The usual problem with super hero movies is that they're entirely predicated on pure hokum. Let's see some guy parades around in a skin-tight bodysuit and foils bizarrely named criminals with super-human powers yeahhhh, right. No amount of special effects, art deco production design, or name actors can overcome the huge pill of stupidity an adult viewer has to swallow in order to suspend disbelief. Really, the only smart thing to do is to make fun of these silly concepts, which seem to consume millions of dollars and the attention spans of countless post-adolescent adolescents.
Which is exactly what Mystery Men does to fine effect, parodying the familiar clichés of the super hero universewhich means it'll probably only appeal to those very same post-adolescent adolescents since they'll be the ones getting the jokes. Nevertheless, even non-geeks should appreciate the multi-million dollar special effects, the art deco production design, and the name actors.
In fact, Mystery Men gathers one of the most eclectic casts in recent memory: Ben Stiller, William H. Macy, Janeane Garofalo, Paul "Pee-Wee" Reubens, Geoffrey Rush, Lena Olin, Tom Waits, Hank Azaria, Greg Kinnear, Eddie Izzard, Wes Studi, and Pras (from The Fugees)all in one movie? It's a miracle the script doesn't collapse from the sheer effort of trying to give each actor enough lines to warrant a credit. Astonishingly, however, not only were all the actors well cast in their roles, but they obviously had fun with themthe real pleasure in Mystery Men is seeing the cast members overcome their hipness (Stiller and Garofalo), their reps as "great" actors (Rush and Macy), or their own oddball weirdness (Izzard, Reubens, and Waits) to play cartoonish goofballs.
And there are plenty of goofballs to choose from. Set in the bustling metropolis of Champion City (another beautiful rendition of Blade Runner's Los Angeles, crossed with Batman's Gotham), Mystery Men exists in a world where super heroes and super villains are just a matter of course. The biggest hero is Kinnear's Captain Amazing, a blow-dried, super-tanned celebrity whose jet-equipped muscle suit is encrusted with corporate sponsor logos. His biggest problem is Champion City's scarcity of villainshe's so good at fighting crime, there aren't any criminals left to earn him the big headlines. Worse, his sponsors are starting to pull out. Thus, he conspires to free his most diabolical nemesis, Casanova Frankenstein (Rush), in order to prop up his career. Unfortunately, Frankenstein captures him instead.
Enter the Mystery Men, essentially a team of super hero wannabes with half-assed super powers: The Blue Raja (Azaria), master of cutlery; The Bowler (Garofalo) and her haunted bowling ball; The Shoveler (Macy), who's really good at shoveling; Invisible Boy (Kel Mitchel), who can only turn invisible when nobody's looking at him; The Spleen (Reubens) and his deadly fart jokes; The Sphinx (Studi), who's really mysterious; and The Furious (Stiller), who's a ticking timebomb of pent-up anger. Together, they must rescue Captain Amazing and earn some respect; too bad they're all so dreadful at their jobs.
Along the way, Mystery Men gently skewers the tired clichés of comic book stories, from the super egos of super heroes who think they're invincible to the silliness of super villain shtick ("We're the Red-eyes!" declares the leader of a gang of thugs wearing red glasses.). This isn't an Airplane!-style parody, thoughthe gags are done with affection for the genre they're ribbingand perhaps that's why there are no truly guffaw-level bits in Mystery Men. While it's certainly funny and well worth watching if only for the cast itself, the movie never seems to take off into the comedic stratosphere. It genuinely wants to tell a story instead of just stringing jokes togetherand while that's admirable, it could've done a better job of presenting a real villain for the rag tag heroes to overcome. Although Rush suitably hams it up, his Casanova Frankenstein is not given much to do. He's got a castle, cool henchmen, and a super-weapon, yes; but he doesn't have much of a persona beyond some loose disco connection that's never very clear.
Nevertheless, Ben Stiller manages to keep the movie pumping along by his own force of comedic will. His Furious is a guy with a short temper who really wants to be a bad-ass dudehis face reddens, his veins pop, and he blows his cork with a howling rage and then not much happensno super powers are unleashed. Instead, he usually gets clobbered (just like in real life!). Stiller balances the character's tough guy stance with his insecurities to create another in his growing line of winningly flawed losers (such as the stalker in There's Something About Mary or the adoptee in Flirting With Disaster).
Inventive and visually striking as it may be, though, Mystery Men still could've used either more jokes or more evil to overcome. But either way, it's still something I'd rather see than Nicolas Cage as the caped wonder or any number of Spidermen or Wonderwomen.