The Specials

Director: Craig Mazin   
Rob Lowe, Jamie Kennedy, Thomas Haden Church

As I have said several times in my movie reviews, I am a firm non-conformist, and I was that way even when I was a child. All those years ago, there were a number of so-called entertaining things that, while they pleased people my age, these same things had little to no effect on me. One of those things that simply didn't attract me was hockey. I never expressed my dislike for it out loud, because I knew it would attract unwanted (and bad) attention to myself since I was living in a land where hockey was king. I never understood the attraction of slapping a puck around, and while the game had the positive attraction of provoking its players to get into fistfights, these fights were few and far between, and never seemed to be happening when I would flip the channel and come to a broadcast hockey game. I especially didn't like the fact that hockey games would often mean I couldn't watch a favorite TV show that had originally been scheduled to be broadcast at the same time, but had been yanked so that the hockey game could play on... and on... and on... for what seemed to be a painfully long time. Another thing that I wasn't into was stickers. Let me explain: When I was in elementary school, there was not only a craze of trading hockey cards, but trading stickers, stickers of cartoon characters, of real stuff like cars and airplanes, stickers of every shape and color you can think of. Kids would bring albums full of stickers to school to trade and better their collection. I never understood the attraction of stickers. Why would you want to muck something up by slapping a sticker on it?

Another thing I wasn't into was with fictional superheroes, the kind that you find in comic books. For some reason, following the adventures of these fictional people never really appealed to me, no matter the way that they were presented. I never collected comic books, except for about a five minute period when I was a teen (I abruptly stopped when I realized with all the copies being sold, the chance of my comic books going up in price was unlikely). The last comic book I bought was when I bought The Punisher Kills The Marvel Universe as a gag Christmas present for my brother. (I was satisfied when he told me he found the book "disturbing", and also when my sister-in-law called it "awful but interesting".) I admit that I did read the special Spider-Man comics in the magazine adaptation of the children's TV show The Electric Company, though its watered-down approach (Uncle Ben never existed when it showed the story of Peter Parker's transformation) sort of annoyed me even as a young boy. I also admit that I did read the Spider-Man comic strip that appeared in the local newspaper, though even as a kid I found that the stories were stretched out considerably, and when the local newspaper folded and Spider-Man was cut off, I found I didn't miss it that much. Outside of comics, I still haven't been that attracted to superheroes. I never watched Saturday morning shows like Superfriends,  I only watched one episode of the Lynda Carter Wonder Woman, and only a few episodes of The Incredible Hulk. Superhero movies? Well, I admit that I have watched several of them, but I have found most to be overblown and not promising that future superhero movies will be entertaining.

Some of you are probably wondering now, after all I have said about superheroes, just why I have decided to review The Specials, which is all about superheroes. Well, there are a couple of reasons why. The first reason is that The Specials happens to be a comedy, a spoof of the The Specialswhole idea of people with extraordinary abilities in a real world. The idea of spoofing a certain corner of fiction that hasn't given me much appeal over the years appealed to me. Then there is the second reason. While absorbing fictional superheroes in various media over the years hasn't been terribly appealing to me, the idea of real-life superheroes in our real world has been an idea that has intrigued me. I imagine that in our world, a superhero would have a terrible time. Superman wouldn't be able to get away with masking his identity with glasses and a changed hair style. Even Batman's true identity would now have been uncovered, by either the police or government agents. And I imagine that if there were as many superheroes in our world as in the comics, there would be a lot of conflict between them. They may be super, but they are human as well. Here's the plot description from the DVD box: "They are the sixth (okay, maybe seventh) greatest superhero team in the entire world. At their modest suburban headquarters, The Strobe (Sideway’s Thomas Haden Church), The Weevil (Rob Lowe), foulmouthed Amok (Son of the Mask’s Jamie Kennedy), Ms. Indestructible (Paget Brewster), Deadly Girl (13 Going On 30’s Judy Greer), new member Nightbird (Cabin Fever’s Jordan Ladd) and the rest all spend their time bickering, having extramarital affairs, and preparing for the grand unveiling of their own action figure line. But when a furious Strobe suddenly disbands the group, who will be there for the oddballs, rebels, outcasts and geeks? Before they save the world, can they save themselves?"

