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'Mystery Men': superhero salvation?

‘Mystery Men’: superhero salvation? — With Batman grounded and Superman nowhere, can the hip new Ben Stiller movie save the day?

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Pity the residents of Gotham. Weep for the citizens of Metropolis. But feel really bad for the working stiffs of Champion City, whose superheroes may not be cinematically AWOL but are instead a bumbling band of losers that include The Shoveler, The Bowler, and a guy whose superpower is to get really, really angry.

If it sounds laughable, it’s supposed to be. Based on a Dark Horse comic book, Universal’s superhero send-up Mystery Men chronicles the misadventures of a band of crime fighters forced to save the day when the city’s superhero, Captain Amazing (Greg Kinnear, wearing more corporate sponsor logos than a NASCAR driver), is taken captive. The comedy, opening Aug. 6, is a doozy of a risk for Universal, which has entrusted a reported $70 million and a potential franchise to a first-time director and a superstar-less cast — just when comic-book franchises are colder than the Penguin’s lair.

”It’s a big studio picture with an independent feel,” says director Kinka Usher, who made his bones helming the ”Got Milk?” and Taco Bell Chihuahua spots. ”It’s the hardest sensibility, but I can do it. I have a sense of taste. That’s why I get paid.”

Okay, maybe Usher isn’t the most modest guy on the planet, but he does have timing on his side: Comedies are doing well this summer, and Mystery Men has a cast rich with comic…timing. Champion City’s ragtag superheroes include Ben Stiller as the angry guy; Hank Azaria, who throws forks at his adversaries; William H. Macy, who carries a mean shovel; Paul Reubens (a.k.a. Pee-wee Herman) as a flatulently talented do-gooder; and Janeane Garofalo as a dour young woman who rolls a killer bowling bowl that contains her late father’s skull. Geoffrey Rush is their nemesis, the disco-lovin’ supervillain Casanova Frankenstein.

It’s the hip cast, in fact, that makes up for the film’s somewhat uneven tone and could garner Men good word of mouth. When Garofalo, for example, was unsatisfied with her scripted quip during the F/X-heavy finale — a scene in which Kel Mitchell as Invisible Boy suddenly appears naked — she subbed in one of the movie’s surefire laugh-getters: ”Maybe you should put some shorts on or something if you want to keep fighting evil today.” Ultimately, though, whether Men can blossom into a franchise will of course depend on its ability to stir a somewhat jaded audience. ”I love [superhero] movies, but people do seem burned out on them,” says producer Lloyd Levin, underscoring the difficulty of selling the comedy. ”The genre is at the same point as horror when Scream was released. The audience knows all the conventions. Our success hinges on making our characters as self-aware as the audience.”

The filmmakers are also banking on the Mystery Men‘s underdog status to charm teen audiences. ”These are just a bunch of guys trying to break out of their lives,” says Stiller. ”Guys nobody respects. It’s sorta sad.” Sure — but at least they’re on screen, ridding Champion City of disco ruffians. Can the defenders of Gotham or Metropolis say that? — Reporting by Jeff Jensen