furious and friends, has a tendency to try too hard, it’s an effort you end up admiring more than completely loving.” Finally, the Washington Post’s Michael O’Sullivan wrote, “As incisive as a loud, wet raspberry and about as full of topical gravitas as the Dark Horse comic book on which it’s based…Mystery Men is one half of a very funny movie, and as we enter these dog days of August, half a funny movie is better than none.”
If anything, Mystery Men suffers from the same problem as Batman Returns (1992), in that it has too many colorful, intriguing characters and not enough time over its 120 minutes to develop all of them. With something like seven main characters, it often feels like some of their motivation for certain actions was left on the cutting room floor. For example, we have no idea how Mr. Furious, the Shoveler and the Blue Raja find Invisible Boy; they just show up at his door one day. This is just sloppy editing and pacing. However, it is credit to the actors that their performances are what hold this movie together. While the satirical elements of Mystery Men are nothing new if you've seen or read the fantastic comic book/cartoon, The Tick, it is still an entertaining, enjoyable movie.
Harris, Will. “Random Roles: Hank Azaria.” The A.V. Club. September 14, 2011.