Based on that plot description, there are probably a significant number of readers at this point who will think that I'll start off by labeling this movie as a rip-off of Mystery Men, which was released a year earlier. But I can't do that, because the end credits of The Specials reveal that the movie was actually made the same year as Mystery Men - it just took a little time to actually get released. Knowing that the movie was made around the same time as its big budget cousin gave me some hope, since the makers of the movie most likely thought they were doing something original and not copying anything. Another hopeful sign was that the screenplay was written by James Gunn, who had entertained me in the past with screenplays for movies like Slither, the remake of Dawn Of The Dead, and Troma's last funny movie, Tromeo And Juliet. Watching The Specials, it is clear that Gunn was trying hard to break expectations the audience may have. The movie does not try for comedy 100% of the time. Surprisingly, there are a number of serious scenes. In fact, I found these serious scenes the best parts of the movie. In an early scene with new member Nightbird, there is a sweetness with her interaction with fellow member Minute Man (played by Gunn), who obviously is attracted to her but is a little shy to come right out and say it. Later, when she turns in her uniform after Strobe has broken up the group, the attempts at humor stop for this scene to show her genuinely upset, and you feel her pain. There is also an equally effective scene near the end where she confesses her secrets to Weevil. Although there is some humor in this scene, it's not forced - it feels natural.

Though there are several other serious scenes like these in the movie, most of the time the movie goes for the laughs. Is any of the attempted humor in the movie funny? Well, I will admit that I laughed a few times. There's the scene where one superhero tells the story of another superhero who could stretch a certain part of his body (think of the movie Welcome Home Brother Charles) that was amusing to hear. When the superhero team makes a deal with a toy company to make action figurines of themselves, there's subsequently a funny parody of commercials for similar products (though the commercial goes on a bit too long.) The character of "U.S. Bill" (Mike Schwartz, Scrubs) is a dimwitted figure whose stupidity made me chuckle. There are some other moments I could mention, but as a whole, The Specials did not work as the superhero comedy it was intended to be. Let me start with the working conditions the cast and crew were working with. A little on-line research revealed to me that the movie was made in 18 days on a budget of $1 million. To be fair, parts of the movie managed to use this in their favor. Would a real sixth-rate superhero team have a gigantic and high-tech lair to work out of? No, they would work out of a house, like how many neighborhood community centers work out of. The movie also manages to look fairly slick despite the budget. But even then, the movie is clearly missing something: showing the powers of these superheroes. Except (very) briefly at the end, we don't see the heroes showing their powers at any time. How can you satirize the idea of superheroes if they never act in a super manner, at home or out of it?

These folks come across more or less as regular people. Maybe the idea was to show superheroes would be regular people inside, but not showing their superhero side seems misguided. The movie could possibly still have been funny, but aside from scattered laughs like I gave examples of above, the movie isn't very funny for several other reasons. For one thing, there are too many characters (12) in this superhero team, meaning that several of them don't get that much time to really be characters and generate laughs, and that the other characters don't get as much time to try and get laughs as I would have liked. (Had the script cut the team members number in, say, half, I think the movie would have worked a lot better.) There are also some unlikable characters in the team. "Alien Orphan" (Sean Gunn, Gilmore Girls) nauseated me with his babbling, drooling talk and his sickening green makeup. While Jamie Kennedy's blue makeup didn't turn my stomach, his Amok character still managed to displease me with his foul-mouthed dialogue. Hey, I'm no prude - but all his filthy dialogue seemed forced and an attempt to be "edgy", instead of coming across as the honest tongue of a cynical person. The other members of the team commit some other unlikable things, like cheating on their spouse for reasons never properly explained. But the main reason why The Specials is not funny is that, for the most part, it is not imaginative. It seems to have no idea what satire is, and its look at human behavior will be tired and familiar to anyone who has ever had some form of conflict with another human before.

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See also: Abraxas, Guardian Of The Universe, The Indian Superman, Star Kid