The loser cousin of Mystery Men, The Specials is a low-budget superhero comedy starring Thomas Hayden Church, Rob Lowe, Judy Greer, Jamie Kennedy, and the director himself (as one of the more self-deprecating heroes of the supergroup). They are among "The Specials," a B-list supergroup with so many members that the film has to spend half its running time just trying to distinguish them—and doing so via feaux-Whedonesque conversation and intermittent talking-head shots.
This doesn't help the already minimal plot. Having been provided no sense of what the Specials function like as a working team, the viewer feels lost from the get-go as the story introduces interpersonal conflict surrounding a new member, the possibility of two senior members being recruited away from the Specials, and the debut of a toy line that goes quite badly (in one of the film's more genuinely funny scenes; the head of Richard Dawson was a good bit). The group splits up, and its members spend the second half of the film in sub-groups for awkward romantic scenes and a totally unearned dance number involving the director's…brother?…who plays a visitor from another planet in the unfunny manner of a developmentally disabled man-baby.
I'm sure the intent here was partly to explore the downtime of superhero supergroups, which isn't an inherently bad idea, but signaling it to the audience from the outset might have helped manage expectations. Like maybe a point about how they lost their superheroing license or something, so while there might be all sorts of evil afoot, they're legally prohibited from involving themselves, maybe?
Let me be clear: I didn't expect action on an Avengers scale, nor even on a The Pumaman scale. But I did expect maybe a barfight, or a scuffle in an alley, or even cutting away from some imminent climactic battle and being shown a still photo of the aftermath in a newspaper or something. Be budget-conscious, sure, but be compelling. The effects didn't need to display the reality of this film's supervillain- and pterodactyl-beset world, but the story should have. Instead, the character's reminiscences were given the weight of that task, making a talky movie talkier. The Specials then ends with a cute but weak-feeling montage of the reunited Specials activating their powers to go fight evil, via the film's sole long string of effects shots.
When your movie is about dysfunctional loser-heroes who also actually fight and defeat evil, the script has lots of heavy lifting to do in reconciling these two seeming contradictions, especially when it's a foregone conclusion that we won't see the characters fight and defeat evil. And structure aside, The Specials wants to be about real, flawed people who also happen to have powers, but it never even approaches the characterization depth of similar offbeat superhero titles like Super with Rainn Wilson (which Gunn in fact wrote and directed), or even Watchmen (which I generally disliked). Take Thomas Hayden Church's character, the puffed-up Strobe. To almost no degree is it made clear how much of what he says is bravado and how much is his actual, genuine perspective. Since he's the group's obvious leader, this renders everyone else's reactions to him largely impossible to interpret. Is Amok (Kennedy) a jerk for needling Strobe, or is he a much-needed voice of reason and self-awareness? It's like how we would have perceived Michael Scott if the only episode of The Office was the pilot.
The Specials also wants to be a comedy, and I did laugh a few times, which is why it gets any star score at all. But too many scenes have the awkward humorlessness of a six-year-old stumbling over the phrasing when reading from his Book of 1001 Best Jokes Ever, or the empty bawdiness of your college roommate who thought jokes about "retards" and "gays" were the very zenith of wit. I'm thinking particularly of the scene with U. S. Bill (a baffling and pointless character) and his mother. A few solid comedy moments do not compensate for a greater number of painfully unfunny moments; contrast with Mystery Men, which to my recollection had one or two painfully unfunny moments and many more that really worked.
Even the less-critical elements of The Specials chafe. The songs are given distracting prominence, and while they're not the worst examples of that phenomenon (I'm an MST3K fan, remember), their playful cleverness reminded me enough of the Barenaked Ladies to add a sourness to the flavor of disappointment in my mouth. The comic-book-style captions are cute, but nowhere else in the cinematography is the aesthetic embraced with the boldness it should have been (e.g.: transition wipes).
So, weak characters, weak story, mostly weak comedy, weak design, weak music…skip this one; I don't care how into superheroes you are. Gunn did far better with Super.
Star Score: 1 out of 5