I think the reason modern audiences have so passionately gravitated to superheroes over the past 15 years or so is the fundamental stance of moral absolutism that comes from superhero comics. One needs look no further than Marvel collector cards to see that comic book universes are divided into three very clearly delineated classes: Super Heroes, Super Villains, and the rest of us.
Super Heroes do noble things, fight for righteousness and justice, and protect the hoi polloi. Super Villains do wicked things, work for themselves, and seek to destroy ordinary people. The Ordinary People, in comic books, are typically an abstract and faceless mass that is sometimes represented only by a hero’s loved ones… but more typically, a crowd of gawking New Yorkers.
It’s easy to see the theological parallels, isn’t it?
In the 1990s, before the superhero boom began, there was a general cultural sense that the world was already way past this sort of oversimplified moral absolutism. In comics, the ’80s saw superheroes take a turn for the dark, facing morally gray areas and recognizing that Super Heroes and Super Villains were fundamentally similar — in that they were both sociopaths who played by their own rules, free of the fetters of human law. In the ’80s, much of comic-book-dom began to skew into the absurd and toward satire. Comics like LOBO, HOWARD THE DUCK, and TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES were actively taking the piss out of comics.
The height of superhero absurdism came in the form of Bob Burden’s FLAMING CARROT in 1979. The Flaming Carrot, in a modern spin on the DON QUIXOTE story, was an ordinary man who, on a dare, read 10,000 superhero comic books in a row. This drove him mad, forcing him into a life of crime-fighting, but as a superhero with an ineffably bizarre theme: He wore an enormous carrot mask, topped with a flame. He wore swim fins (in case he has to swim), and traveled around town on a nuclear-powered pogo stick. Oh yes, and he has a mysterious speaker implanted in his chest that occasionally gives him advice from an unknown source.
As a child of the 1980s and 1990s, I was raised on a steady diet of absurdism, parody, and deconstruction. Superheroes were still in full swing, and comic books were selling better than ever, but — it is generally agreed — superhero comics were at a low ebb in terms of quality. Image Comics was turning the form into dumb, empty spectacle (when it wasn’t publishing THE MAXX), and the Big Two (Marvel and DC) were turning out weirder and weirder ideas. It was ripe time for cartoon shows like THE TICK, EARTHWORM JIM and FREAKAZOID!, three of my personal favorites.
And right at the end of the 1990s, we were treated to what may be the crown jewel of pre-boom superhero movies — Kinka Usher’s underrated cult hit MYSTERY MEN.
MYSTERY MEN was, in comic book form, an offshoot of FLAMING CARROT, and featured a team of bizarro superheroes with weird powers. There was Mr. Furious, who became so angry, he turned bulletproof. There was Screwball, with his pet living shoelace. There was Jumpin’ Jehoshaphat. And there was Bondo Man, the Man of Living Bondo. Several of these — and a few new faces — were adapted to the big screen in what may be one of the oddest major studio products to come out of the 1990s. It’s also one of the best entertainments for that decade.
The comics, as you may intuit, were merely an extension of the satirical FLAMING CARROT original, offering little more than a rogues gallery of mad weirdos who fought other mad weirdos in a world tempered by madness. The film version, by contrast, took those outsider characters and forced them to stay on the outside.
The central conceit of MYSTERY MEN was that the title characters were second-and-third-tier superheroes in a world that is already being effectively protected by the handsome Captain Amazing. The major criminals have already been dealt with, but some still dream of stopping crime with their (limited) abilities.
As such, Mr. Furious (Ben Stiller), The Shoveler (William H. Macy), and Blue Raja, Master of Silverware (Hank Azaria), are simply trying to get a foothold in the world of superhero-dom using what dubious talents they have. The story kicks off when one of the world’s only remaining supervillains, Casanova Frankenstein (Geoffrey Rush), kidnaps Captain Amazing (Greg Kinnear), and our three heroes must recruit a new team to help them free him.
