Judge Maurice Cobbs' favorite superhero punchline is, "What the hell was that?!?" screamed the Invisible Man, in agony.
Not as good as regular superheroes…but better than you!
Let's say that the Pentagon has been taken over by giant ants. Who you gonna call?
The Fantastic Four? The Justice League? The Avengers? Maybe the Teen Titans? Sorry. They're all busy. The Annihilators are in Europe, the Amazing Trio are on Saturn, and the Crusaders are caught up in their press tour. Who does that leave? The Specials, a less-than-crack team of misfit superheroes who have taken on giant pterodactyls and saved hapless senior citizens from vicious anal slugs, but who must never stop fighting for a little dignity.
Facts of the Case
The Specials follows the non-adventures of a dysfunctional group of would-be heroes as they welcome a new member into their fold: Nightbird (Jordan Ladd, Cabin Fever), who has some ambiguous "bird powers." Nightbird is thrilled at the chance to meet her childhood idols, but she soon discovers the group's infighting, backbiting, discontent and paranoia. Led by the egomaniacal Strobe (played in hilarious Adam West deadpan by Thomas Hayden Church, Wings), a hero so self-absorbed and emotionally distant that he has driven his discontented wife, Ms. Indestructible (Paget Brewster, Huff) into the arms of the super-likable Weevil (Rob Lowe, The West Wing), the Specials are a hotbed of secrets and neurosis. Nightbird must also deal with the romantic advances of Minuteman (James Gunn), the genial but somewhat addled U.S. Bill (Mike Schwartz), and the rest of the motley crew: Mr. Smart (Jim Zulevic), the world's smartest man; super-positive Power Chick (In Living Color veteran Kelly Coffield); Eight (John Doe, Torque), the hero with one mind and eight bodies; demon-summoning Deadly Girl (Judy Greer, 13 Going on 30); the shape-shifting Alien Orphan (Sean Gunn); and "antimatter-blasting bad boy" Amok (Jamie Kennedy, Malibu's Most Wanted).
The team reaches a crisis point on the night that the team is to be honored by Cosgrove Toys with a new line of action figures (the superhero equivalent of the Oscars), a deal that will help to boost not only the team's reputation but their bank account as well. The team will get eleven percent of the proceeds ("That's eleven," notes Mr. Smart, bringing his super-analytical mind into play, "out of every hundred dollars"), enough to finally get some decent equipment for their suburban headquarters—starting with that widescreen TV that the Strobe has been wanting. But the illicit affair between the Weevil and Ms. Indestructible exacerbates the already strained relationships, threatening to destroy the rag-tag team forever.
Writer James Gunn (of the Scooby-Doo movies and the remake of Dawn of the Dead) delivers a decent, if flawed, first script here, allowing for a decent, if flawed, directorial debut for Craig Mazin (who would himself go on to write the astoundingly unfunny Scary Movie 3). The film has, for the most part, a dry, pseudo-documentary feel that works well in establishing its "Superheroes: Behind the Capes" style. Interspersed throughout the film are brief Real World–type interview segments that allow the team members to offer insights on topics ranging from unrequited love to the nature of fame: "I've had superpowers longer than anyone in the Specials, I think," explains the Weevil, "which explains why I'm the only one with a Pez dispenser with a little me on it." The framework of the story also allows for a good deal of satire about comic books, the film industry, and corporate greed, among other things (including those infamous Batman costume nipples); the Weevil, looking for respect that he feels he cannot find with the Specials, interviews with Verdict (Michael Weatherly, Dark Angel), the leader of the Crusaders, in that elite group's towering corporate headquarters. "You have the superpower we most admire," explains the monolithic Verdict. "You know how to make people like you. And also, we have a line of Crusader Beanie Babies coming out in August, and none of our members wear blue."
Unfortunately, Gunn's script often leaves the realm of bittersweet humor and dry satire to delve into the crass and disgusting, a rather stark contrast that is never effectively handled, making the movie seem rather schizophrenic. When it works, however, it works quite well, offering up not so much a superhero story as a story about people who incidentally happen to be superheroes. As such, those looking for an action-comedy along the lines of Mystery Men will doubtless be disappointed. This is entirely a character-driven story, and we only actually witness the characters using their powers in the final couple of minutes of the film.
The Specials is an all right movie, but not a great one—it's the sort of thing that will no doubt achieve midnight-movie cult status over time, but it's certainly not worth "Specials Edition" status. The first DVD release was quite sufficient, and this newer version adds little to the Specials experience. In fact, the original edition was arguably better. On that disc, the deleted scenes were accessible separately; here, they are all compiled into one continuous feature. The rest of the features from that first release are provided as well, including the video from the wedding of Ms. Indestructible and the Strobe, the unedited commercial for the Specials line of action figures, and a delightful, enthusiastic, and informative commentary by Craig Mazin, James Gunn, producer Mark Altman, and visual effects supervisor Mojo. Some rather meaningless behind-the-scenes photos have been added, as well as a new, rather catty commentary by Gunn and Paget Brewster; if you want to know who almost had an affair on the set, which actor refused to do press for the movie, who hated who, all about Rob Lowe's eyeliner trick, and which popular young actress Brewster thinks is a monster, this is the commentary to listen to. But the commentary, as titillating as it is, isn't enough to justify trading up if you own the old version.
So what prompted Anchor Bay to cast this newer edition of The Specials out upon the waves like so much cheap bait for unsuspecting fishies? Is it the impending release of The Incredibles on DVD? Thomas Hayden Church's acclaim for Sideways? The release of Jamie Kennedy's Son of the Mask? All of the above, I suspect, although Anchor Bay has shown in the past that they don't really need a good reason to double dip at the DVD well.
I found this movie charming, for the most part, but I'm a hardcore comics geek, the kind who can name all the members of Marvel's Defenders and who can tell you Superman's birthday (and Clark Kent's, as well). People who aren't so into comics, or who thought Daredevil kicked ass, might not get so much out of it. For all its flaws, The Specials is a serviceable enough movie, sort of a poor man's Watchmen, a great Friday-night rental type of movie when your copy of Spaceballs finally gives out and all the copies of Street Fighter have been rented from Blockbuster. Ultimately, this movie is made for the same people who Amok asserts that the Specials exist for: "The oddball, the rebel, the outcast, the geek."
The Specials are free to go.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Anchor Bay
• Audio Commentary with Writer/Actor James Gunn and Actress Paget Brewster
Review content copyright © 2005 Maurice Cobbs; Site design and review layout copyright © 2015 Verdict Partners LLC. All rights reserved.