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Seeing Past Crazy

by Bruce Sharp

Every summer, when I was a boy, the school library would open a couple days each week. My mother would take me to the library and let me check out a few books. I don't recall exactly how old I was -- probably 8 or 9 -- but I vividly remember one book. It was part of a series of books called "How and Why," and it was about World War II.

Mystery Men, Bob Uecker, How and Why Books, Flaming Carrot When you're a little boy, war is cool. Guns, tanks, airplanes, battleships... all incredibly cool.

I remember leafing through the book, and coming to an illustration that struck me as very, very funny. It showed German fighter planes swooping down on... a cavalry. An actual cavalry, like something straight out of Cowboys and Indians: horses and rickety wagons, trying to fight against really neat airplanes. I showed the drawing to my mother, expecting her to laugh.

She didn't. She simply replied, in a soft voice, that Poland was a poor country, and they didn't have tanks and airplanes. "Those men were very brave," she said. "They fought back with what they had."

I kept staring at the drawing. It was still a picture of crazy things that didn't belong together... but those soldiers on horseback? Before they had looked ridiculous. Now, they looked heroic.

If you want to know why Mystery Men is the greatest superhero movie ever made, you need to understand something about those soldiers.

*    *    *    *    *

If you try to explain, in polite company, that Mystery Men is one of the best movies ever made, you will probably be treated to blank and baffled stares. The film, released in 1999, was a disappointment at the box office. Reviews were mixed, and it grossed less than half of its $68 million production cost. The cast was an impressive and eclectic mix, including Ben Stiller, William H. Macy, Hank Azaria, Janeane Garofalo, Greg Kinnear, Geoffrey Rush, Paul Reubens, Kel Mitchell, Eddie Izzard, Tom Waits, and a host of other well-known faces. Although the actors seemed to escape the industry's scorn, director Kinka Usher and writer Neil Cuthbert were less lucky: Cuthbert has had but one screenwriting credit since, and Usher has returned to creating television commercials.

Nonetheless, the film has gained something of a cult following over the last ten years. A tale of would-be superheroes, the movie is a meld of two genres that are, in a sense, polar opposites: the superhero movie, and the underdog movie. Superheroes aren't supposed to be underdogs; after all, they're super.

Mystery Men's heroes, however, are in a different category. "We're not the favorites. We're the other guys," observes would-be hero The Shoveler. "We're the guys nobody ever bets on."

There's a reason nobody bets on them. Although each has a peculiar area of expertise, they aren't exactly the most useful of abilities. Jeff (Hank Azaria) fancies himself as The Blue Raja, a "master of silverware." He throws forks and, for no obvious reason, speaks with a badly faked English accent. Roy (Ben Stiller), aka Mr. Furious, draws his power from his rage... assuming, that is, that he actually has any power. Stiller likened his character to a mediocre musician: "If it was a band, he's the guy who started the band, but he's the least talented member... but he's the one who believes in the band the most." Eddie (William H. Macy) is The Shoveler. A married, middle-aged family man, he's arguably the most stable of the three. His talent? "I shovel well. I shovel very well." His wife, however, understands the crux of the matter, and tries to gently nudge him back to reality: "Baby, you shovel better than any man I've every known. But that does not make you a superhero."

What's more, their city already has a superhero: Captain Amazing. For Captain Amazing, however, an unsettling truth is beginning to sink in. Without a worthy adversary, a superhero is just a guy in a shiny body suit. Amazing's body suit is covered with the logos of corporate sponsors... but the sponsors are pulling out. He's putting himself out of business. "You want big news, you have to have big fights," his publicist explains. "A superhero needs a supervillain, and thanks to you we've got none left."

"Then get... get... Deathman!" sputters Amazing.

Alas, Deathman is dead. Father Doom? Life without parole. Apocolypta? Doing fifty years. Armagesmo? In exile. "Baron von Chaos got the chair, Casanova Frankenstein is locked up in a nuthouse...."

"Casanova Frankenstein!" Amazing muses. "Now there was a supervillain."

A new battle with a worthy adversary might be enough to recapture past glory, and Casanova Frankenstein would be just such an adversary. When Captain Amazing's plan backfires, however, the Mystery Men decide that they're the city's last line of defense. It's up to them to rescue the Captain, and save the city.

Before they can save the city, however, the Mystery Men have a few issues to address. In the wake of a particularly humiliating defeat, they can't deny that they need some help. They need a few more heroes on the team: "Like a guy who can shoot stinging foam into your eyes, or something like that." Or maybe they can find The Sphinx.

