[Lost In The Gutters] ‘MYSTERY MEN’ – Ahead Of Its Time Or Should Stay Left Behind?

In honor of BIRDS OF PREY coming out this week, we are having a week-long theme of looking at some under-appreciated, overlooked, or really just bizarre superhero and comic book-based films. Daily Grindhouse presents…Lost In The Gutters: Odd Superhero and Comic Book Films Week.

Lost in the Gutters Header Image covers only

In the past week I’ve participated in two Twitter conversations that essentially boiled down to ruminations over how reviews age over time. We ostensibly all learn, grow and change over time, and so do our opinions and perceptions of art. I feel like the inconsistency between how we feel about a film at release and how we feel about it decades, years or even months afterward is worth a conversation.

Case in point: MYSTERY MEN. When director Kinka Usher’s 1999 adaptation of the obscure Bob Burden comic was released, geeks were still collectively clutching a monkey’s paw and willing licensed Superhero Movies into existence. Sure, we had the Superman and Batman classics, but beyond that audiences’ options were limited to SPAWN, THE PHANTOM, and a strange trove of Cold War-era Marvel-licensed experiments in cinematic psychological warfare.

Flaming Carrot Comics Mystery Men

Hindsight being twenty-twenty, I think there was a general hope the next Superhero Movie would be the big leap forward that opened the flood-gates to bigger, better-known properties. (We didn’t realize 1998’s BLADE had already lit the fuse that would lead to X-MEN and the reshaping of the tentpole industry as we knew it) When MYSTERY MEN came along it was viewed, despite its TICK-like satirical roots, through this lens of anticipation and expectation, and found wanting.

For anyone not waiting for that next great Comic Book Movie, MYSTERY MEN was an over-budgeted comedy about D-level superheroes with an astonishing cast for its day. Ben Stiller, Hank Azaria, William H. Macy, Janeane Garofalo, Geoffrey Rush, Greg Kinnear, Eddie Izzard, and even Paul Reubens in his first onscreen role since his public cancellation in 1991. It’s easy to understand why some audiences didn’t know what to make of it. Somewhere in all the fury, fork-flinging, and flatulence were a number of actors who had won Oscars within the last decade.

Coming back to my original point: viewed today, MYSTERY MEN likely reads differently to both of these groups. Superhero Movies have so thoroughly permeated our culture in recent years that, what was once a throwback to the days of the 50-cent comic-rack, now feels timelier than ever, poking fun at tropes and clichés audiences of nearly every age and background can easily understand because they see them all the time.

Angsty origin stories, secret identity melodrama and flimsy disguises have been a part of the public consciousness for decades, but have only recently been regularly twisted, subverted, remixed and reserved to mainstream audiences to they degree they are now. To put it another way, MYSTERY MEN was a satire of a genre much of the world wasn’t quite fluent in yet, and today it feels less like an over-budgeted Ben Stiller comedy and more like an absurdist WATCHMEN. It somehow both blends in and stands out more now that the field is significantly more crowded.

MYSTERY MEN (1999) Janeane Garofalo, Kel Mitchell, Wes Studi, William H Macy, Paul Reubens, Ben Stiller, Hank Azaria assembled

This isn’t to say you’re going to revisit MYSTERY MEN and discover a transcendent experience you somehow missed two decades(!) ago. Some of the gags run long or stale; Ben Stiller, for better or worse, plays a slightly angrier version of the same whiny windbags he plays in movies like MEET THE PARENTS and MADAGASCAR; and ‘All-Star’ still needle-drops in uninvited.

Of course by that same token, Garofolo still has one of the coolest Superhero gimmicks ever put on screen to this day, and it’s still the best non-Pee-Wee performance of Ruebens’ career. It’s a bit of a trade-off, depending on how strongly you feel about these things, and even in retrospect the mixed reception it received at release seems fairly earned. That said, it’s worth revisiting today if only to re-examine it from a completely different post-AVENGERS angle, 2o years after it was one of the first major films to attempt a super-team onscreen.

MYSTERY MEN (1999) Movie Poster

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