It’s easy to feel like superhero franchises are taking over pop culture. By the end of the year, Disney will have released nine separate entries into their Marvel Cinematic Universe just in 2021 and the studio has over a dozen other projects still in the pipeline for the next few years with no signs of slowing down. That’s to say nothing about Warner Bros. and their expansive slate of films and television based on DC Comics characters. There’s only so many times a viewer can watch origin story after origin story of beautiful people in great shape awash in CGI before realizing the movies all feel pretty much the same. Thankfully, the Ben Stiller-led superhero film “Mystery Men” is the complete antithesis of these high-profile superhero blockbusters — and that’s a good thing.
“Mystery Men” is a 1999 ensemble comedy about a group of underdog superheroes with unimpressive powers. There’s Mr. Furious (Ben Stiller), who claims to grow stronger when in a rage like the Hulk but who never seems able to prove it. The Shoveller (William H. Macy) possesses the power of “above-average shovelling.” Rounding out the team is Hank Azaria as Blue Raja, the self-proclaimed master of cutlery who boasts the skill to throw spoons and forks — and not much else — with perfect accuracy. These three operate as a team of low-level superheroes helping to defend Champion City without much success. When the evil Cassanova Frankenstein (Geoffrey Rush in his Hollywood debut) kidnaps the only real superhero in town, the Mystery Men are the only ones dumb enough to try and stop him.
What sets “Mystery Men” apart from lesser superhero sendups like Will Smith’s “Hancock” or “Super” by Marvel darling James Gunn is the film’s earnestness. Director Kinka Usher, known primarily for his award-winning “Got Milk?” commercials, embraces the genre of superhero films while also lampooning exactly how ridiculous the idea of superpowers seems. The city in the film is in awe of a superhero (Greg Kinnear) who goes by the name Captain Awesome. It's a name that’s extremely on the nose but no less aggrandizing than a hero who dubs himself Superman. Even while delivering this commentary on the genre, Usher still tells a story about a group of unlikely heroes that is just as earnest as anything Marvel has released. Even James Gunn’s hits “Guardians of the Galaxy” and “The Suicide Squad” have more in common with “Mystery Men” than they do Gunn’s own similar 2000 effort, “The Supers.” That’s not to say some of the most popular superhero films of the past decade are a direct result of a cult classic like “Mystery Men” but there is certainly enough reason to give pause.
The writing is another highlight of the film. Even a star-studded cast would not have a leg to stand on if the script doesn’t deliver. “Mystery Men” manages to balance absurdist gross-out humor — such as Paul Reubens as The Spleen, a hero whose bodily odors leave his enemies reeling — with the rapid-fire dry humor one would expect from “Airplane” or “Frasier.” In one interaction, two of the heroes discuss Captain Awesome’s secret identity. Mr. Furious insists he must be reclusive billionaire Lance Hunt, only to be rebuffed because Hunt, in classic Superman style, wears glasses while Captain Awesome does not. When he points out Hunt could just take the glasses off, he’s met with a reply of “That doesn't make any sense. He wouldn't be able to see!”
“Mystery Men” is the perfect film for anybody tired of the formulaic nature of modern superhero movies. It’s a comedy with just as much heart as it has humor and a cast of comedic heavyweights including Ben Stiller and Hank Azaria elevates the fun just as much as the script itself. The film is rated PG-13 and currently streaming on Netflix.