How Mystery Men Planted the Seeds for the MCU Template

On its 20th anniversary, we look back at how the goofy superhero comedy unknowingly paved the way for the future and why it remains so memorable.

by | August 6, 2019 | Comments

Although the opening shot of 1999’s Mystery Men is pure DC Cinematic Universe – the strange semi-futuristic cityscape that echoes Tim Burton’s Batman, the worshipful but also terrifying statue of local hero Captain Amazing that feels straight out of Zack Snyder’s world – what follows actually lays out a template for what would eventually be Marvel’s complete and utter dominance in the superhero movie space.

Two movies that were released just prior to Mystery MenBlade in 1998 and The Matrix in March 1999 – are most often credited with kickstarting the comic book movie revival. The Wachowskis’ anime-inspired sci-fi blockbuster showed how super-powered action could and should look, while Wesley Snipes’ vampire crusader proved you could find success beyond Marvel’s A-list roster. But looking back, neither of those films really fit tonally with what the MCU would become. The real seeds were planted in a silly and underrated Ben Stiller comedy that celebrates its 20th birthday on August 6. Here’s how.

The Cast

One of the hallmarks of Marvel movies is that they are littered with big and unexpected names, from Gwyneth Paltrow in Iron Man to Robert Redford in Captain America: The Winter Soldier to Matt Damon in Thor: Ragnarok. For a superhero goof, Mystery Men shared similar out-of-the-box thinking, resulting in even the smaller roles being surprisingly memorable. The main team was comprised of an Avengers-level mix of mid- to late-’90s indie and comedy stars, including Stiller, Janeane Garofalo, William H. Macy, Hank Azaria, and Paul Reubens; the main villain was a supremely hammy Oscar-winner Geoffrey Rush, and the periphery was dotted with “whoa, really” names like Eddie Izzard, Ricky Jay, Cee-Lo Green, Dane Cook, and Tom Waits. Superhero movies had come a long way from a time when they were the last refuge of stuntmen and up-and-comers, and Mystery Men took the baton from Tim Burton (who went way outside the box with Michael Keaton in Batman) and ran with it for a bit before Marvel took over.

The World Building

Universal courtesy Everett Collection
(Photo by Universal courtesy Everett Collection)

Although Iron Man and Captain America: The First Avenger hit some of the expected story points, by and large Marvel got away from doing traditional origin stories. Rather than having each new hero start off in a blank slate world where they’re the only ones with superpowers, Marvel built a world where multiple heroes and villains existed in various points throughout history. Mystery Men, too, drops you right into the thick of it with a superteam fighting supervillains in a city that is so comfortable with its own Superman that he has corporate sponsors.

There is a sequence about midway through the movie in which the Mystery Men hold open tryouts (a gag that would be recycled in Deadpool 2), and they are swarmed with wannabes. This is a world as used to seeing this sort of thing as the people of MCU New York are to seeing Spider-Man.

The Humor

Naturally, Mystery Men was never intended to be anything but a superhero spoof. But its willingness to embrace the core silliness of the superhero concept helped show Marvel how to overcome a major obstacle. The knock against the DC movies is that they are dark, plodding, largely humorless affairs. And if you start to take the idea of people in fancy suits flying around cities too seriously, the whole thing begins to falls apart. The self-awareness to know that humor makes comic book storytelling go down a lot easier fuels Marvel even at its darkest. Avengers: Infinity War or Avengers: Endgame would have been too much to take without the relief supplied by Dr. Strange and Tony Stark’s catty bickering, or Korg’s epic Fornite battle against Noobmaster69.

The Team Dynamics

And speaking of the bickering… A team of noble heroes who all share an unshakable respect for one another, and who treat each other with courtesy and dignity at all times… is boring. Like Mystery Men, Marvel understands that teams like the Avengers or the Guardians of the Galaxy thrive when they don’t get along. Likewise, the Mystery Men treat each other more like co-workers than real friends. Post-battle, they sit in diners and complain like they just clocked out of a factory job (and coincidentally, the original Avengers ends with… the team sitting around in a diner eating).

The (Lack of) Secret Identities

MCA courtesy Everett Collection
(Photo by MCA courtesy Everett Collection)

This is an extension of the world-building idea, but it’s no coincidence that Marvel ditched the concept of “secret identities” as soon as it could. It’s a hindrance more than it is a help – watch how they bend over backwards to get Tony Stark fighting helmetless, or how many times Captain America takes his mask off so you can see his face. Mystery Men doesn’t even bother with masking its heroes. They exist in a world that’s gotten used to the idea of superheroes, just as the MCU seems to be pretty OK with one of the world’s most successful tech billionaires occasionally running off to fight Thanos, and where kids think nothing of asking Hulk for a selfie.

The Balancing Act

MCA courtesy Everett Collection
(Photo by MCA courtesy Everett Collection)

In the end, though, Mystery Men still allows its crew of misfit heroes to have their moment. They’ve been the butt of the joke for most of the movie’s runtime, but they’re ultimately still allowed to be heroic and win the day. There’s just enough earnestness there to get away with it – had the movie gone more cynical, it would have piled on the jokes regardless of whether or not anyone saved anything. It’s a delicate balance, and a Marvel entry like Thor: Ragnarok actually feels right in line with it. It never quite tips completely over into out-and-out Thor parody, though it comes close. But Marvel had, by that point, settled so comfortably into a tone that both celebrates and pokes fun at the concept of superheroes that it all managed to work.

