The Fade Out – Underrated or Forgotten Comic Films Worth Another Look – Mystery Men & The Specials Are Two Sides of a Similar Coin

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I’ve heard people call it a fad for years, but if this summer’s box-office is to be believed movies based on comics are here to stay. Most of the biggest big-screen hits in recent memory have been based on or inspired by comics, and that trend is on an upward swing given Marvel and DC releasing dates for their films up to 2020. This cash cow is getting milked for all it’s worth, and movie-goers are loving it! But not all comic based movies have been hits; some were just marketed wrong, while some were actually terrible films. There are just so many of them now, that quite a few can fall between the cracks. Here are a couple that flew under the radar for many people, but are quite worth a viewing or two.

Mystery Men is an underrated classic that bombed at the box-office, yet found a cult following on video. After Champion City’s hero, Captain Amazing (Greg Kinnear), disappears, a group of loser superheroes must band together to defeat his archenemy, Casanova Frankenstein (Geoffrey Rush). Based on characters from Bob Burden’s always bizarre Flaming Carrot comics, the movie had plenty of action and quite a few laughs, but for some reason failed to catch on with audiences. Maybe after Batman and Robin two years earlier audiences were just burned out, because not even its once-in-a-lifetime cast could save it, and it ended up making back about half of its budget.

While not a perfect film, Mystery Men shines especially bright in its quieter moments, with some great dialog exposing these bickering hero’s deep friendship. There are so many quotable bits, and I’ve used many in friendly conversation. The scene in the diner where Mister Furious (Ben Stiller), the Shoveler (William H. Macy), and the Blue Raja (Hank Azaria) discuss whether Lance Hunt could be Captain Amazing is a hilarious take on the Clark Kent/Superman dichotomy.

Mr. Furious: I think that’s because Lance Hunt is Captain Amazing.
Blue Raja: Oh, here we go.
Shoveler: Oh, don’t start that again! Lance Hunt wears glasses. Captain Amazing doesn’t wear glasses.
Mr. Furious: He takes them off when he transforms.
Shoveler: That doesn’t make any sense. He wouldn’t be able to see!

While not a parody of superhero films, Mystery Men definitely has its satirical moments, but most of the humor comes from the characters themselves. The moment when, bickering yet again, the Shoveler asks why the Blue Raja, the master of cutlery, can’t throw a knife some times, his reply, “Well, I’m the Blue Raja. I’m not Stab Man, I’m not Knifey Boy — I’m the Blue Raja.” had me laughing out loud in the theater. The chemistry between these three is flawless, as is the chemistry between Captain Amazing and his “greatest nemesises… uh, nemesee… wh-what’s the plural on that?” Casanova Frankenstein. You really feel that they go way back, and can’t exist without one another.

Captain Amazing: Listen, I really think we need to talk about your plans here.
Casanova Frankenstein: You know my plans, Lancie. Tomorrow night… I’m going to kill you.
Captain Amazing: Right. That’s the part that really doesn’t work for me.

Car SmashThe humor throughout most of the film is delivered in dialog, but there are some laugh-out-loud moments with very little dialog as well. The scene where the team is attacking (well, I say attacking) Casanova’s limo is genuinely funny, these heroes using their primitive weapons in any way they can including scraping forks along its side and stomping on the rooftop while singing “The roof, the roof, the roof is on fire!”As their first outing as a team, they approach it with unrivaled gusto and unbridled glee, and then run off to the Shoveler’s station wagon to retreat. It’s just a really fun scene that embraces the source material, in tone at least. Being that Burdon co-wrote the screenplay this should come as no surprise.

The scene where they meet Captain Amazing is one of the funniest moments, but I can’t say why because SPOILERS. Captain Amazing himself is a running gag; a corporate whore covered in brand logos. He cares more about looking good for the camera than actually defending the city, and gets angry with his publicist when he finds he’s lost his Pepsi endorsement. Greg Kinnear gives easily the best performance, but other stand-outs include Janeane Garofalo as the Bowler, Azaria’s fake-British-accented Blue Raja, Kel Mitchell’s earnest Invisible Boy, and Tom Waits as Dr. A. Heller the non-lethal weapons specialist who’s “here for the ladies”.

The cinematography and set design are brilliant as well, with the opening scene having one of the best practical effects shots in a long time. In truth, there is very little in the way of CGI in this film, making it seem like a wonder from a bygone era. The art direction is wonderful, Champion City is a neon-soaked, art deco world that bleeds retro-futurism. The armored vehicle the gang uses gives off an art deco locomotive vibe, and it’s kind of awesome.

First time film-director Kinka Usher did an admirable job, making a good looking film that embraces its comic book-ness, and it holds up all these years later. Not a perfect film by far, it has a few downsides too, The Spleen (Paul Reubens) as an extended-length fart joke being one of the big ones. I feel that Reubens and Eddy Izzard as the leader of the Disco Boys were both unfortunately underused, and that Stiller was just playing himself, again. It can be a muddled mess at times, but that doesn’t take away my enjoyment one bit. Overall, Mystery Men is a quirky superhero action-comedy that doesn’t take itself too seriously, and should receive wider acclaim. If you haven’t seen it yet, you definitely should. It’s not high art, but it’s still deserving of praise, and I guarantee you’ll find yourself quoting it to your friends.

