Movies adapted from comics tend to come off as either broadly cartoonish or pretentiously self-important. Mystery Men avoids these pitfalls because of the very nature of its not-so-super heroes. This is The B-Team, a group of crime-fighters who no one would think to call when things get rough. While they're fully aware of their lowly status, this doesn't stop the them from believing that their minuscule skills, when combined with massive determination, can somehow save the day.
The sprightly action comedy Mystery Men, written by Neil Cuthbert and directed by Kinka Usher, is a self-aware superhero story. Champion City's official protector, Captain Amazing (Greg Kinnear), is a media hungry opportunist whose flashy costume is riddled with more advertising patches than a race-car driver and always makes sure the TV cameras are around to witness his derring-do.
But the fickle public is getting bored with his easy victories. So Captain Amazing conspires to have his greatest nemesis, Casanova Frankenstein (Geoffrey Rush), released from a grimy prison. But Frankenstein is truly insane, and in short order has the official taken as his captive.
This leaves the door open for the understudies to take center stage. They are a delightfully outlandish bunch. A wimpy Mr. Furious (Ben Stiller) repeatedly threatens to unleash a powerful fury. The stoic right-makes-might Shoveler (William H. Macy) has an unsupportive wife. Fork-tossing mama's-boy The Blue Raja (Hank Azaria) imagines himself a suave Brit.
They are joined by The Spleen (Paul Reubens), whose lethal farts are the least of his problems, Invisible Boy (Kel Mitchell), who can only disappear when no one is looking, and The Bowler (Janeane Garofalo), whose unresolved father issues are evident in her bowling ball, which contains his skull.
Welcome to dysfunction junction. Can this motley crew overcome their individual psychoses to form a cohesive fighting unit? With the help of the aphorism-spouting Sphinx (Wes Studi) and an ingenious nonlethal-weapons designer (Tom Waits), they dive in over their heads, battling Frankenstein's evil posse.
Director Usher, a veteran of TV commercials, has the tendency to overuse in-your-face camera work, particularly in fight scenes. Perhaps accustomed to grabbing the attention of channel-flippers, he doesn't always trust the material or Mystery Men's greatest resource -- its terrific actors -- who have goofy charm to spare and really know how to put the punch in punchlines.
Serena Donadoni writes about film for the Metro Times. E-mail her at email@example.com.