How the 1990s Comedy Mystery Men Showed Me I’m Insane

We all have a movie we like a little too much, the movie that reveals additional layers each time we watch it. My movie is the 1990s superhero comedy Mystery Men. It’s about a group of wannabe heroes whose “powers” aren’t that super. For example, Mr. Furious (Ben Stiller) believes, all evidence to the contrary, that he gets stronger when he’s angry. Another character, The Shoveler (William H. Macy) hits criminals with a shovel, and my favorite character, The Blue Raja (Hank Azaria), hurls silverware – forks specifically – with amazing accuracy. Still, they get a chance to be real heroes when Champion City’s favorite hero Captain Amazing (Greg Kinnear) is captured by his arch-nemesis Casanova Frankenstein (Geoffrey Rush), who is threatening to kill the Captain and destroy the city.

I first saw the movie in college, and I still remember the pure joy I felt in the theatre during the opening scene. I remember squeezing my date’s hand and squirming with glee like a kid, one old enough to drink. I had been looking forward to the movie since I’d watched the trailer in my school’s computer lab when I should have been doing classwork. The trailer was awesome, it was punk rock, and it accurately portrayed the movie as a stylish, self-aware comedy with a hip cast of smart comedians. Mostly, though, it was a deconstruction of the superhero genre, and it appealed to my youthful cynicism. But it still had the wow-flash-bang touches that spoke to something just under my freshly tattooed skin. Despite the combat boots, tongue piercing, and the philosophy paperback artfully shoved in my back pocket – I still loved superheroes and half wanted to be one.

The movie was everything the trailer promised and more. It opened with an aerial view of zeppelins above a futuristic city watched over by a statue of Captain Amazing. In a flash, we’re introduced to a different world, with an alternate history, superheroes, and people who want to be superheroes. Because if superheroes really existed, there would be imitators, right? Hell, I might have been one.

The camera’s eye descends, and we‘re thrust into a crime in progress. We see our misfit band of wannabes get their butts kicked by a gang of costumed criminals called The Red Eyes, who are robbing a retirement community. Our heroes are saved, and the villains stopped, by Captain Amazing, a real superhero. He had actual powers, a condescending air, product logos on his costume, a limo, and – according to his manager in the limo’s backseat – sponsors who are losing interest. It turns out the Captain is a little too amazing at his job and he’s run out of real villains to fight, and that’s bad for his brand. As the Captain says sarcastically to his agent, “‘Amazing Triumphs in a Nursing Home!’ That’s great copy, Vic.”

Realizing the dilemma he’s in, and wanting his Pepsi sponsorship back, Captain Amazing, in the guise of his alter ego billionaire lawyer Lance Hunt, pulls some strings to get his arch nemesis, the mad scientist Casanova Frankenstein, out of the asylum where he’s been imprisoned for the last 20 years. The Captain hopes he’ll once again have a worthy adversary to fight. But while the Captain is fighting for publicity, his nemesis is deadly serious, and unexpectedly, the Captain is defeated and held prisoner by the villain he unleashed. Casanova Frankenstein has spent the last 20 years in the asylum devising a plan to destroy Champion City with, as he explains to his henchmen, “a beautiful machine that is going to encourage our fellow citizens to share my vision of the future! Can you dig it?” The machine is a Psycho-frakulator, a weapon of mass destruction that when fired emits a beam that twists, warps, and ultimately destroys everything it touches. As it’s described by Dr. Heller, a non-lethal weapons designer and one of the wannabe heroes, “Hallucinations become reality, and the brain is literally fried from within.”

Despite their apprehensions, our wannabe heroes now have a chance, and obligation, to fight a real villain, rescue their hero Captain Amazing, and hopefully save Champion City from a madman. But first, they have some work to do. They need to recruit allies, arm themselves with non-lethal weapons supplied by Dr. Heller, refresh their costumes, and most importantly learn to trust each other and their powers.

I related to the band of misfit wannabes when I was a college student and in the years after, as I struggled to make my way as a creative guy with an odd grab-bag of skills: illustration, design, and caricaturing. Each of them, like me, were quirky characters trying to make something out of their very minor powers, poseurs striving to be like the heroes they admired and wanting a little admiration of their own. Most of all, like me, they believed they had something special to offer the world and just needed a chance to prove it. What college student, recent graduate, and scrambling young professional – particularly in the creative field – couldn’t relate? When we start out, it feels like we’re working hard and getting nowhere. We all just need time to learn to master our gifts, develop our powers, and trust ourselves.

After a decade and a half of professional experience in marketing and advertising, my perspective on the movie changed. I found myself relating more and more to Captain Amazing. I’ve had big ideas and some “amazing” creative successes, but most campaigns fell short of what they could have been. As my career went on, I felt less like the misfits and more like Captain Amazing triumphing in a nursing home, with the continued pressure to have another win. As Casanova Frankenstein said to Captain Amazing, “I thought it was all about the publicity and keeping your sponsors happy.” Captain Amazing might not have wanted to acknowledge the truth of it – but he knew Casanova Frankenstein was right, and I do too. Both the Captain and I want to keep our sponsors happy. But most of all, I think the two of us crave a challenge worthy of our powers.

Now, like the Captain in pursuit of that goal, I may have unleashed something that I’m not able to control, and something that may have captured me. Over the last year and a half, I started writing, or rather, rediscovered the joy of it. This newfound gift makes me feel more like Casanova Frankenstein, who declared: “I have something up my sleeve, and I’m not talking about the wart on my elbow.” I used to write – short stories as a child and for the newspaper in college, even journaled off and on – but in my late 20s, a death in the family put a stop to it. Writing in my youth took introspection, but with the loss came feelings I couldn’t face, so the only writing I did for over a decade was for ad copy and quippy headlines.

That changed just over a year ago, when I discovered a writing forum online that offered writer’s prompts. Without thinking too much about it, I wrote a few short stories of my own. The response was surprising. I received a flood of comments and personal messages, and the stories were shared widely online across a range of social media. Five of the stories were translated into German and Vietnamese, and 12 stories have been made into multimedia productions – nearly all of them multiple times by different artists. As of this writing, there are 40 productions of my stories on YouTube, iTunes, and SoundCloud, with four more in development. My anonymous stories have been seen by tens, perhaps hundreds, of thousands.

But, I have mixed feelings about it. On one hand, I discovered I can write fiction. My writing resonates with a waiting audience. Still, the stories were written anonymously, and the subject matter is dark. The stories, while fictional, have deeply personal elements, some are admittedly disturbing, and if I go public with them, they have the potential to be a disruptive force in my life. It seems, like Casanova Frankenstein, that I too have created a beautiful machine. One I can’t seem to stop myself from using.

I have, in a sense, already fired my Psycho-frakulator, and the beam is spreading. My stories have been read, my ideas unleashed. Now, I have collected the stories into a book that I intend to illustrate and self-publish. A book I will promote with all the skills I’ve acquired working in marketing for the last 20 years. I think I’ll do okay. But, even if no one reads the book, the stories are already out there in the world. All that’s left for me to do is to claim responsibility for my ideas, embrace my madness, and for me to encourage others to share my vision of the future. Can you dig it?

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