On the team is The Bowler (Janeane Garofalo), The Spleen (Paul Ruebens), The Invisible Boy (Kel Mitchell), and the mysterious The Sphinx (Wes Studi). They are provided nonlethal weapons by the eccentric Dr. Heller (Tom Waits).
If this all sounds like a strange, goofy idea, it is. MYSTERY MEN has something that too few feature films possess: The conviction of its own oddness. Kinka Usher — a commercial director who has only helmed this one feature — knew these were weird characters within a weird premise, and was wise enough to run with that. As such, we can giggle at their odd powers (The Spleen has the ability to knock people out with well-aimed flatulence), but still sympathize with their oddball personalities. These people are not outsiders because the screenplay insists on it; they are outsiders because they are genuinely and wholeheartedly weird. These people are the real deal. They want — want — to be superheroes so, so badly.
I have seen many, many films that deal with the plight of the outsider — high-school-set films about people who are not within the circle of “popular” kids, or faceless wonks within the corporate workplace. These people feel like outsiders because they are not popular or graceful, and the films which feature them elicit audience sympathy from that longing to be popular.
But I would argue that most of the figures in “outsider” themed films aren’t outsiders at all. They are merely ordinary. Ordinary people longing to be extraordinary is actually very common, and doesn’t necessarily make for compelling drama. If you want to depict a real outsider, depict a real outsider. Someone who you don’t quite understand. Someone whose passions are truly off the beaten path. The Mystery Men are people who cannot ever be part of the mainstream. There’s a tragedy to that, of course, but there’s also a lot to be optimistic about — the longing and the trying gives these people life meaning.
That celebration of the outsider is what makes MYSTERY MEN so brilliant. On a surface level, it’s a film that stands up for the little guy, and indeed there is dialogue to that effect; the film ends with a dedication to the people you never look at, but who work very hard. Like toll booth operators, or those who listen to local music and seek out independent film. But more than that, by allowing the characters to be their own odd selves — indeed, by featuring characters who fight to maintain their oddness — it celebrates the weirdos in a way most film don’t even try.
By celebrating that weirdness, MYSTERY MEN reveals a clever subversion of superheroes that we rarely bother to acknowledge, even in our most fervent think-pieces and conversations: That superheroes are inherently silly. Being a vengeful vigilante is, let’s face it, a dumb thing to do. It puts you on the wrong side of the law, and, in real life, wouldn’t work out the way you think it does. More oddly, why does one need a costume to fight crime as a freelance cop? Batman has little pointed ears on his outfit, and the comics (and movies) have done all manner of backflips to explain why those are necessary. Would Batman be Batman without the costume? Not really. Superheros are all weirdos, and the very notion of a superhero is, in a realistic sense, silly. MYSTERY MEN just had the chutzpah to say it out loud.
The screenplay to MYSTERY MEN (by Neil Cuthbert of HOCUS POCUS fame and THE ADVENTURES OF PLUTO NASH infamy) is masterfully comedic. There is clever wordplay, funny conversation, some legitimate banter, and a fistful of gorgeous malapropisms.
Mr. Furious, in one scene, refers to himself as a “Pantera’s Box of rage.” The villain corrects him: It’s Pandora’s Box. His quick response is: “Don’t correct me. It sickens me.” The dialogue is wry, self-aware, and yet delightfully clueless. These characters are allowed to be who they are, and speak how they speak. It doesn’t hurt that the lines are being spoken by an amazing cast of comedic actors who infuse their characters with a huge amount of personality.
MYSTERY MEN has a small cult following, and is constantly ripe for discovery by weird kids who know, at the end of the day, how silly a lot of this superhero stuff can be. It’s an inspiring, colorful, subversive and satirical film with numerous laugh lines, a great cast, and a compelling look. It’s as shiny as BATMAN FOREVER, but uses its aesthetics in a smarter way.
Go check it out. Check it out again. Smile with the weirdness. The world needs more of that.