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The heart of ‘Mystery Men’ will always set it apart: stream now on Peacock

"We're not your classic heroes. We're not the favorites. We're the other guys. We're the guys nobody ever bets on.”

By Brian Silliman
Mystery Men (1999)

They weren’t a wolf pack; they were more like a six pack. Before the Marvel Cinematic Universe, before whatever will come out of James Gunn’s DCU, and before a billion deconstructions of the superhero genre, there was Mystery Men. The 1999 movie adaptation by Kinka Usher bombed at the box office, possibly because 1999 was packed with movies of all kinds. But it shouldn't have, it's full of heart and it's currently streaming on Peacock, so if you’ve never seen it, now is a fine time to get streaming.

It may have been a financial failure years ago, but Mystery Men has found plenty of admirers over the years. Like so many other projects, it deconstructs superhero stories. It came well before The Boys was ever a thing. It stands apart mostly thanks to heart and sentiment. There’s no “we’re all screwed” mentality at work. 

It is a comedy (and a successful one), but it isn’t a violent spree like Kick Ass. It pokes fun at the genre, but it doesn’t make you want to jump into a fire like Watchmen. It doesn’t make you feel bad about liking what you like.

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The look of the movie is immediately interesting, as “Champion City” conjures a version of Joel Schumacher’s Gotham fused with some Terry Gilliam topped off with a cherry that has been marinated in Johnny Mnemonic. The city is protected by Captain Amazing (Greg Kinnear), who has more than a little in common with The Boys' Homelander. He’s strong, his morals are iffy, and he’s clad in advertisements. He’s far more invested in corporate sponsorship than he is in helping anybody.

He’s the symbol of everything that would actually happen if superheroes were real. It is partially because of him that supervillain Casanova Frankenstein (yes) is put back on the scene. Geoffrey Rush in that role is reason enough to watch, because he's having some serious fun.

The corrupt hero who can be bought by a soda company is about as edgy as things get. When an inept and weird gaggle of heroes populating the city have to step up and save the day, the real heart of the movie starts pounding.

Mystery Men (1999)

Ben Stiller, Hank Azaria, William H. Macy, Paul Reubens, Kel Mitchell, and Janeane Garofalo play an assorted team of crimefighters. What are their talents? Stiller gets really mad. Macy is good with a shovel. Azaria’s character is based around cutlery, puns, and cultural appropriation. Reubens uses the magic of farts. Mitchell can turn invisible only when no one (including himself) is watching. And Garofalo wields a sentient bowling ball that has her father’s skull inside of it. Wes Studi plays their mentor, the Sphinx, and most of his teachings sound like they come out of Chicken Soup for the Superhero Soul.

It’s the equivalent of filling up a team with characters like Kite-Man and Condiment King. They’re all D-listers. Adapted from the comic book pages of Bob Burden, these are not heroes who have posters. Macy says as much at one point; nobody bets on them. Beneath their bluster and misplaced egos, they all know it.

They have to make do with what they have, even if their respective gifts are random and weird. They are silly and they are obsessed with names and catchphrases. Despite this, when they are given the choice to save themselves or to step up and attempt to make a difference, they choose to act. They choose to use farts and cutlery (no knives) to fight guns and a weapon of mass destruction.

Macy gives them all a speech right out of Henry V for inspiration. He’s not going to eat that sandwich.

They don’t do it for glory, they don’t do it for revenge, and they don’t do it for corporate endorsements. They may begin the movie by wanting to play at being heroes (with everything that entails) but they end it by actually walking the talk. No money, no credit, no problem. They’re just good people.

There is an earnest sentimentality at work, and it is never cloying. It is charming, weird, and… inspirational? The movie never makes you feel like a pile of s**t for enjoying it. Mystery Men tells you, “We get it, we’re the same, and there’s nothing wrong with that.”

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Watching Homelander get away with murder over and over again is hard to watch in 2023, mostly because it is a direct reflection of where our society is. Mystery Men lets us dream of something silly and pure. Like the Christopher Reeve version of Superman, it may also be impossible.

So be it, but here’s a neon dream of misfits who learn to stop worrying and embrace the name “Roy.” The movie features Michael Bay in the role of a fratboy villain, Doug Jones (Star Trek: Discovery, Pan’s Labyrinth, The Shape of Water) playing a pencil-based hero, a Claire Forlani love story, and… wait for it… end credits that include a rap from Mitchell as well as “All Star” from Smash Mouth.

That’s right, the movie ends with Smash Mouth. Blink twice and you’ll think that Shrek appears. It should be noted that Mystery Men got there first, so how's that for layers, you grumpy green dump truck? 

We have plenty of takedowns of the superhero genre, and we enjoy them. They all make interesting points and contain violence most diabolical. In 2023, there’s something comforting about watching this team of underdogs selflessly fight against impossible odds with nothing but farts, forks, and some gadgets that were made for them by Tom Waits.

Mystery Men is streaming on Peacock right now. You may absolutely bring ze brewskies.