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: 65.348%
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

TCA Awards LGBTQ joker harry potter Endgame Spring TV 24 frames latino reboot Nickelodeon Writers Guild of America The Walking Dead docudrama Chernobyl dragons Apple ABC 2017 rotten movies we love OWN Amazon Prime HBO Go war Starz concert anthology cancelled TV shows Reality Competition Avengers comics elevated horror Marvel Studios Ovation History Shondaland scary movies PlayStation cancelled television psychological thriller sitcom Mystery boxoffice richard e. Grant Oscars TNT Martial Arts mission: impossible MSNBC Country Hear Us Out Musicals movie children's TV superhero toy story National Geographic Adult Swim Funimation Creative Arts Emmys child's play Summer discovery police drama Musical spain ghosts DirecTV Horror Amazon Studios SDCC The CW Brie Larson Acorn TV Freeform technology Sci-Fi 21st Century Fox game show Crackle Amazon Prime Video TLC nbcuniversal 007 RT21 natural history ratings video on demand VOD YouTube Red Discovery Channel canceled science fiction Star Trek Emmy Nominations TCA cults hispanic Holiday all-time cancelled TV series zero dark thirty Baby Yoda Nominations miniseries PaleyFest Disney Plus Marathons romantic comedy Super Bowl cars Cosplay robots Infographic travel universal monsters Spike Comics on TV binge Marvel Columbia Pictures composers Lifetime Dark Horse Comics Vudu Ghostbusters Cartoon Network worst what to watch justice league BBC Elton John blaxploitation DGA Extras versus Black History Month RT History LGBT DC streaming service Rocketman Turner Classic Movies Fall TV south america Star Wars slashers HBO E3 WarnerMedia Comedy Central FXX FOX Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt TV Land FX TCM crime Syfy Mindy Kaling NYCC GLAAD SundanceTV YouTube Premium werewolf BBC One Countdown anime Binge Guide psycho sports Netflix TBS Family Nat Geo Chilling Adventures of Sabrina mockumentary Premiere Dates 4/20 YA christmas movies Animation VH1 Superheroes Christmas The Witch BAFTA Logo emmy awards dramedy Photos Pop award winner NBC Esquire strong female leads hist Captain marvel A24 independent Pixar news Turner spanish language hollywood Tomatazos name the review halloween 2016 Tarantino reviews Lifetime Christmas movies documentaries critics DC Comics MTV foreign ESPN doctor who 71st Emmy Awards Academy Awards cats Watching Series tv talk Best and Worst 20th Century Fox Lionsgate Trailer kids E! criterion CW Seed The Arrangement Song of Ice and Fire cartoon Drama TCA 2017 unscripted Cannes quibi AMC A&E 2020 asian-american Hallmark a nightmare on elm street 2018 Fox News nature Classic Film theme song Winter TV Shudder APB Warner Bros. fast and furious vampires crossover Apple TV Plus Set visit Marvel Television free movies Television Critics Association films Disney festivals Winners stoner TCA Winter 2020 laika Reality Epix Fantasy Kids & Family BET stop motion Lucasfilm Netflix Christmas movies zombies Stephen King BET Awards Disney Channel documentary Spectrum Originals Black Mirror El Rey adventure golden globes political drama Pride Month President adaptation Calendar Showtime cancelled cops CMT Masterpiece Travel Channel WGN Valentine's Day parents comiccon screenings CNN San Diego Comic-Con Mary Tyler Moore period drama game of thrones medical drama Mary poppins obituary Television Academy Polls and Games Tubi 2015 See It Skip It Character Guide VICE Pet Sematary Interview Arrowverse Comedy rotten YouTube spinoff animated politics Emmys Awards TV renewals television breaking bad book Box Office spy thriller video Pirates Peacock Rock DC Universe Bravo spider-man American Society of Cinematographers Toys TruTV canceled TV shows IFC Films Paramount Network Ellie Kemper screen actors guild Disney+ Disney Plus supernatural Thanksgiving revenge diversity 45 Music ABC Family twilight MCU disaster Pop TV X-Men Sneak Peek Opinion USA Schedule Tumblr renewed TV shows Food Network GIFs BBC America 2019 Video Games green book PBS franchise dogs chucky comedies jamie lee curtis mutant serial killer Anna Paquin Certified Fresh Comic Book Britbox Awards Tour true crime crime drama Mary Poppins Returns Film Universal Paramount witnail HBO Max casting Amazon crime thriller Trophy Talk historical drama indiana jones New York Comic Con ITV TIFF series cinemax Mudbound Apple TV+ Trivia satire social media Holidays space Action dark Sundance Now directors dceu USA Network Election 72 Emmy Awards Sony Pictures romance cooking teaser aliens Women's History Month SXSW Western Red Carpet Grammys Teen Walt Disney Pictures talk show Hulu Sundance FX on Hulu singing competition OneApp Biopics dc Sundance TV Disney streaming service zombie transformers sag awards Rom-Com Rocky Heroines best blockbuster finale comic Crunchyroll based on movie The Purge movies indie thriller GoT Superheroe Year in Review Film Festival Hallmark Christmas movies CBS All Access Quiz streaming TV Podcast batman IFC sequel First Look stand-up comedy facebook biography CBS classics First Reviews die hard