"What's his power?" asks Mr. Furious.

"He's terribly mysterious," replies the Blue Raja.

"That's it? That's his power, he's mysterious?"

"Well, terribly mysterious!"

By the time they're done recruiting, they've acquired three new allies. The Bowler (Janeane Garofalo) wields a wicked bowling ball. The Spleen (Paul Reubens) genuinely does have a talent, but you probably don't wanna know what it is. And the Invisible Boy (Kel Mitchell) claims that he has the power to turn invisible... but his "invisibility" only persists as long as absolutely no one is looking at him.

With or without the new team members, it scarcely matters. They're still the underdogs.

*    *    *    *    *

Hollywood would have you believe that the essence of an underdog story is David defeating Goliath: Miracle, Hoosiers, Breaking Away, The Karate Kid.

That's missing the point. If you want to understand underdogs, turn to sports. Turn to Bob Uecker.

Uecker, a thoroughly mediocre baseball player with a lifetime batting average of .200, once wrote that "Anybody with ability can play in the big leagues. To last as long as I did with the skills I had, with the numbers I produced, was a triumph of the human spirit." It's not about relentlessly surging toward victory: it's about relentlessly showing up, when anyone with an ounce of sense would have given up long ago. Some of us are blessed with extraordinary genes and incredible skill. The rest of us... not so much. We live for those rare days when we play beyond our meager skills.

What happens when average people refuse to accept the fact that they're average? What would happen if super powers were bestowed upon a regular guy? The themes explored in Mystery Men aren't entirely new: The 1981-83 TV series The Greatest American Hero featured schoolteacher Ralph Hinkley, who received, from aliens, a super-powered superhero suit. The problem? Hinkley lost the instructions, and subsequently spent much of his time crashing into buildings as he tried to fight crime.

Hinkley wasn't perfect, but he still had most of the traits we look for in our heroes. He was sensible, he was smart, and he wanted to do the right thing. The Mystery Men, on the other hand, are a bit more dodgy. The characters originated in a series of surrealist comics created by Bob Burden. There are echoes of Don Quixote in Burden's creation. Don Quixote obsessed over "books of chivalry" until his addled mind could no longer separate fact from fancy. The first of the Mystery Men, the Flaming Carrot, was a carpet layer who went insane after reading 5,000 comic books. The Flaming Carrot wore green flippers on his feet, a giant carrot-shaped mask, and a utility belt filled with such necessities as silly putty, a bubble pipe, and cinnamon swirl raisin toast.

The movie version of Mystery Men discards most of the surrealism of Burden's comic, and focuses instead on the underlying theme. The film's boldness lies in the fact that its heroes are unabashedly silly... and yet it dares us to be inspired, anyway. "The message of Mysterymen Comics is 'each according to his nature'," Burden writes. "People have their nature and that's what they are.... The Mysterymen are not perfect characters, and it's not a perfect world. Life's not fair, but good men make it fair."

The quest to make life fair is a thread that runs through many conventional superhero movies. Evil is a pernicious, terrifying force, and it can only be countered by the application of superior strength. Good versus evil isn't exactly a subtle theme, and movies that operate purely on this level -- like Iron Man -- appeal to us on a different level than more nuanced stories, like Spiderman. Iron Man is a power fantasy: the characters don't matter. Iron Man is just about kicking the ass of someone who deserves a good ass-kicking. It has more in common with Death Wish than with Spiderman.

Spiderman's Peter Parker is plausibly human, and that's why we like him. The epic struggle to save his city from the Green Goblin's reign of terror is nothing but a backdrop. We want Spiderman to win because he's on the side of the innocent, sure, but that's really just a bonus: mainly, we want him to win because we know it's Peter Parker inside that suit, and we like him.

Spiderman, Dark Knight, X-Men... these movies draw on the human side of their heroes. They show us that our heroes have flaws and failings, and that they struggle with doubt. They show us the spark of humanity. In Mystery Men, however, it's reversed: Instead of heroes with a spark of humanity, we have humans with a spark of heroism. Modern superheroes are allowed to be imperfect, but Mystery Men ups the ante. These heroes aren't merely imperfect, they're flat-out ridiculous. They are serenely unaware of how foolish they are, and oblivious to the marginal nature of their talents.

