It's tough to pick from all of Ben Stiller's overlooked films in the 1990s (before his career subsequent to the success of Meet the Parents made his bag of tricks overly familiar and tired). For the second half of the decade, he had either lead or supporting roles in a whole bunch of great, little-seen movies like Zero Effect, Your Friends and Neighbors, Flirting With Disaster, Permanent Midnight...the list goes on. Between remembering The Ben Stiller Show and looking at that list of films, you have to be wondering the same thing I am: What happened to Ben Stiller? How did he turn into the Night at the Museum guy?
You'll notice that those films all have something in common, though. They're all small, inexpensive, character-driven indie films. This film is the exact opposite.
The film is 1999's Mystery Men, is that rare thing: a $70 million superhero epic based on a Dark Horse comic book no one was familiar with and starring a bunch of comedians and serious actors (William H. Macy and Geoffrey Rush are great, but not exactly box office gold -- and certainly not 10 years ago). Add to this the fact that it ran over two hours and was directed by first-timer Kinka Usher, who had previously only shot commercials and who has yet to direct another film.
That's a lot to stack against a film -- which might explain why it was such a failure when it was released late in the summer of 1999 (it recouped less than half its budget theatrically). But guess what? The movie is pretty great; it's biggest problem is that it was a couple years ahead of its time.
Stiller stars as Mr. Furious, the leader of D-list group of superheroes with names like The Shoveler (Macy), The Blue Raja (Hank Azaria), The Bowler (Janeane Garofalo) and The Spleen (Pee-Wee Herman himself, Mr. Paul Reubens). When the city's real #1 superhero, Captain Amazing (Greg Kinnear, cast perfectly to type), goes missing, it's up to the Mystery Men to rescue him and defeat the villainous Casanova Frankenstein and his disco-loving goons.
Mystery Men came just a few years before comic book movies really took off (that probably happened in 2002 with Spider-Man) and the Age of Irony, when it became perfectly acceptable -- cool, even -- to make fun of everything. It was goofing on superhero conventions when the majority of audiences didn't even know what those conventions were. Plus, I'm not sure audiences could get their heads around seeing comedians like Stiller and Garofalo (also look closely for cameos by other comics like Artie Lange and Dane Cook) playing superheroes.
But time has been kind to the film, which holds up better now than it may have almost a decade ago. It's rare that I talk to someone now that's seen it and doesn't have the "It's great" reaction -- mostly because I have little use for people who think otherwise.
Stiller and Garofalo have pretty much admitted to being embarrassed by the film, but I suspect that's because it was too far out of their comfort zones and was considered a bomb. If it had been a hit, I'll bet we'd have seen Stiller in movies just like it for the next five years. Instead, his career took another path, and these days we've got only movies like Mystery Men to remember a time when Ben Stiller was kind of awesome.
- Original Release Date: August 6, 1999