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Mystery Men, written by Neil Cuthbert from the comic by Bob Burden, directed by Kinka Usher, 1999, 120 min.

Mystery Men is a superhero spoof in the vein of The Tick. Successful superhero spoofs don't happen very often, mainly because the superhero genre verges dangerously on self-parody even without the efforts of someone trying for a laugh. Balancing the laughs with the needs of the superhero story is almost impossibly difficult, and the audience for the result can sometimes be a vanishingly small niche. In the case of The Tick, a Saturday morning cartoon version aired for two or three years on Fox early in the 1990s, only to be cancelled, and the recent live-action version of The Tick lasted only nine episodes on Fox. I was the niche for this type of show, but other viewers didn't seem to care for the peculiar mix of the live-action version (I still don't care for it as much as I did the cartoon or the original comic book). Similarly, Mystery Men has a strange combination of elements that doesn't always work onscreen; it's a movie with good intentions and a healthy dose of laughs, but unfortunately, it left me unsatisfied.

Mystery Men tells the story of a group of second-string superheroes who have always lived in the shadow of Captain Amazing. The movie opens with a robbery that takes place in a nursing home; the gang called the Red Eyes is busy stealing watches and jewelry when three heroes enter, Mr. Furious (who has the power to get angry), the Shoveller (logically, he uses a shovel), and the Blue Raja (master of silverware). But their meagre powers can't stand up to the Red Eyes, and when Captain Amazing arrives to save the day, he has no need to share the credit. Our gang of heroes retire to their favourite cafe and bemoan their injuries, while Captain Amazing bemoans the exact opposite problem: he has vanquished all of the interesting supervillains and has no further opportunities for glory. Unfortunately for him, he is also somewhat dimwitted, so when he engineers the release of the supervillain Casanova Frankenstein from an insane asylum, his plan backfires almost immediately and he is captured by his archenemy. Mr. Furious has witnessed the disappearance of Captain Amazing somewhere in Casanova Frankenstein's mansion, so he and his friends are determined to rescue the Captain.

The plot of the movie becomes the story of three attempts to break into the mansion. Mr. Furious, the Shoveller, and the Blue Raja first decide that they'll do the rescue themselves; this ends in an ignominous defeat at the hands of the Disco Boys who are guarding the place. This scene begins with a hilarious bit of mockery, where our heroes are incredulous that the Disco Boys would be so unimaginative as to use guns as their main weapons, a scene which has a lovely payoff later in the movie. Next, they decide to augment their superhero team, which is all the excuse that's needed for a wacky superhero tryout sequence. This part can be a bit mean-spirited (the PMS Avenger will be familiar even to those who only saw the trailers for the movie), poking fun at these poor deluded people, who all thought they had superpowers of some kind. Aren't Mr. Furious and friends the same kind of people? Needless to say, they accumulate a band of seven heroes in total, but again, the movie confounds our expectations by what happens next. I won't ruin the surprise of Captain Amazing's fate; the good guys have to regroup and try to foil Casanova Frankenstein's plans again later.

I like how, at several points in the movie, our heroes manage to eliminate the guns of their enemies. Overall, this is a neat subplot, and one that has a deft resolution during the third attempt to break into the mansion.

The characters of the movie are a delight and the veteran actors cast for the film took to their personas with a certain vivid glee. Ben Stiller is Mr. Furious, whose power is getting mad, such as the scene of the attack on the villain's limo, when he was doing his best to injure the hood ornament. Janeane Garofalo is The Bowler -- sharp-tongued, dry-witted, and maybe just a little cracked. William Macy puts in a fabulous performance as the man who shovels well but gets almost no respect for it. He might seem dim -- as with the hilarious conversation about why Lance Hunt, the millionaire playboy, can't be the same person as Captain Amazing -- but he has soul, and of the kind rarely found these days. The movie also features Geoffrey Rush as the villain, Greg Kinnear as Captain Amazing, Tom Waits, Hank Azaria, Eddie Izzard, and others. It's a large cast, which creates problems for the overall pace of the movie.

The movie feels about twenty minutes too long, but as can be seen in the twenty minutes of deleted scenes on the DVD, the film-makers have already cut a significant amount of material. Some further tightening of the pace would have helped the comic timing of the film, as happened with the zippy pace of Men in Black. As it stands, Mystery Men seems bloated, dragged down by its own length, as well as its overwrought visual design. Less is more, in a case like this.

DVD Note: The DVD version of Mystery Men comes with twenty minutes of deleted scenes (of only mild interest, as are most deleted scenes), a twenty minute Spotlight on Location documentary (decent), and some text that describes the background of the comic book by Bob Burden. I love the fact that Burden had hundreds of Mystery Men due to their high fatality rate! The movie also comes with an audio commentary by the director, Kinka Usher, who talks a lot about his cast and what it was like to direct thirteen principal characters. He also overpraises the busy set design. This DVD has just the right amount of extras, not too much, not too little.

Last modified: February 24, 2004

Copyright © 2004 by James Schellenberg (

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