*    *    *    *    *

If Mystery Men's only virtue was its script, it would still be a decent movie. Filmmaking is a complex art, and the best films are those that manage to excel in many different realms. Mystery Men is distinguished by all of its peripheral elements: music, design, cinematography. The production design, by Kirk Petruccelli, is without peer: This is a drop-dead gorgeous movie. Kinka Usher described the visual design as "millennium blend," combining elements of various decades into an dazzling mix of old and new, East and West, familiar and unfamiliar. Champion City is a metropolis. A gaudy blaze of neon and mercury vapor, it has an exotic, slightly foreign feel: it's the teeming city just across the border, where everyone still speaks the same language, but things are just slightly... different. Dirigibles, adorned with illuminated banners, hover in the in the night sky; towers and massive statues are surrounded by an endless urban sea of lights.

From Captain Amazing's jet-powered body suit, to Casanova Frankenstein's art nouveau castle, to the Shoveler's vintage Rambler station wagon... every frame of this movie clamors for your eye's attention.

A gorgeous comedy, however, still has to make us laugh in order to be considered a success. Humor is purely subjective; either something seems funny, or it doesn't, and we don't accomplish anything by trying to explain why we react as we do. The fact that Mr. Furious winds up wearing watermelons on his feet either strikes you as magnificently silly, or it doesn't. Motivational speeches about egg salad sandwiches, a rescue mission with the code name "Operation Three-Eyed, Three-Legged Eagle," a mad scientist who offers chicken rentals and aromatherapy... either you're on board with such absurdities, or you aren't.

The movie's dialogue is a potpourri of off-kilter nonsense. Not since Ghostbusters has a single movie provided so many geek-friendly quotes:

"We've got a blind date with destiny... and it looks like she's ordered the lobster!"

"You must lash out with every limb, like the octopus who plays the drums."

"Don't mess with the volcano, my friend, or I will go Pompeii on your butt!"

"Maybe you should put some shorts on, or something, if you want to keep fighting evil today."

"We struck down evil with the mighty sword of teamwork and the hammer of not bickering."

The silly and the sublime, however, do not always mix well, and comedies that try to make meaningful statements usually wind up smothering the humor beneath the plastic veneer of their message. Comedies that make us think, like Being There, are genuinely rare. And perhaps that is why Mystery Men's virtues were so often overlooked. Mystery Men doesn't make you think; but if you do, you'll be rewarded.

In order to take a film's ideas seriously, we need to take its characters seriously. That's a tall order when those characters are inherently silly. In his book Danse Macabre, Stephen King reflects on our ability to believe in fiction. The term suspension of disbelief, King notes, is an entirely inadequate description of the process:

"When Coleridge spoke of 'the suspension of disbelief' in his essay on imaginative poetry, I believe he knew that disbelief is not like a balloon, which may be suspended in air with a minimum of effort; it is like a lead weight, which has to be hoisted with a clean and a jerk and held up by main force. Disbelief isn't light; it's heavy. The difference in sales between Arthur Hailey and H. P. Lovecraft may exist because everyone believes in cars and banks, but it takes a sophisticated and muscular intellectual act to believe, even for a little while, in Nyarlathotep, the Blind Faceless One, the Howler in the Night. And whenever I run into someone who expresses a feeling along the lines of, 'I don't read fantasy or go to any of those movies; none of it's real,' I feel a kind of sympathy. They simply can't lift the weight of fantasy. The muscles of the imagination have grown too weak."

Accepting ridiculous characters in a comedy is relatively easy; in a comedy, we expect a certain amount of absurdity. But what if the ridiculous characters are actually conveying a serious message? That requires some heavy lifting.

Mystery Men's most perfect moment is accessible only to those who can do that heavy lifting. Near the end of the film, there is a moment of pure beauty. It's a coda to the climax, a ten-second scene that will slip below the radar if you're not watching closely. The Blue Raja's mother, played by Louise Lasser, is staring at a flickering TV screen, and the look on her face says everything: She knows that her boundless faith in her eccentric son truly was justified.

In a full century of movie-making, no scene has ever captured the patient purity of a mother's love better than this moment. Mothers do that: they look at us when we're foolish, or even when we're downright crazy, and they see right past it.

If you want to know why this movie is outstanding, that's what you have to do: you have to see past the craziness.

Men on horseback, trying to hold their ground against strafing fighter planes. Crazy. One guy in a white shirt, facing down a line of tanks. Absolutely, completely damn crazy.

In real life, the underdogs don't always win. The blitzkrieg still stormed through to Warsaw, and the tanks still cleared Tiananmen Square. There are times when the odds are stacked so badly that the only way to keep your sanity is to know that it's all just madness. Fighting against those odds is sheer lunacy, but you have to understand that to appreciate the magnitude of the heroism. Stare in awe at that madness, because it's the closet thing mere mortals have to a super power.