This has to be some kind of a joke, right?
A largely original superhero movie comes out, featuring an all-star cast, garnering pretty good advance reviews, and being released in what is arguably the primer era of quirky movies… and it bombs? Say it ain’t so!
Even though it might not feel so “throwback” to some, 17 years ago we were treated to one of the biggest head-scratchers in recent “why didn’t this work?” memory. Perhaps it was a film that was just a little ahead of its time and missed the superhero movie explosion by a half-decade or so, but in 1999 audiences (those that went to see it, anyway) were treated to ‘Mystery Men,’ a tale of a team of lesser superheroes who are thrown into service to save their city, with unexpected and highly quirky results. It’s one of my personal all-time favorite films, and I’m here to tell you all about it in today’s Throwback Thursday column, ScienceFiction.com’s look back at the great science fiction of the past.
First and foremost, check out this cast listing – still some very big names even today, and an especially impressive list at the turn of the century. You’ve got Ben Stiller in the lead role as Mr. Furious, the unofficial leader of the group, whose “superpower” is that he gets really, really, really angry (he got so angry he lifted a bus once… about an inch off the ground, while the driver had his foot on the gas pedal) and thinks of better witty comebacks a significant amount of time after he has the chance to say them. William H. Macy plays The Shoveler, a man gifted with the extraordinary ability to “shovel better than any man I’ve ever seen,” according to his wife (who is pretty tired of his vigilante-esque shenanigans). Rounding out the team’s line-up are Janeane Garofalo as The Bowler (a gal who just wants to be done with her mystical father’s skull embedded in her bowling ball), Hank Azaria as Blue Raja (a confusingly-named, British-accented thrower of silverware), Kel Mitchell as Invisible Boy (who can only turn invisible when no one – not even himself – is looking), and Paul Reubens as The Spleen (he’s got super-powerful farts, enough said). The team is “mentored” by the platitude-spouting Sphinx (Wes Studi), and they are pressed into heroic action when Champion City’s only real superhero, the heavily-corporate-sponsored Captain Amazing (Greg Kinnear) is captured by evil supervillain Casanova Frankenstein (Geoffrey Rush), who finally realizes that all the superheroes in town are actually idiots and he’s way smarter than the combined lot. Notable cameos include comedians Dane Cook, Dana Gould, and Artie Lange, along with movie mega-producer Michael Bay, Lena Olin, Tom Waits, Doug Jones, CeeLo Green, and a fabulous turn by Eddie Izzard as the leader of Casanova Frankenstein’s evil henchmen, The Disco Boys.
With an estimated budget of around $68 million, the movie only made about $33 million during its theatrical run, marking it as a decidedly financial flop. Which is strange, as the film received no major negative reviews before its release; Rotten Tomatoes has the film at 60% “fresh,” and Metacritic rates it as a 65/100 – not thrilling numbers, to be sure, but far from sub-average as well. The movie has gained a bit of a cult following on home video, largely thanks to its infinitely-enjoyable quotability; every few minutes on-screen, it seems, another character says something so delightfully random that it simply requires repeating out loud.
Where did the idea for the film originate? With one of the most oddball comic series of all time: The Flaming Carrot, of course. A character that’s been around in print pages since the early 1980s, the “Mystery Men” were a group of second-rate superheroes that appeared in the pages of his comics, albeit with some fairly liberal interpretations of the characters making their way into the film. This is most likely due to the logistics of film-making – quite frankly, the comic characters are so damn weird, it was going to be very hard to physically get them to translate onto the screen. Even The Flaming Carrot himself didn’t make the cut to appear in the movie; when your character is a 4-foot-long carrot strapped to a human body where a head normally is, wearing underwater foot-fins all the time and literally flaming from the top of his carroty stalk, I guess I can see how daunting of a task it seems to bring to life in a physical environment.
But history be damned! This movie is fun and enjoyable in all the right ways. From the ridiculous-but-oddly-grounded-in-reality situations the team finds itself in to the so-weird-it’s-right dialogue and tete-a-tetes between the characters, ‘Mystery Men’ is truly deserving of your viewership and your praise. Heck, even the Mystery Men don’t even know that they have that cool team nickname: a news reporter says it towards the end of the film, but the team members are too busy arguing with each other to even hear her.
The movie’s got jokes galore – it’s just too bad that the biggest joke is how poorly it did in front of theatrical audiences. At least it hasn’t given up and lives on in relative infamy on home video – as Mr. Furious might say, “They must have ripped the ‘Q’ section out of my dictionary, ’cause I don’t know the meaning of the word ‘quit!'”
Tony Schaab misses ‘Futurama’ so much that he made himself a best friend out of a silver trash can and has daily internal debates about cutting off his head and sticking it in a jar. A lover of most things sci-fi and horror, Tony is an author by day and a DJ by night. Come hang out with Tony on Facebook and Twitter to hear him spew semi-funny nonsense and get your opportunity to finally put him in his place.