Pinky fingernail o’doom

casanovaI’m probably going to hell for this, but oh Mystery Men is so much fun! Bein’ a lowbrow here to move right past the mysterymen characters in Flaming Carrot, perfectly willing to admire them and Bob Burden as I go by, for which and whom you may clink the links below.

I am never going to be sympathetic to the idea of integrating comics and movie fandom or analysis. I can’t get past what appear to be deep articles of faith in the subculture. Why is it “good for a comic” or even more so, “good for comics,” for their content to be brought into movie-making? When, in doing so, is changing primary content good vs. bad? Why does it matter whether a movie which takes its content from a comic (or anything else) is good or not?

All of which is to lead to my observation, especially for this film and a few others, that when a movie does absolutely capture and celebrate the strengths of the comics superhero, no one seems to notice. Plus the related point that spoofing, send-up, self-reference, and parody can aid those strengths rather than undercut them. This is similar to my point in The Silver Surfer is ridiculous, that the drama is what matters, and whatever details are there will strengthen it if it’s already strong.

“Drama.” There’s a word which has fallen far, strangely, because it was falsely elevated above a completely ordinary meaning and thus lost its power. “Story” is pretty bad too since it became associated with imposed events and structure rather than emergent ones, which owes just as much to the film-studio scripting process as to CRPG conventions. As for general education, and I’m weeping now, what if I had said dramatic conflict? Cue a bunch of bullshit about Greek theater, those absurd “versus” phrases, “I want but I must” rhetoric, and a dozen spurious uses of the word “irony.”

Let’s be ordinary. Drama means exciting content in a story. Story means fictional people in trouble and doing stuff, in whichever order, which resolves somehow. Is that so hard? Do that with authenticity about the trouble and insights about the circumstances, and you have engaging drama; resolve it with punch and you have a good story. That’s it. (which says nothing about whether you agree with the story; that’s different)

Parody, jokes, whatever – I mean, they’re accurate and funny, yes – I want to focus on the characters’ problems and what happens with them. What the writers call the spine. And the constellation of quirks which are indeed their problems is entertaining, but it gets a spine when we get a villain. And I love me some Casanova Frankenstein! That’s who this post is all about.

  • He’s corrupted Captain Amazing. He did it already actually, long before the beginning of the movie; he’s made the mighty hero need him and define himself by him. The Joker masturbates while imagining doing that to Batman, but Casanova Frankenstein shrugs and says, “I did it thirty minutes ago.”
  • He is completely unexplained. Origin? Focus of activities? Precisely what he can do? Bah! Casanova Frankenstein spits on your handbooks and rulebooks listing origins and powers.
  • He is mighty. On the one hand you have all these gangs & stuff who do whatever he says, and that’s fine, but only what he might expect. On the other, there’s that pinky fingernail, which if he flashes at you, you have had it. Don’t even ask. I don’t.

captainamazingI’ll give you a hint. Casanova Frankenstein is the 70s, or at least, how the 90s sees the 70s and fears them badly (a point only hinted in Austin Powers; it’s too sharp and unfunny to reveal fully). And Captain Amazing, hero of the 90s, everything a Marvel and DC celebrity superhero need be, which totally includes grittydark along with shinyclean, is helpless before him. Of course the painfully emerging 70s style superheroes with their crap powers and silly costumes (even the new ones) and hopeless hopes kill him, however accidentally – they have to kill him, it makes perfect sense; only then is the field clear for real superheroes to face the real supervillain. (Let the record show that Mr. Furious and the Bowler were being very reasonable actually.)

You see, the real heroes don’t have the plot on their side. Think about that for a minute. In the 60s and 70s, the villain does, and what’s more, often sensibly and intelligently. In the 90s, it’s the hero who does, and what’s more, an easy plot, up against dopes. Bring the 70s villain back from durance vile, unreconstructed, and our 90s hero is completely hornswoggled. The only hope we have against such a menace are people who have no such advantage and who bust their ass to fight him anyway. We need to find our goofy-ass overly-human homemade heroes again.

Eat me, Mary Sue Wolverine

Eat me, Mary Sue Wolverine

The climax is everything that the steaming pile of dogshit that is the last 20 minutes of the movie I discuss in Did it have to suck so? is not. Right when every character has used his or her powers effectively and occasionally unexpectedly, and the Blue Rajah has provided a fork ladder for Mr. Furious to scale a crucial wall …

  • Drama for the hero? Check. Roy has perhaps reasonably become convinced that his “Mr. Furious” persona is a stupid fake and thereby gained a girlfriend – but now the act turns out to be an effective power after all, and it not only saves his girlfriend, but she embraces that side of him at the end.
  • Appropriate reason for villain suddenly being at the disadvantage? Check. The team is now humming with mutual respect for one another and has beyond all expectation defeated the minions – some of whom were formidable; the Shoveler’s duel is especially solid – and on top of that, Roy even getting up to the balcony is a big surprise. This is absolutely the first ten seconds of Casanova’s entire presence in the film in which he has lost control of the situation.
  • Powers used intelligently? Check. The aforementioned fork ladder, and many more. The Sphinx may be full of shit, but he’s also absolutely right and his teachings are completely effective – if that ain’t 70s, nothing is.

