Mystery Men

As the world becomes more modern and young people get more cynical and world-weary, it’s getting kinda hard to take superheroes seriously.

It doesn’t help that most of the superhero movies of the last few years have ranged from the dull (“Blade,” “Spawn”) to that which is so bad as to be a crime against humanity (“Batman and Robin”).

Enter “Mystery Men,” a film about superheroes who aren’t that super and who have to work pretty dang hard to be considered heroes. Most superheroes, the film reasons, are kind of dorky or lame in their own way, whether their creators know it or not; why not do a film where everyone’s in on the joke, and we can all laugh about it together? There’s no need to snigger quietly at Superman’s odd penchant for tights or Batman’s outlandish rubber suit if they KNOW they’re ridiculous and they’re laughing, too.

“Mystery Men” has all the trappings of a superhero world — a generically named metropolis (Champion City), heroes with secret identities, dark, “Batman”-like ultra-modern settings — but it finds humor in skewing them.

Our story finds Champion City’s champion, Captain Amazing (Greg Kinnear), in a rut. All he cares about now is corporate endorsements, and he bemoans the lacks of great villains to fight. He’s defeated them all, and with Champion City’s crime rate at an all-time low, Captain Amazing has superheroed himself out of a job.

To alleviate this, he arranges for his arch-nemesis Casanova Frankenstein (Geoffrey Rush) to be let out of the insane asylum, just so he’ll have someone to fight with again. Unfortunately, Casanova promptly captures Captain Amazing and plans to kill him and (of course) destroy the city.

Meanwhile, local superhero wannabes Mr. Furious (Ben Stiller), the Blue Raja (Hank Azaria) and the Shoveler (William H. Macy) are trying to fight crime, too, tired of always being upstaged by the jaded, only-in-it-for-the-publicity Captain Amazing. When they learn of his plight, they seek out other would-be heroes and team up to rescue him, defeat Casanova Frankenstein, and save Champion City.

Their powers are either mediocre or non-existent. Mr. Furious has the ability to get really angry, the Blue Raja throws forks (never knives), and the Shoveler, um, hits people with shovels. Their new recruits aren’t much better: Invisible Boy (Kel Mitchell) can only turn invisible if no one’s watching him, and the Spleen (Paul Reubens) has overpowering flatulence. Only the Bowler (Janeane Garofalo) has much real ability, in a magic bowling ball containing the skull of her dead-but-still-nagging father, which she can hurl around with great skill and smash through stuff.

The film’s humor, which is abundant but a little uneven, centers mostly on the superheroes’ inability to do things we normally associate with superheroes, and on mundane things like language and words. They discuss the pronunciations of “cadre” and “sabotage,” and they can’t seem to toss off those pithy, quick-witted one-liners the way heroes should (“We’ve got a blind date with destiny, and it looks like she’s ordered the lobster” is about the best they can do).

Garofalo continues her streak of stealing every movie she’s in, but it’s still an ensemble cast. William H. Macy is one of the most versatile, enjoyable actors currently working, and Hank Azaria — best known for his voice work on “The Simpsons” — holds his own among the actors whose faces are more well-known.

“Mystery Men” is nothing if not earnest. As is befitting the cool, laid-back attitude of its target audience, the film doesn’t try TOO hard. But there is so much humor in the idea of superheroes existing in a real world that doesn’t get tapped here.

Still, it’s promising. If sequels really are in the works (and I think it’s a good idea), all they need to do is figure out the right balance between comedy and action — or, better yet, do a more polished job of combining the two — and they’ll have a great franchise. This is a likable, enjoyable movie. The filmmakers, just like the main characters, just need a little more practice and then they’ll truly be super.

B- (2 hrs., 2 min.; PG-13, comic action violence and crude humor, a little mild profanity.)