Underground Film Journal

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Movie Review: Mystery Men

The newest section on the Underground Film Journal, the comic department, is based on an old minicomic I used to publish in high school called THE REDEMPTION SQUAD. It was also my first creative endeavor that nobody seemed to “get”.

What puzzled me was that people couldn’t seem to figure out that the whole thing was supposed to be a joke, a parody of superhero team books like THE AVENGERS or JUSTICE LEAGUE OF AMERICA. Even though the comic was populated with heroes like Lettuce Man, who could turn people into heads of lettuce, and Half-Double Man, who only had half a body but had the strength of two men, the few readers that I did have didn’t realize the juvenile writing was intentional or would hesitatingly ask me, “This is supposed to be funny, right?”

Absurdist humor is very difficult to pull off because it doesn’t call attention to its jokes, and great absurd comedy never tells any jokes at all. The absolute master of that was, of course, Andy Kaufman, one-half of the Andy Duality, the spiritual guide behind the Rough Neck organization. Hands down, probably the funniest thing I’ve ever seen is a TV special called I’M FROM HOLLYWOOD that’s all about Andy’s pro wrestling “career”. The title refers to Andy’s taunting of wrestler Jerry Lawler saying, “I’m going to beat you Lawler because I’m smart. I have brains. Because I’m from Hollywood. I’m not some hick from Nashville, Tennessee. Heyyyuck, durrr.”

Bob Burden has been writing and drawing absurdist comic books for years now. His most famous creation is the Flaming Carrot. He’s a big guy with a giant carrot for a head with a little flame that comes out the top. He also speaks in a weird nonsense language, loves to drink beer and gets laid by hot chicks all the time.

The Flaming Carrot was never exactly my cup of tea, but he would sometimes guest star in comics I did read, like CEREBUS, or there’d be a Flaming Carrot story in an anthology I would buy. But about a year ago, I had gone a couple of weeks without buying any new comics cause nothing good was coming out, so just for the hell of it I got FLAMING CARROT ANNUAL #1. In it, the Flaming Carrot and his girlfriend go in search of a pork chop mine and run afoul of cough drop hating vampires and a mob boss who the Carrot defeats with the help of a miniature Abe Lincoln.

But in addition to the main story, there was a back-up preview story featuring The Mysterymen. In that tale, The Strangler must fight one of his fellow superheroes, The Hummer, whose humming machine weapon has driven mad. The Strangler saves the day by dropping a stoplight on The Hummer’s head and knocks him out. Also, in an editorial, Burden discusses his plans about his then-upcoming Mysterymen comic book and also says, “You may have heard rumors about a Mysterymen movie. Well, I’ve been through the ‘comic-book-to-movie-thing’ at least eight or nine times since I’ve been in this field. Nothing ever seemed to be really happening until this one; and I’ve got a good feeling about it, so stay tuned.” This was written back in 1997.

Now here it is two years later and the movie finally came out (though now with the slight title discrepancy “Mystery Men”). I was interested in seeing the film because I do dig superheroes and I was curious about a film being based on a Bob Burden comic. However, I knew the film could never adequately capture the real flavor of Bob Burden. The guy’s a complete wacko. I had the very bad feeling that the movie would ditch his absurdist storytelling style and just try to be “hip” and “edgy” and therefore empty and meaningless. It does have one of the “hippest” casts a movie could assemble: Ben Stiller, Janeane Garofalo, Hank Azaria, William Macy, Paul Reubens and even, god-forbid, Greg Kinnear. But who I really wanted to see was Kel Mitchell since he cracks me up on his Nickelodeon show, KEENAN & KEL. He’s a talented kid. But my assumptions about the overall film were pretty much on the nose.

The movie was simply just trying too hard. Though it avoided being a direct parody of big-screen superheroes, such as the BATMAN films, it did cash in on the visual style that the BATMANs have. I don’t know why they bothered creating a big futuristic city for MYSTERY MEN other than to give some extra special effects guys something to do. The thing about Burden is that he doesn’t draw attention to the absurdity of his characters. In the film, they live in a crazy environment and know they have loser superpowers. I thought it would have been cool if they acted like Burden’s characters do: Just sit around, drink beer and not be aware that their powers might be a bit “peculiar”. The most Burden-esque character in the movie is William Macy’s The Shoveler, he’s a low-key generic everyman who just so happens to put on a costume and whack bad guys over the head with a shovel.

But I can’t say that the film was entirely unsuccessful. I enjoyed all the performances, even though I kinda felt like the movie wasn’t putting them to good use. They were consistent in their roles, playing them over-the-top when they needed to be and acted like regular joes when it was important for them to be that. They were all believable. My main complaint about movies based on comic books is that almost always the actors overact and call attention to themselves like “Hey, look at me! I’m a comic book character!” Surprisingly, there was none of that in MYSTERY MEN. If I had any complaints about the actors it’s that I wish Kel had a bit more to do. Oh well.

MYSTERY MEN wasn’t the movie it should have been, but it was funny in parts. And who knows? Maybe if I keep doing animated comics on┬áthe Underground Film Journal we’ll see a big screen version of Timhorn and his loser ragtag team of superheroes, The Redemption Squad. Hell, I’d even settle for a Saturday morning cartoon on the Fox network. I’ll also do my best to not have them screw it up too bad, but if they do, I’m sorry.