There’s only one way this happened: somebody cared. Sure, it features some dead spots or under-used or over-used bits, but when it comes to any character choosing to do something, what they do makes perfect sense given what’s happened to them, and it always provides the necessary tightening of events into the three bullet points above. With that in place, anything will work.

I really don’t like comics tchotchkes, but you can give me a polyresin acrylic-painted 10″ statue of the Blue Rajah any day.

Links: Mysterymen

Next: The big bad

About Ron Edwards

Game author, publisher, consultant, teacher

Posted on October 4, 2015, in Filmtalk, Storytalk, The great ultravillains and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 13 Comments.

  1. epweissengruber

    How about some Indo-European? Dran = to act, and in Greek it is used to describe the actions that persons undertake. So, people doing stuff. You got it.

    The idea of conflict giving rise to an agonistic interaction that synergistically resolves — that’s a 19th century German gloss on Greek drama. Away with it, I say.

    And that Freytag’s pyramid that gets imposed on every narrative, dump it in the river.

    As a secondary school teacher, I find too much instruction requires on slapping schemata on texts, instead of getting students to be good at describing the reading experience they have and how it might relate to other readers’ experiences, and to document how shared meanings and impressions relate to the subject matter and the text under consideration.

    There is too much deduction from questionable premises and not enough inference from available information.

    I went through the IMDB data on the movie and the names behind the camera are all journeypersons. One was involved in a Swamp Thing sequel, and the rest did some action movie work. Maybe it was the creator’s involvement in the script that allowed the effective visual storytelling to take place. I lay odds that the last 20 minutes belonged to the producer, director, and the other screenwriter. They wanted a “big finish” and they got a crap fest.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I got confused in your last paragraph. Are you talking about Mystery Men, which has an excellent ending, Iron Man which emphatically doesn’t (and is what I linked to for the crap ending), or one then the other?

      I’m fond of synergistic resolution, but I also think my range for what that means is a lot broader than is typically taught.


      • Oops, got a little confused. The ending seemed a little over the top for me in Mystery Men. But I did slip in the confusion with Iron Man.

        I often wondered if the idea of party and team dynamics in RPGs was informed by comic books. Too much of lit theory is focused on single protagonists, but the ongoing turmoils of a superhero team are hard to capture in that model. That kind of multi-vectored synergy just isn’t covered in the simple models taught in school.


  2. I remember reading a theory that “Batman and Robin” was to blame for the commercial failure of “Mystery Men” – ah, here:

    I’ve always loved this movie, although there’s also always been something about it that bothered me. I think it’s maybe that the so-important Mr. Furious storyline doesn’t quite work as well as I want it to (because Ben Stiller was hatin’ being there?). Or maybe I’m just more bothered by the absence of SOME explanation/depth to Casanova Frankenstein?

    But – as I think/remember right now, the thing that makes the movie for me is this: I kinda hated the Blue Rajah, for lots of reasons and in many ways. But by the end of the movie, I respect him. Admire him, even. Sure, The Bowler is awesome, and William Macy delivering “I Shovel Well!” with sincere, clench-jawed, comedic strength stays with me. But changing how I think/feel about the Rajah – that’s some storypower, there.

    Hmm … Ron, I’m beginning to develop more of a sense for your disability, superpower, 70’s connection, team/support thread-o’-stuff. I’m still not pulling it all together, but it’s feeling like a real and valuable insight with particular resonance from growing up in the same era even without sharing much comics-reading. “Mystery Men” may not (to my experience) be a PERFECT example of it, but it is a really, really good one.


    • Personally can’t see what’s not to like in “an effeminate British superhero, Mummy!” but if there’s a working transition in there for you, then that’s great too.


      • It’s the fawning over that jerk Captain Amazing in your “Let the record show” clip that triggered my memory – real details would require a re-watch (do I have this DVD? I ought to …), and who knows? My reaction might be different now. I’ll probably find out sometime soon.

        Liked by 1 person

    • Holy crap, read the comments on that article, and for once was glad of it: “Only by reappraising Mystery Men, do we observe the mystery that it did not reap men’s praise.”


  3. I’m contractually obligated to chime in with some Tom Waits love here. So, now I’ve done that, I’m done.


  4. I love this movie. I wish I had more to add but you basically covered all of it already. Especially this: “The Sphinx may be full of shit, but he’s also absolutely right and his teachings are completely effective – if that ain’t 70s, nothing is.”

    – Marshall

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Mystery Men delights me, mainly because it’s one of the most sincere super-hero stories, despite it’s parodic elements. There’s a nice bit of detail I only just noticed: when Captain Amazing is ranting to his manager about lost sponsors, at one point he invokes his deeper character by tapping his chest, right on his metal logo (incidentally calling into question whether he’s referencing his heart or his brand) and the gesture literally rings hollow, proving the empty shell he’s become.

    Liked by 1 person

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