It’s not an easy thing to make a good superhero movie. The spectacle of the heroes themselves, their display of powers, and the kinds of battles they face often can tax the technical merits of any movie-maker. For those with the resources, the use of CGI nowadays certainly helps a lot, but still, what makes a good superhero movie is knowing the medium from whence it came: the comic book. And comic books, it turns out, are really hard to adapt to the screen. One would be forgiven for thinking otherwise, given how comics and movies often employ some of the same visual and staging techniques to tell their stories. But cinematic history is littered with movies about superheroes that a) never felt very super, and b) adapted comic books without capturing the magic that makes them work. This was the case for a solid 20 years or more, until a more recent wave of superhero films really clicked and started delivering repeatable success.
But before then, it was a bad time to be a movie-going comic book geek. Superhero movies lived in this weird twilight zone where they were almost always destined to disappoint, and had to be judged on the earnestness of their attempt. And even by that merciful measure, a lot of comic films still fell short. But there were exceptions, usually because they found some way to break the expectations of a direct comic book adaptation to the screen—like taking the piss out of superheroes themselves and the patently ridiculous conventions by which they exist. That was the angle of Mystery Men, which turned out to be one of the more underrated comic book films you’re ever likely to see.
In Champion City, Mr. Furious, Blue Raja and the Shoveler are three marginal superhero wannabes who suck at crimefighting but are long on guts and dedication. Night after night they fail to foil any crimes, and eventually find themselves in the same mental and emotional territory that any garage band occupies shortly before realizing it’s better off leaving the music business to people who are actually good at it. Meanwhile, Captain Amazing, the city’s apex superhero has virtually eradicated crime all by himself. Facing self-created obsolescence, he gets one of his worst villains, Casanova Frankenstein, released from jail/the loony bin. That plan swiftly goes sideways and results in Amazing’s capture and Champion City in real peril. So, Furious, Raja and the Shoveler join with the Bowler, Spleen, Invisible Boy and the Sphinx—four other heroes as measley as they are—and set off to stop Casanova Frankenstein and his gangs of thematically-oriented minions.
But before they do, they have to figure out how to actually, you know, be somewhat okay at fighting crime. And since they all have superpowers that are essentially worthless (like being able to turn invisible when nobody is looking) or have skills that just barely qualify them to hit people for a living, they have to properly equip themselves. And so they enlist the help of Dr. Heller, a mad scientist living in a junkyard on the edge of town who’s got a whole bunch of crazy experimental weapons cooked up for our heroes. By the time we get to the final showdown at Casanova Frankenstein’s place, all we know is that this is a world where everybody is so ridiculous and inherently incompetent that it kind of doesn’t matter who wins. I mean, you root for the good guys, but would it really be so bad if Frankenstein’s Frak-U-Lator destroyed Champion City? Especially if we could see what happened when it all goes down? Probably not. This movie has a way of making you kind of relax your stance on good versus evil and get a little more invested in capable vs. incompetent.
The moment of truth comes at the very end of the movie in which—and this really doesn’t spoil anything for those of you who haven’t seen this one yet—Mr. Furious jumps from a ledge and as he does, they play the Six Million Dollar Man jumping sound over top of it. That’s it. That’s the moment of truth of Mystery Men. And the reason why is because that one moment really crystallizes this crazy film’s simultaneous love for the geeky background that people like me grew up in, all while gleefully making fun of something it loves. It’s like watching an attack comic go after himself, but somehow, Mystery Men makes it work. By the time we get to the ledge jump, we’ve seen so many comic book conventions revealed to be the silly constructs that they are that we’re ready for the movie to take a potshot at anything else we ever attached to older, cheesy superhero fiction. And so it does. It doesn’t even crack at a comic. It cracks at the kind of show that only worked because back in the late 1970s, kids had to watch something until their next issues of Captain Amazing came out. A show where a tracksuit-wearing cyborg fights Bigfoot is easily as dumb as any comic ever was.
And while this satire works as a comedic comment on the nature of superheroes themselves, it also stands out as a comment on Hollywood’s long-lived inability to make good superhero movies. Deep down, Mystery Men is cracking wise at every single time we all geeked up and marched off to the theaters, knowing that the latest superhero flick was never going to deliver the goods. It was laughing at us from a place of love, or at least shared experience, and even that was something worth holding on to. When you’re in the desert, even a glass of water with ink in it is going to parch the driest of throats. So drink up, heroes! Until a decent comic book movies comes along, you might as well watch one with sniper farts, undead bowling balls and disco assassins.