Mystery Men takes place in a mysterious time in a mysterious city, a city with strange satellites orbiting around futuristic skyscrapers and billboards in every language. Everything suggests a world where Earthlings have become one with each other’s culture, or perhaps there is only one culture left.
The city is called Champion City, which is a better name than TokyoLasVegasNewYorkLondon – which is what it looks like. Whenever we see views of everyday Champion City, partly generated with amazing sets and partly with computer graphics, we love it. We are taken right into this outlander’s world.
The film is based on The Dark Horse comic, created by Bob Burden. Not having heard of this comic, as we hadn’t, will not be an obstacle to enjoyment of the film. Mystery Men is extremely light-hearted summer fare which is interesting to look at and fun to experience.
The story is about a group of Wannabe Superheroes – that is, everyday people who in their hearts believe they have what it takes to conquer crime and restore Champion City to safety and greatness. The best decision the producers made was to make every absurdist Wannabe a familiar character actor. Thus we get William H. Macy (Fargo) as the ever-so-serious Shoveler; Janeane Garofalo (The Truth about Cats and Dogs) as the treacherous Bowler; Geoffrey Rush (Shine) as the evil Casanova Frankenstein; Ben Stiller (There’s Something About Mary) as Mr. Furious, and on and on. They pretty much play themselves, so, although it would perhaps be difficult to relate to Spleen, a flatulent pimple-faced gentleman with a terrible speech impediment, it’s easier when we realize he’s played by Paul Reubens (Pee Wee Herman).
Our favorite Superhero is The Sphinx, played by Wes Studi, the bad Huron Indian from The Last of the Mohicans. The Sphinx is a kind of new-age self-help guru, spouting meaningless aphorisms to prepare the boys and girl for their climactic battle with Casanova Frankenstein. The point is The Sphinx is not really a Superhero; none of them are. (Bad Biker Mr. Furious doesn’t even have a Harley, he has a Harley Compatible.) But together perhaps they’ll be able to rise to greatness.
One of the best scenes is when our bunch of good guys holds auditions to find other Superheroes to help them. The list of rejects is far longer than anyone expected. A standout is PMS Princess who will only work four days a month. Equally ridiculous is Casanova Frankenstein’s collected gang of villains, including the Frat Boys, armed with brewskis, and The Suits, ready to downsize you at the drop of a hat. Their leader is called Big Tobacco.
Gags? Yes. Silly? Yes indeedy. Deep? As your sink. This is summer fare only, but excellently conceived and brought to fruition by first-time feature director Kinka Usher, whose background is in commercials. For once this is an asset. Lightning-fast cuts and no-pause action is the only way this film could make any sense.
Mystery Men is better than Batman, which it resembles. It’s not the least bit epic, like Blade Runner, to which it aspires in its visual aspects. It’s a little like a Halloween party. If you don’t take it too seriously you will have a fun night of gawking at old friends in their Superhero costumes, the ones they’ve been hanging in the closets you never even knew they had.