A Look At How ‘Mystery Men’ And ‘Unbreakable’ Were Ahead Of Their Time

“Avengers: Infinity War” continues to dominate the box office, now reaching a total of nearly $1.2 billion.

The theater tickets sold, as well as the great feedback from audiences and critics, is the latest example that we are in the superhero movie golden age. Since 2000, when the original “X-Men” came out and was followed by “Spider-Man” a few years later, the genre has been on an incredible upward trend.

“Infinity War” is just the latest highlight in a series of milestones that includes great films such as “The Dark Knight” and “Captain America: Winter Soldier.” Even comedy films based around the genre have popped up over the years to some solid success.

What’s interesting, though, is there were two films that came out just before the superhero movie boom that seemed to be way ahead of their time. A superhero comedy, “Mystery Men,” in 1999 and a drama titled “Unbreakable” from 2000.

First up was “Mystery Men,” a film that poked fun at all kinds of tropes in the genre, from the costumes to secret identities. The movie follows a group of misfit crime fighters who are seeking recognition but are often overshadowed by a more popular and better established superhero.

The picture features a really great cast, including Ben Stiller, Hank Azaria, William H. Macy, Geoffrey Rush and Jeneane Garofalo. Each one of them played an over-the-top and exaggerated superhero, but for the time, it ended up working.

Unfortunately, though, the film didn’t get the recognition it deserved when it came out. From what I can tell, the movie’s failure to attract a larger audience and have a bigger place in pop culture was it simply came out before the superhero craze that we all live in today.

Much of the film’s humor is based around genre clichés and many gags throughout the picture have a lot of fun references to science fiction and comic books. However, at the time of the film’s release, comic book superhero movies hadn’t really found their footing yet.

Keep in mind, this film came out just two years after the complete disaster that was “Batman & Robin.” That 1997 movie was the final of a four-part “Batman” movie series that began in the late 80s. Before that, there were the four “Superman” flicks. Aside from the Man of Steel and Caped Crusader, though, there were very few major superhero blockbusters coming out.

Had “Mystery Men” been produced in the last eight years, its writers would have had much more to draw from and audiences would be able to pick up on a lot more of the references leading to much more recognition. “Kick-Ass” from 2010 and “Deadpool” from 2016 are modern examples of how films can take satirical looks at the genre and point out clichés with a comedic angle.

Now, in all fairness, I wouldn’t call “Mystery Men” perfect. There are parts of it that are certainly outdated (for example it features a song that starts with the word “Somebody”) and not all the comedy lands. Still, there are things that click here, and it’s worth looking back on because the humor is still relevant.

The other film I mentioned, “Unbreakable” is a completely different tone. The film, directed by M. Night Shyamalan, stars Bruce Willis and Samuel L. Jackson as the two leads.
Willis is a man named David who comes out as the only survivor of a major train disaster that killed dozens of people. David soon meets a man named Elijah (Jackson), a comic book art store owner who believes Willis’ character may be a real life superhero.

Again, this is an idea that seemed ahead of its time. The film thoroughly explores the concept of a person in the real world, our world, learning that he’s different, that he has these abilities. The anxiety, the supposed responsibility and the connections to stories in comic books are all brought up in a very believable, dramatic way. This is executed partly because of the great performances from Willis and Jackson.

It’s also thanks to the direction of Shyamalan. Since this film, Shyamalan’s career has taken an unfortunate turn with plenty of duds, but credit where it’s due, he did fantastic work in creating “Unbreakable.”

There’s a very important connection that Shyamalan creates between the fantastical nature of superheroes and humanity, it’s what really drives the movie and makes it memorable. Again, this is another factor that I think would have caught on with many more audiences in today’s film era with so many superhero movies coming to theaters.

While there’s no exact modern equivalent, I think one movie that comes to mind when taking such a dramatic look at the superhero concept is “Birdman.” While “Birdman” is much more about an actor’s relation to the superhero film industry, Vs. “Unbreakable’s” focus on a person coming to grips with actually being a superhero, both use the genre as leaping points to explore the human condition. The deconstruction of our relationship to comic books and superheros is relevant in both films and works very well as a concept.

It’s quite astonishing looking back at both of these pictures now and knowing that they came out before the superhero genre planted its flag in pop culture. Now nearly everyone knows about the Justice League and the Avengers, and audiences have seen most superhero movies out there and are familiar with the genre.

Back then, though, that wasn’t as much of the case. As a result, both “Mystery Men” and “Unbreakable” went a bit overlooked in their initial release. If you haven’t seen either movie or haven’t watched them in quite some time, they are worth checking out now, especially because you will be able to pick up on many more of the references and the connections to their genre counterparts.

Author: Matthew Liedke

Journalist and film critic in Minnesota. Graduate of Rainy River College and Minnesota State University in Moorhead. Outside of movies I also enjoy sports, craft beers and the occasional video game.

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