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In the current age of cinematic comic book universes that only get stranger with the passage of time, the idea of a superhero with a fiery root vegetable for a noggin may not be the tough sell it once was — especially now that modern CGI tools can bring even the most outlandish of characters to life.
Twenty years ago, however, the prospect of adapting a crime-fighter like Bob Burden's Flaming Carrot for the silver screen was just too bizarre — and almost laughable to a certain extent. "Because there was no good CGI back then, we were worried about Flaming Carrot coming out like that Howard the Duck thing, which was a complete disaster," the writer/illustrator tells SYFY WIRE while recounting how the comic eventually found its way to the big screen in 1999's Mystery Men (now streaming on Peacock!). "This giant flaming carrot head was preposterous. In order to ride in the car, he’d burn the ceiling. It was a joke unto itself."
Nevertheless, Hollywood had taken an interest in Burden's "New Wave" ethos that provided creators and readers with "an escape from the grind of [the] corporate steamroller, one size fits everyone mentality." As such, it was only fitting that a company named Dark Horse would be the one to publish Burden's gonzo comic book ideas, which he saw as a surrealist cocktail of "Pee-Wee Herman and Saturday Night Live with storylines instead of skits."
His work ultimately caught the attention of producer Lawrence Gordon and Universal Pictures, who decided to take a stab at a team of heroes first introduced in the pages of Flaming Carrot — the Mystery Men — whose ranks included eccentric do-gooders like The Shoveler, Mr. Furious, Blue Raja, and The Spleen.
"I was constantly creating new oddball characters and having fun doing that," Burden explains. "I always liked creating characters and all of a sudden — BOOM! — The Mystery Men was what flew moreso than Flaming Carrot." While the vegetable-headed hero would have to sit on the sidelines, the loose film adaptation of Mystery Men would still be an expression of Burden's desire to deviate from longstanding comic book tradition, which dictated that a hero must "have superpowers and a secret identity [and] that was it."
Flaming Carrot (and by extension, the Mystery Men) were conceived as "blue-collar, mill-town" heroes with "mediocre" abilities. "They weren't glamorous. That was sort of a revisionist position over what Marvel and DC had done," Burden continues. "DC had upper-class, god-like, superheroes [like] Superman, Wonder Woman, and Green Lantern. They have these magical, incredible powers that can do almost anything ... With Flaming Carrot, I did the working-class, blue-collar guy that was that was fighting on, even though he didn't have really great powers."
The film industry took that premise and amended it to tell a story about a ragtag crew of "wannabe superheroes," Burden says. "In Hollywood, there's a pejorative term called ‘wannabe,’ and it was very pervasive at the time … What that means is, ‘You're an amateur, get out of my way. I’m better than you.’"
Despite this change from the source material, Mystery Men still operates as a meta deconstruction of the comic book genre, subverting cliched tropes that have come to define the medium, while acerbically poking fun at celebrity culture and capitalism run amok two whole decades before The Boys showed up on the scene. "The input I had on the film was almost indirect and subversive," Burden explains. "For instance, I had the idea of putting ads on the side of the Mystery Men gunship, which was a helicopter. Instead, they put that on Captain Amazing [played by Greg Kinnear]. He had all these corporate logos all over him."
When self-absorbed Captain Amazing is held hostage by the sociopathic villain Casanova Frankenstein (Geoffrey Rush), it's up to a collection of bickering, D-list heroes to save the day: Mr. Furious (Ben Stiller), The Shoveler (William H. Macy), Blue Raja (Hank Azaria), The Bowler (Janeane Garofalo), The Invisible Boy (Kel Mitchell), and The Spleen (Paul Ruebens). Say what you will about this movie, but there's no denying that it had a seriously talented cast.
Oh, and let's not forget that Mystery Men marked the first big screen usage of Smash Mouth's "All Star" (the official music video even incorporates scenes from the movie) two years before DreamWorks' irascible ogre got his green hands on it. "I love that song," Burden adds. "The problem is they just used it a couple times [in the] movie. I think they were saving it for Shrek. They said, ‘This is too good to waste on this movie. We'll save it for something else,’ and it wound up being the theme song to Shrek."
Mystery Men hit the big screen on Aug. 6, 1999 — the same weekend as The Sixth Sense and a week after The Iron Giant and The Blair Witch Project. "When that movie came out, it really got kicked in the teeth by the fact that Star Wars [The Phantom Menace] came out at the beginning of the summer. Everybody jumped to the end of the summer for an August release," Burden says, adding that the film may have also flopped at the box office due to an unclear marketing campaign. "They didn't really know where they were going to place it. Was it gonna be a kiddie film? Was it going to be a Something About Mary-type film?"
Unable to compete with those other genre juggernauts, Mystery Men accrued a lackluster box office draw of just $33 million. "It's a wonder that we did as good as we did," Burden adds. The experience was so harrowing, that director Kinka Usher swore off feature films forevermore and went back to helming commercials. If Burden could go back and hire a different director, he'd go with Paul Thomas Anderson, whose critically-acclaimed Boogie Nights was also produced by Lawrence Gordon two years prior. While Anderson is known for more intimate character dramas, his quirky style may have actually been a perfect fit for something as idiosyncratic as Mystery Men.
"Instead of the superhero industry, [it was about] the porno industry and it was all these kind of brain dead [and] cheesy characters that were ridiculous in a way that was sort of sad and comical at the same time," Burden says, referring to Boogie Nights. "I was kind of hoping to have that heart that they had imbued in that."
A crushing financial disappointment put the kibosh on any potential sequels the studio might have been mulling over, though Burden does admit that the conversation of revisiting the property has been brought up "hundreds of times" over the last 23 years. "They can't really figure out exactly how to play it ... I've talked to some of my people and they say that they have some screenwriters working on the script for both things," he says of Flaming Carrot and Mystery Men. "I think that if I get something else going that's really a big hit, then everything else will follow with it. That's sort of my strategy right now."
Should this unlikely alliance of wannabe crime-fighters ever return to the big screen, Hollywood can probably expect a sizable audience turnout. As is the case with so many films that bombed upon their initial release, Mystery Men has accrued a cult following of sorts, with certain fans starting to reappraise the title. "It did have a certain amount of heart to it," Burden continues. "People are telling me it was ahead of its time. Maybe a new generation [will come to it] ... I grow fonder and fonder [of it] as time goes by."
The writer/illustrator is currently preoccupied with a number of other comic book projects like Hitman for the Dead, which he describes as a "total opposite end of the spectrum-type of project from what I'm normally known for. It's kind of like casting Woody Allen as a leading man in Romeo and Juliet."
He's also working on a book of poetry that will boast an introduction penned by Neil Gaiman and artwork drawn by Dave McKean. "Instead of looking at it as a book of poetry, it's more a book of collaboration between an artist, a poet, and a writer," Burden concludes. "Neil Gaiman, of course is a wonderful writer and Dave McKean is an amazing artist. By all three of us coming together, hopefully it won’t turn into chicken soup."
Mystery Men is now streaming on Peacock.