Mystery Men isn’t the only film about a group of bickering misfit heroes though, and our next film was a surprising treat, albeit with a much lower budget.

James Gunn is responsible for the biggest hit of the summer, with Guardians of the Galaxy taking all of the monies at the box office, but this is his third comic inspired film. He previously made a bit of a splash with Super, a dark superhero comedy starring Rainn Wilson and Ellen Page, but even that was his second superhero film. His first is maybe geekdom’s best kept secret; The Specials is a movie about the world’s 7th best superhero team on their day off. The Specials are the team called in at the last moment, when the Crusaders or the Amazing Trio are already busy.

Ms. Indestructible: The Pentagon’s been taken over by giant ants. The Annihalators are in Europe, the Trio are on Saturn, and the Crusaders are caught up on their press tour. We’re the only ones left.

Imagine a team full of Mystery Men‘s Captain Amazings, chasing glory rather than saving the day. That’s The Specials. In a very similar vein as Mystery Men, but with a quarter of the budget, The Specials features a lot of great dialog with very little action, but that dialog is pretty hilarious. One of James Gunn’s earliest efforts, The Specials is very funny in an awkward way, and Gunn makes due with what little budget he has, crafting a superhero film unlike any other. Gunn did not direct, but wrote, produced, and starred in the film as Minute Man, a self-conscious hero with shrinking abilities. Most of the action is seen in flashbacks, and the CGI is pretty cheesy yet endearing, but where the movie shines, like Mystery Men, is in the dialog and character development.

Whereas with Mystery Men the characters are heroic yet naive, The Specials are mostly self-serving pottymouths, Amok (Jamie Kennedy) in particular, but many of them grow and evolve throughout the movie. While the movie may not seem to go anywhere in the grand scheme of things, it’s more like a family drama than a superhero movie, and that’s where the story really plays out because even with its masturbation jokes and Amok constantly spouting off about sex, this is a more mature film than you expect. The Strobe (Thomas Haden Church) and Ms. Indestructable (Paget Brewster) are the parental figures, and through their failing relationship are having a hard time keeping the team together. Each character deals with this in different ways, and it plays like a group of children trying to deal with a divorce. US Bill (Mike Schwartz) is the stand-in for the youngest child who doesn’t understand what’s happening, Amok is like the rebellious high schooler who reacts with misplaced anger, and the Weevil (Rob Lowe) is the one that tries to detach himself from the whole situation. Ms. Indestructable encapsulates the situation best when she says, “Every morning I look down and I’m wearing boots with lightning bolts on them and I think… where did I make the wrong turn?” The voice of reason comes from new recruit, Nightbird (Jordan Ladd), who just wants to “fight evil” when the others only seem to think about “having sex, and your ego-manias, and selling your toys”. The heart of the movie, she is our everyman look into the team, and even though she lays eggs, is actually quite relateable.

specials

While not a parody film, it still pokes fun of superhero tropes and characters. The Alien Orphan (James’ brother and frequent collaborator, Sean) is an obvious parody of the Superman/Martian Manhunter alien fallen to Earth type, but mentally retarded, with Amok being the grim and gritty anti-hero. Even with the minor spoofing there are many brilliant ideas going on with this movie, especially in the character VIII, one consciousness who simultaneously operates eight separate human bodies who is basically passive unless the need arises. VIII gives a powerful speech about two-thirds of the way into the film that is one of the pivotal moments, and even though it’s one of the very few times we see VIII, this speech is one of the most important parts of the film. We don’t see much of VIII in the film, but what we do see is an amazing idea I would like to see more of. That, and dialog like this gem that made me laugh uncontrollably when I first heard it:

Sunlight Grrrll: We saw the news. You and the Losers called it a day?
Deadly Girl: We?
Sunlight Grrrll: The Femme Five. I’m here to ask you to join.
Deadly Girl: Well then you’d be the Femme Six.
Sunlight Grrrll: There are already eight of us. Traditional counting is an oppressive patriarchal tool.
Deadly Girl: [smiles] I’ll think about it. But in the meantime, get off my fucking lawn, whore.

The Specials is definitely not without its flaws, though to me they are few; some of the humor does fall a little flat, there is an unnecessary dance sequence towards the end, and the lack of funds do bring the movie down a bit.  Again though, the characters are what make this film better than it could have been with lesser actors, and it’s great seeing the beginning of James Gunn’s superhero career, and how far he’s come since this film. I don’t know why The Specials is so unheard of, especially in light of Gunn’s lauded Guardians of the Galaxy, but if writing this brings the film even one more fan, than I know I’ve done my job.

 

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