Superheroes have always been a hair away from the absurd: I mean, c’mon — Batman? Aquaman? Spider-Man? Thus, four-color gods have been targets for parody almost as long as comics have existed. I’m not familiar with Bob Burden’s original “Mystery Men” stories (which appeared in his cult-favorite, absurdist comic Flaming Carrot), but imaginative writers in the medium have long punctured the self-serious balloon of pulp superfiction. Alan Moore’s Watchmen imagined a universe in which superheroes were outlawed and driven into exile; it was a serious work that nonetheless treated its heroes as misfit schlubs (picture Albert Brooks in a cape and mask). The caustic British comic Marshal Law recast superheroes as power-drunk psychos; the hero was the guy who killed superheroes.
So, to longtime comics readers — whether or not they’ve read Burden’s take on the supergenre — the movie Mystery Men is nothing new. To the average moviegoer, though, it will feel fresh, and it has an added layer of parody: as directed by Kinka Usher (famous for his “Yo quiero Taco Bell” ads), the movie is often a straight-faced take-off of the movies that almost double-handedly killed the superhero-movie genre — Joel Schumacher’s neon-soaked Batman Forever and Batman and Robin. Top it off with a mega-hip cast — finally, Janeane Garofalo as a superheroine! — and you have an instant cult comedy that doesn’t walk or talk like anything else out there.
In Champion City, the corporate-sponsored ubermensch Captain Amazing (Greg Kinnear in full pompous bloom) is bored. He’s defeated every supervillain worth his time; the only baddies left are scrappy gangs without guidance. The Captain has an idea: His greatest adversary, Casanova Frankenstein (Geoffrey Rush, cheerfully gobbling the scenery), is about to be paroled, and the Captain greases the wheels for Casanova’s release from the asylum. He then smugly pays a visit to Casanova, who just as smugly takes him hostage. Crime begins to run rampant again in Champion City. Someone must save the day.
Someone turns out to be a group for whom the term “motley crew” was invented. We have: Mr. Furious (Ben Stiller), desperately in need of anger-management counseling; the Blue Raja (Hank Azaria), a faux-exotic hero who hurls every bit of silverware except knives (“I’m not Stab Man,” he insists); the Shoveler (William H. Macy), darn good with a shovel; the Bowler (Janeane Garofalo), who wields a mean bowling ball; the Spleen (Paul Reubens), whose finger you do not want to pull; the Invisible Boy (Kel Mitchell), who can become invisible only when nobody’s looking; and the Sphinx (Wes Studi), the movie’s goof on Jedi Masters. Given such unlikely material, these fine comic actors (even the sober-sided Wes Studi packs a fine deadpan) give each scene and line of dialogue a spin off-center. Other hipsters turn up for the party, too: Tom Waits as a weapons specialist, Eddie Izzard and Pras as disco gangsters, Lena Olin looking great (but unfortunately not doing much else) as Casanova’s partner in crime.
Those not attuned to the movie’s wobbly brand of humor (I laughed pretty much all the way through) will consider Mystery Men yet another cluttered dud wasting a killer cast. For me, the cast makes the movie — the idea that all these people wanted to put on goofy costumes and poke deadpan fun at lurid comic-book clichés and the movies those clichés spawned. Mystery Men has an exuberantly tacky look; it gives you the cheap pleasures of brainless blockbusters without actually being brainless. It even has a biting subtext: the obscure, working-class heroes laboring in the shadow of the mighty Captain Amazing, either resentful of his success or in awe of it. Their ultimate triumph is not defeating the nefarious Casanova Frankenstein, but finally getting some media attention. One wonders how long it will be before the Bowler has Pepsi ads stuck all over her ball, or Mr. Furious starts doing TV commercials for Prozac.