1999’s Mystery Men — freshly released on 4K — vanished without a hiccup when it first released in theaters. However, it’s steadily built a cult following in the intervening years, and its satirical approach to superheroes influenced later efforts like The Suicide Squad and She-Hulk: Attorney at Law. Many of the tropes it plays up are still staples of comic-book movies today, and while some of it definitely reflect the era it was made, most of its jabs at the genre still strike home.
Among its motley gaggle of bottom-rung superheroes, one stands out: The Bowler, who’s not only the sole woman on the squad, but the only one who seems to know what she’s doing from the outset. She’s one of the funniest parts of the film, and breaks all manner of gender stereotypes in the bargain. Two decades later, with pop culture saturated with four-color heroines, her example still has few peers, effectively cementing Mystery Men as ahead of its time.
The Bowler Is The Team’s Only Superhero from the Get-Go
The Bowler is a comparatively late addition to the movie, and true to the film’s tongue-in-cheek approach, gets the gig at an audition. She arrives after an endless parade of nitwits (which pointedly includes several misogynistic stereotypes) fails to meet the titular team’s already rock-bottom expectations. The Mystery Men aren’t interested in seeing her stuff until she produces her bowling ball: capable of moving with a will of its own. It holds the skull of her murdered father — noted deceased superhero Carmine the Bowler — and promptly ricochets around the scene like a pinball. They sign her up immediately.
She quickly proves her worth and then some. Ridiculous or not, a flying bowling ball can cause a lot of damage, and while the rest of the team has to work overtime to get their highly questionable superpowers to click, she has her gimmick down from the beginning. It makes her the lynchpin of the finale as she tosses the ball into supervillain Casanova Frankenstein’s Psycho-frakulator: destroying it and his headquarters, and saving the city in the bargain.
There Hasn’t Been a Superheroine Like Her Since
Mystery Men remains a product of the 1990s, both in its visual aesthetic and some of its outdated stereotyping. Yet, for all the supposed progress in representation, few subsequent female characters break the norms the way she does. In an era when superheroes — especially women — have been aggressively sexualized, her practicality leaves a lingering impression. Her costume is resolutely gender-neutral amid a deluge of corsets and catsuits, she’s not interested in romance of any kind, and while the film fails the Bechdel Test, neither does it treat her as an accessory to the male characters.
She even takes a quiet dig at comic-dom’s tendency to turn women into knock-offs of successful male superheroes. The Bowler is ostensibly cut from that cloth — she’s stepping into her dead father’s position as an act of vengeance — but their relationship is far more transactional than traumatic: “Now I’m going back to graduate school,” she tells the ball after the villains are finally vanquished. “That was the agreement.” Her combination of intelligence and brutal honesty is treated as an active asset rather than an annoyance.
Janeane Garofalo — who played The Bowler — suffered career setbacks in part because of her outspoken feminism and antiwar activism. The character is as much an extension of her persona as a fictional creation, and the film’s poor initial outing made it easier to dismiss her example at the time. However, with both Marvel and DC openly grappling with issues of women’s representation, it’s telling how few superhero movies have really followed the example she sets. The genre would do a lot better with more figures like The Bowler in the mix.