Well, time for another cinematic journey into the world of super-heroes. With the possible exception of adaptations of TV shows, I can think of no other sub-genre with such a crappy batting average at the multiplex. Too often, filmmakers have so looked down their collective nose at these projects, they couldn’t even be bothered with basic storytelling or moderately fleshed-out characters. “Batman and Robin” is often singled out as the worst example ever, but right up there is the bloated, monstrously ill-conceived “comedy”, “Mystery Men”. Once a quirky little comic book about blue-collar wannabe heroes, the overproduced spoof of the genre succeeded only in insulting its source material, its cast, and its audience. The only thing it managed to parody was itself. How should it have been done? Let’s take a look…
We enter a world where powerful heroes and villains are just a fact of life. Once established, we meet what is probably only the sixth or seventh most powerful super-hero team in the country, The Specials. Neither well-financed or particularly mature, we meet this group through the eyes of the newest recruit, Nightbird (Jordan Ladd). She first meets the outfit’s leader, pompous a*s the Strobe (Thomas Haden Church) and his wife, Ms. Indestructible (Paget Brewster). The pair co-founded the team with second-generation hero, The Weevil (Rob Lowe) and the Strobe’s brother, Minuteman (James Gunn). Membership has changed over the years, but their current roster includes cranky ex-villain Amok (Jamie Kennedy), the spooky Deadly Girl (Judy Greer), the single-minded eight-bodied Eight (John Doe), the slightly mental U.S. Bill (Mike Schwartz), and the quite useless Mr. Smart (Jim Zulevic). Somewhere they also picked up the self-explanatory Alien Orphan (Sean Gunn) who is looked after by the over-chipper Power Girl (Kelly Coffield).
Normally this crew fights its share of goofy menaces and super-criminals, but not today. These guys, somewhere in the ballpark of DC’s Doom Patrol and Marvel’s Defenders, are not used to a lot of respect. That’s all supposed to change on the night a toy company reveals their new line of Specials action figures. All too quickly, the night falls apart as selfishness and personal animosities break up the team. They must now recall why they put on the silly clothes in the first place if they ever hope to conquer their inner demons and re-form the most important relationship in their lives.
One weird little film, its approach has some specific advantages and drawbacks. Still, it’s a 1000% better than “Mystery Men”. One of the main reason for that is writer James Gunn and first-time director Craig Mazin seem to know and love this world and aren’t here to just take potshots at it for 90 minutes. The other reason is the filmmakers’ effort to portray each member of the team as a very human character who just happens to possess super-human abilities. The dorky costumes don’t automatically make you any more noble or less petty. They have to try to be better people. The result is, unlike last year’s mangler of Ben Stiller, Hank Azaria, and Janeane Garofalo, you can actually care and feel for each of these third-string heroes.
However, the style of the movie doesn’t do itself any favors. I don’t know what that giant cast cost, but the rest of the film appears to have cost little more than the “Blair Witch Project”. The flat-lit, static cinematography is identical to like 40% of the no-budget opuses screened at Sundance or any of the other film festivals. Now, I can understand a reason for the approach (and I hope it’s on purpose). What immediately strangled all of the charm out of “Mystery Men” was it’s pointless and half-assed aping of the art direction and Tim Burton’s helming of the “Batman” movies. Unfortunately, the low-key non-style of “The Specials” may have gone too far in the other direction. We don’t need Dogme ’95 to relate to these people. A little more lighting and a little more judicious editing could have really jazzed up the storytelling. I applaud the total focus on the human levels of the tale, but the total absence of fight sequences ultimately feels anti-climactic.
In the end, who is this film made for? I’ll have to admit that it’s probably for people like me. In childhood, you want stories that allow escape for the terrifying or mundane aspects of your life. Adults want that too, but it will usually take a little more work to hold their attention. They like to see someone just as screwed up as they are work his way out of a human-scale (and usually self-inflicted) dilemma. It gives them hope that they can do the same. It doesn’t matter whether it’s patching up a botched relationship or pulling a giant, mutant slug out of someone’s a*s. You just want to watch people you care about and know things will turn out okay in the end.