Mystery Men

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  • Directed By: Kinka Usher
  • Written By: Neil Cuthbert
  • Release Date: August 6, 1999
  • Domestic Distributor: Universal
  • Cast: Ben Stiller, Hank Azaria, Janeane Garofalo, William H. Macy, Paul Reubens

Box Office Info:
Budget: $68 million Financed by: Universal
Domestic Box Office: $29,762,011 Overseas Box Office: $3,699,000

Ben Stiller was set to direct (and not act) Mystery Men in 1997 as his follow up feature to The Cable Guy (1996), but when he was cast in There’s Something About Mary (1998), he pulled out of Mystery Men.  Commercial director Kinka Usher was tapped to helm Mystery Men as his first picture and a fantastic ensemble cast was put together.  One of the last roles to be cast was Ben Stiller, who dropped out of the soon to be commercial disaster Monkeybone to sign onto this commercial disaster.  The budget for Mystery Men was a pricey $68 million and Universal financed.

The production was apparently a mostly unpleasant one, with the cast bickering amongst themselves about how scenes should work and the first time director incapable of wrangling in his actors and simultaneously dealing with the difficulties of late 90’s CGI filmmaking.  Hank Azaria has said“It was a first-time director, a guy named Kinka Usher, who was a brilliant visual guy and does a lot of commercials, but was not an old salt, and he had to be a daddy on the set to a bunch of ego-y actors running around, wanting their funniest bits in. So it was… There were some hilarious moments where, y’know, there we are, dressed as these ridiculous superhero characters, having very heated arguments about what we should be doing or saying, and we’d take two steps back and go, “What are we doing? I have a turban on, I’m throwing a fork, and I’m yelling about what I think would be the funnier way to throw it at somebody.” It was just ridiculous. But it was a long, technical, difficult shoot, and I think it could’ve come out better if we’d all found a way to have more fun with it.”

There was initially strong buzz surrounding Mystery Men and then interest began to wan.  Universal dated the movie for July 30 and then pushed it back a week to August 6, 1999.  Universal launched an expensive marketing push for the film and even partnered with Playing Mantis to create a toy line of action figures.  Mystery Men also landed tons of exposure from the music video to the hit song made for the movie All Star by Smash Mouth, which was released a few months earlier.

Mystery Men bowed into a very crowded market against The Sixth Sense, The Thomas Crown Affair, The Iron Giant and Dick.  Reviews were mixed to lukewarm, but auds had no interest in the superhero spoof and Mystery Men opened with $10,017,865 — placing #6 for the weekend led by The Sixth Sense.  It was given a toxic C+ cinemascore from moviegoers and sank 53% the following frame to $4,712,405.  Mystery Men flopped out of release with just $29,762,011.  Universal would see returned about $16.3M after theaters take their percentage of the gross — which would not even cover half of the stateside P&A expenses.

Mystery Men was completely dumped overseas, where it pulled in a mere $3,699,000 from a few markets.  Universal’s parent company Seagram posted a $38 million quarterly loss in the film division which “was primarily due to the poor performance of Mystery Men, Dudley Do Right and For Love of the Game.”  Those three movies offset all of the profits from The Mummy, Notting Hill and American Pie.

Kinka Usher never directed another movie and here’s Hank Azaria again chiming in on that: “Oh, I don’t think it’s a secret: It was so difficult for him that… it was self-inflicted. He said, “You know, I didn’t enjoy this.”  I think he was a genius commercial filmmaker, he got shitloads of money for making commercials, and he even said in the middle of making the film, “I’m going back to commercials when this is done. I’ve had enough. I’d much rather do my cool little one-minute shorts that I make than deal with all this nonsense.” “

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