And who would have thought it would be the Mystery Men who’d light the way?

Mystery Men was released in theaters on August 6, 1999.


Mystery Men (1999)

Adjusted Score: 64.299%
Critics Consensus: Absurd characters and quirky gags are brought to life by a talented cast, providing this superhero spoof with lots of laughs.
Synopsis: Based on the Dark Horse comic, Mystery Men. Seven lame superhero wannabes, who are called upon to use their dubious... [More]
Directed By: Kinka Usher

Like this? Subscribe to our newsletter and get more features, news, and guides in your inbox every week.

Tag Cloud

Polls and Games romantic comedy MSNBC casting elevated horror E3 Fall TV ABC Family Amazon Prime Video thriller YouTube Premium ratings batman crossover GIFs Box Office discovery Spectrum Originals indie Valentine's Day Amazon Studios Syfy Apple justice league cops Film Food Network south america FX comic golden globes Fox News hist Cosplay HBO Max Spring TV Apple TV+ hispanic DC Comics natural history breaking bad The Witch Marvel Studios Infographic composers Sci-Fi Classic Film Hallmark Christmas movies E! green book Disney documentary Lucasfilm CBS Biopics Freeform 24 frames Family American Society of Cinematographers spy thriller theme song science fiction Anna Paquin blockbuster Shudder Amazon Prime Writers Guild of America Rocky cinemax TV dceu Mystery VH1 Sundance TV DirecTV Crunchyroll GLAAD CBS All Access Grammys Hulu The CW Thanksgiving spanish language 007 Turner Classic Movies Holiday 71st Emmy Awards DGA revenge boxoffice Walt Disney Pictures streaming TV renewals comics Opinion Action Esquire stand-up comedy VICE jamie lee curtis Film Festival 2016 Lionsgate Bravo Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt 20th Century Fox richard e. Grant cars DC Universe Pixar USA Awards Tour Rock History RT History Crackle screen actors guild dramedy Musical Horror Nat Geo technology Star Trek San Diego Comic-Con Mudbound Schedule teaser Video Games Winners TNT diversity Animation spider-man Baby Yoda Oscars HBO Black Mirror adaptation renewed TV shows Heroines period drama PaleyFest Dark Horse Comics binge cancelled Elton John Kids & Family Star Wars doctor who slashers Britbox witnail ITV Ovation Calendar zero dark thirty zombie Disney Channel cancelled television CMT festivals TLC TV Land cults Disney+ Disney Plus cancelled TV shows based on movie Turner Creative Arts Emmys SXSW Podcast Academy Awards docudrama dragons Captain marvel cats spain Starz directors aliens quibi Teen Trophy Talk Country Pirates Chernobyl CW Seed Summer Pride Month dc Acorn TV serial killer Brie Larson series Paramount Election sports El Rey NBC Lifetime biography TruTV Trivia werewolf game of thrones Netflix Christmas movies New York Comic Con BET cartoon Binge Guide Masterpiece Toys DC streaming service Mary poppins sitcom foreign Music canceled TV shows game show SundanceTV Ghostbusters toy story joker Disney Plus LGBT Sundance police drama IFC Amazon The Purge BBC YA Awards anime ABC National Geographic Martial Arts Quiz TBS The Walking Dead facebook animated TCM blaxploitation Sundance Now TCA 2017 psycho talk show Character Guide Cartoon Network romance true crime The Arrangement 45 MTV Epix WGN transformers Apple TV Plus YouTube Rocketman BBC America free movies crime drama Drama dogs comiccon strong female leads Winter TV Mary Poppins Returns 2018 21st Century Fox rotten movies we love Endgame independent anthology Trailer RT21 A&E movie versus Mindy Kaling historical drama Lifetime Christmas movies Watching Series Discovery Channel WarnerMedia medical drama 2015 christmas movies Song of Ice and Fire Sneak Peek PBS Netflix Year in Review Best and Worst Set visit vampires mockumentary halloween Emmys See It Skip It Sony Pictures CNN kids Nickelodeon YouTube Red movies NYCC Comedy Central First Reviews Tumblr Chilling Adventures of Sabrina cancelled TV series spinoff Emmy Nominations Pet Sematary singing competition Shondaland crime Adult Swim Comedy Showtime FOX unscripted USA Network IFC Films Universal Rom-Com Extras travel psychological thriller Logo Reality TCA canceled Western Countdown robots zombies OWN Spike Interview TCA Winter 2020 cooking Marathons space LGBTQ Reality Competition A24 SDCC Comics on TV Pop Television Academy Tarantino Comic Book Mary Tyler Moore Paramount Network Certified Fresh nature Cannes Stephen King tv talk Nominations award winner Photos TIFF Arrowverse APB sag awards Red Carpet screenings political drama Warner Bros. sequel GoT First Look television AMC 2017 social media Superheroe book X-Men disaster miniseries Superheroes Tubi children's TV Peacock video harry potter reboot OneApp Tomatazos Marvel Avengers ESPN war Hallmark 2020 2019 what to watch Super Bowl mutant name the review Premiere Dates Disney streaming service Women's History Month crime thriller MCU FXX Marvel Television adventure Musicals latino Columbia Pictures Christmas Holidays politics Ellie Kemper supernatural finale President ghosts Fantasy Vudu