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SYFY WIRE Superheroes

An Ode to Mystery Men's The Bowler, A Superheroine Ahead of Her Time

Janeane Garofalo and The Bowler from Mystery Men, how do we love thee? Let us count the ways....

By Tara Bennett

In 2023, it's easy to take for granted having a wide variety of female superheroes in live-action movies and television to admire and represent the broad spectrum of women that come in all races, shapes, and sizes. But back in 1999, it was slim pickin's, my friends. To find a woman hero who was competent, funny, and not just cheesecake in spandex, you could watch reruns of Lynda Carter in Wonder Woman, seek out Helen Slater in Supergirl (1984), or admire Sarah Michelle Gellar paving a very new path as Buffy Summers in the Buffy the Vampire Slayer series, but that was about it.  

And then on August 6, 1999, Mystery Men (streaming now on Peacock!) rolled into theaters featuring a justifiably tired and angry superhero named The Bowler. 

A Look Back at Janeane Garofalo's The Bowler in Mystery Men

Traditionally known as Carol (Janeane Garofalo), she became The Bowler in the wake of her superhero father's untimely death. A known hero of Champion City, Carmine the Bowler perished at the hands of the Disco Boys. At the time, Carol was just an average grad student, but his death propelled her towards a new destiny. When the spirit of her dead father (attached to his skull) returned to her, it made for one hell of a disarming moment, for sure. But it was also Carol's turning point to heed her dad's call for vengeance and honor his request to kill Tony P. and his Boys. She suited up, and for ease of movement, had Carmine's skull placed inside a bowling ball so they could work together. 

Mystery Men (1999)

In terms of origin stories, they don't get more twisted and dark than The Bowler's. Unless we're talking Ghost Rider or Spawn, not many live-action superheroes in film and TV were allowed to have bleak origin stories. And that's why the double whammy of The Bowler being an independent woman hero, while possessing the darkest story of the whole Mystery Men team was so startling and appreciated. And then casting comedian Janeane Garofalo, who was known for speaking her mind and her hilariously candid stand-up, to embody The Bowler was like the perfect marriage of character to actor. 

RELATED: How 'Mystery Men' was inspired by a zany comic about a superhero with a combustible carrot head

For all its flaws, Mystery Men never pulled punches with her character. Right from Carol's audition introduction scene, The Bowler was written and played as being way too good and smart for these goobers. She doesn't suffer fools and stands up for herself, whether it's clearly spurning The Spleen's (Paul Ruebens) advances or calling Mr. Furious (Ben Stiller) out on his petulant behavior. There weren't characters like her almost anywhere, which made The Bowler such a revelation at the time. She was kind when it was called for and unapologetically frank in speaking her peace, all the attributes that were not freely given to female superheroes. Punk, angry, and whip smart, The Bowler truly made inroads for women in the superhero space.

The Bowler even gets to be the hero in the final battle against Casanova Frankenstein (Geoffrey Rush) and his gang of allies. She avenges her father by taking out Tony P. and the Disco Boys, and uses Carmine's skull to pummel the Psycho-frakulator ray to dust, saving Champion City. Female heroines didn't get those kinds of moments in action films, which is part of the reason why Mystery Men endures. The Bowler character paved the way for the next generation of superhero women that we see regularly today.

Twenty-five years ago, The Bowler became an icon for goth, punk, and outsider women who wanted to see themselves saving the day without having to look or be perfect. Garofalo sold that fantasy perfectly, and to this day, we salute our green-haired queen for breaking down walls, and Psycho-frakulators, like a boss. 

Watch Mystery Men now on Peacock