At the end of my last blog post, I said Mystery Men is “better than all other superhero movies combined”–and that’s me quoting me. I meant it as a joke, but this comment lingered in my mind-brain as I re-watched MM and it’s at least somewhat true. I’ve seen MM at least four times, more than any other superhero movie. MM pairs the rag-tag superhero team concept of Guardians of the Galaxy with the self-awareness of Spiderman: Homecoming and Thor: Raganork (I presume, I’ve never seen Thor). All while being funnier than any of these movies. If that wasn’t enough, MM came out in 1999 when the only big superhero movies of the previous decade had been Tim Burton and Joel Schumacher’s Batman series. You could say MM was well ahead of its time. Let’s list some more ways MM was a trailblazer:
- An outstanding, pitch-perfect cast. The primary roles were filled by Ben Stiller, William H. Macy, Geoffrey Rush, Hank Azaria, and Janeane Garofolo. The secondary roles were filled by world’s greatest actor Greg Kinnear and world’s greatest musician Tom Waits. The tertiary roles were filled by Eddie Izzard and CeeLo Green. Avengers would try much harder and require several movies to get a cast this stacked.
- A great villain. Geoffrey Rush is devilish as Casanova Frankenstein, a villain smart enough to both ensnare his arch-nemesis Captain Amazing and ensure his captivity is escape-free. Until Killmonger, Marvel fans had waited so long for a decent villain they hailed Spiderman: Homecoming’s Vulture as great (he’s really just ok).
- An actual female superhero freed from dependency on a romantic storyline. I love what this review says of Janeane Garofolo’s Bowler: “She doesn’t become anybody’s girlfriend by the end of the movie. She doesn’t have a skimpy costume and she doesn’t get kidnapped…Instead, she’s intelligent and collected and not afraid to piss the group off when she thinks they’re wasting time. She’s a breath of fresh air.” And then a long time passed with lots more superhero movies until we got Wonder Woman.
- A director so mysterious he never directed another movie. Seriously, Kinka Usher‘s one movie credit is Mystery Men and this just adds to the movie’s aura.
I could go on, but hopefully y’all are crazy excited to (re-)watch this movie! Or maybe you’re getting angry like Mr. Furious, because you hate either MM or the shots I fired at Marvel. Either way, please don’t lose these passions as you read & comment on my review!
Mystery Men (1999)
MM was directed by one-hit-wonder Kinka Usher and just watch the dang movie.
Loosely based off a Dark Horse Comics series, MM is set in Champion City which looks exactly like Gotham City. Champion City’s wealthiest billionaire Lance Hunt (Greg Kinnear) disguises himself as beloved superhero Captain Amazing to fight crime. Think Bruce Wayne. MM’s first 30 minutes largely spoofs Batman. Behold your hero:
But there’s a problem. Captain Amazing has done such a good job of ridding the city of villains that he has nothing to do and is losing sponsors (Pepsi!). So Amazing runs through his list of deposed villains to find one to free, re-establish as his arch-nemesis, and thereby be needed by the city once more. He chooses Casanova Frankenstein (Geoffrey Rush), who has spent the last 20 years in an asylum. On his release, Casanova blows up the asylum to lure in Captain Amazing–and captures our beloved superhero.
This leaves the ‘Mystery Men’ to save Captain Amazing. The core group consists of Roy aka Mr. Furious (Ben Stiller), Eddie aka The Shoveler (William H. Macy), and Jeffrey aka Blue Raja (Hank Azaria). Their powers, respectively, are getting really angry, being really good at shoveling, and throwing forks. No, these are not super powers and MM is very self-aware of this: the team rags on Blue Raja’s cutlery choices (“You’re the master of cutlery. You couldn’t throw a knife sometimes when someone’s trying to kill me?”), Eddie’s wife tells it like it is (“You shovel better than any man I’ve known. But that doesn’t make you a superhero”), and Roy is plagued by self-doubt about his abilities.
