Loser Superheroes

Mystery MenI was surprised to see that Netflix gave me a “best guess” rating of 4.1 stars for Mystery Men. I recalled watching it a long time ago. I really wanted to see it because it looked like the kind of silly madness that I very much enjoy. But the film turned out to be only okay. There are obvious problems with it. The acting is jarringly uneven. (This is always a problem when Ben Stiller is in a movie, but it goes beyond that here.) Much of the humor is infantile. And the whole thing is over produced and distracts from the charm that the film has.

But I sat down and watched it again. And I have to admit that it was funnier than I had remembered. It certainly suffers from too much high concept, but there are times when it works. I very much liked the whole Bowler character of Janeane Garofalo. She is the sanest of the superheroes, except that she is always having conversations with her dead father whose skull is inside her bowling ball. And Hank Azaria’s The Blue Raja is very funny in that he throws cutlery—but no knives. That would be too obvious.

The main problem is that the script seems like it was written by two writers. Only one writer is given credit, Neil Cuthbert, but I seriously doubt that a $68 million comedy didn’t have a string of writers working on it. Screenwriting credit normally goes to whatever writers nailed down the dramatic structure. But the problem I see is that there are two kinds of loser superheroes. There are those who have bizarre but real abilities like Paul Reubens whose Spleen character can launch targeted farts that incapacitate foes. And then there are those like Ben Stiller’s Mr. Furious who are simply deluded.

The problem with this is that the viewer is never settled. You’re not sure what world you are in. I think both ideas are brilliant. We all know the successful superheroes. But wouldn’t there be a lot of not so successful superheroes who have lesser powers? The film is based on Flaming Carrot Comics, which takes the other approach. The Flaming Carrot is just an idiot who succeeds through luck and a gun. Indeed, the characters from the series that show up in the movie are of the deluded variety: Mr. Furious and The Shoveler.

But why would The Bowler have anything to do with The Shoveler, a character whose only real super power is the ability to hit people with a snow shovel? Or Mr. Furious who once pushed a bus, although the driver helped by applying his foot to the accelerator? The Bowler is a real superhero—in a bizarre take on Captain America. So is (God help us!) The Spleen—in a bizarre take on every superhero ever. And to a lesser extent so is The Blue Raja. So it’s just a mess.

Add to this the fact that a much better film could have been made out of Casanova Frankenstein and Captain Amazing, and you have a very frustrating experience. It isn’t that I want Mystery Men to be something different than it is (although that wouldn’t be a bad idea). It is just that I want it to be something. The whole script seems like the result of a lot of creativity. But the writer never pulled it together into a cohesive whole.

All of this isn’t to say that it isn’t an enjoyable film. It is, for example, better than pretty much every straight superhero film ever made. Because it, at least, knows that the whole genre is a joke. And Mystery Men does a good job of lampooning most aspects of it. So it is worth watching if you have any interest in superheroes or are just looking for a silly and often funny film. But it could have been great.

Afterword

I think that Netflix is right, though; I have to give it four stars.

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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

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