The team scouts out Casanova’s mansion to form a rescue plan, but is easily thwarted by Casanova’s henchmen the Disco Boys (fronted by Eddie Izzard). Realizing they need a bigger team, they hold tryouts. Making the final cut are Carol the Bowler (Janeane Garofalo), the Spleen (Paul Reubens), and Invisible Boy (Kel Mitchell). Their powers, respectively, are an all-powerful bowling ball containing dead dad’s skull, controlled farts, and invisibility when no one’s looking. Yeah, the woman has the only real super power. Behold your heroes:
The team obtains non-lethal weapons from Doc Heller (Tom Waits) and sets out to rescue Captain Amazing. Sneaking into Casanova’s mansion, they find Amazing trapped in a doomsday device. Casanova has designed this device to brainwash the citizens and seize control of Champion City, but this device can turn a person inside-out making it a handy “jail cell.” Despite their best efforts to pull the right toggles, Captain Amazing ends up fried and the team leaves in despair. After a re-group at Doc Heller’s complete with a pep talk from the Shoveler, the team returns to Casanova’s mansion, fights his henchmen, and destroys his machine. Yay!
This movie is endlessly hilarious. There’s snappy dialogue (the diner scene where the core MM team re-groups after an early embarrassment is exceptional), Dumb and Dumber-esque humor with every Spleen scene, and ridiculous sight gags. The movie is also self-aware, smartly poking fun at superhero costume choices, team names, and the hero-worship endemic to superheroes. A wonderful subplot is how desperate The Shoveler and Blue Raja are for a true leader, which Mr. Furious is not. Their affections are easily captured by first Captain Amazing and then the Sphinx, whose power is “being mysterious.” Of course this only angers Mr. Furious and fuels his self-doubt.
What a great movie. Now let’s talk about Greg.
Let’s cut to the chase, Greg Kinnear is perfect as Captain Amazing. In a nut shell, Kinnear plays the over-confident Bruce Wayne/Batman we all deserve. This review put it best:
“Perhaps the film’s most memorable role belongs to Greg Kinnear, who is typecast to perfection as both smarmy corporate superhero “Captain Amazing”–whose costume is as festooned with the logos of his sponsors as a Nascar driver– and his curiously bespectacled billionaire alter-ego Lance Hunt.”
I finally looked up ‘smarmy,’ since I’ve seen it in several reviews of Kinnear’s performances. It means “revealing or marked by a smug, ingratiating, or false earnestness.” Kinnear’s smarminess is on full display from his first scene where he humors the Mystery Men as they heap praises on him with a face that says “get me out of here.” And he steals every other smarmy scene he’s in. His anger level is perfect as he chides his assistant for losing Pepsi’s sponsorship, while his smugness is top-notch as he encourages the parole board to let Casanova Frankenstein go. He’s the punch line of perhaps the movie’s funniest running joke, which is how bespectacled Lance Hunt could possibly be eyewear-free Captain Amazing. Take this quote, for example:
The Shoveller: “Don’t start that AGAIN. Lance Hunt wears glasses, Captain Amazing DOESN’T wear glasses.”
Mr. Furious: “He takes them off when he transforms…”
The Shoveller: “That doesn’t make any sense, he wouldn’t be able to see!”
Best of all, the movie lets Captain Amazing be the superhero who’s arrogance directly leads to his death. This is a breath of fresh air compared to most superhero movies who let their confident hero ‘learn his lesson’ with no real consequence. In fact, let’s watch his pitch-perfect death scene together:
Ah, what a great scene. Overall, Captain Amazing is a Near-Premier-Kinnear performance, and he’d achieve top honors if he’d had a few more scenes. (He’s mostly out of the movie after the first 30 minutes, but at least we get lots of epic Tom Waits screen time after that).
- Mystery Men is a hilarious superhero movie, well worth your time. Return to my numbered list in the intro for a quick peak into its greatness.
- MM was ahead of its time, flopping at the box office. I don’t think people knew what to do with it, since its sets mimic Batman but the movie was too goofy. Turns out, people wanted to change sets and keep their superhero movies serious. X-Men was a huge hit the next year.
- Kinnear’s performance as Captain Amazing was perfect. Greg strutted the perfect levels of smarminess, arrogance, and frustration in all his scenes.
- It’s a Near-Premier-Kinnear performance for GK (now that’s a mouthful!):
- Next-up: Sunday, June 17 is Father’s Day, but more importantly it’s Greg Kinnear’s birthday! I’ll try to squeeze in a double GK feature next weekend, picking two of his movies where he plays a dad. Y’all can do the same, or get caught up with the movies of this project!
- Finally, Tom Waits is truly my favorite musician. No one writes music as beautifully as Tom and his wife, Kathleen Brennan. Let me leave you with the first song of his I loved:
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