Michael Stewart
January 11, 2000 AT 05:00 AM EST

With their fantastic powers, funny outfits, and grandiose code names, comic-book superheroes are a pretty silly bunch, and it’s no wonder that Hollywood frequently plays the genre for laughs. But despite their dubious fashion sense, superpowered crime fighters have remained popular for so long because their outlandish adventures are like a fun-house mirror reflecting back our notions of heroism at larger-than-life size. It’s no easy task, but staying true to that concept even while poking fun at its more absurd conventions can help make a comedy like the new-to-video Mystery Men more than just a simple parody.

Based on the Dark Horse comic books created by Bob Burden, ”Mystery Men” recounts the tale of a band of second-rate, would-be heroes with names like Mr. Furious (Ben Stiller) and the Bowler (Janeane Garofalo) who try to prevent insane scientist Casanova Frankenstein (Geoffrey Rush) from destroying Champion City with a device that makes deadly hallucinations real.

There’s plenty of sharp satire here, like Greg Kinnear’s smug, publicity-hungry Captain Amazing, but the lame superpowers — being able to get really, really mad; having the ability to turn invisible provided nobody looks at you — are more than just another joke. Coming to grips with them is an obstacle each Mystery Man must surmount in his sincere quest to become a true-blue hero.

To his credit, first-time director Kinka Usher has some success with ”Mystery Men.” Yes, he spent too much time creating an obsessively sumptuous visual landscape (which loses a bit of its punch on video), but the set design achieves some comic effect, making the meager heroes seem amusingly inadequate by contrast. Played against such an extravagant backdrop, small-scale gags like Mr. Furious’ duel against Frankenstein’s fearsome pinkie fingernail become even more laughably preposterous.

”Mystery Men”’s greatest asset is its cast. Stiller, Hank Azaria, and William H. Macy deftly showcase the comic potential of their wannabe superheroes as well as their underdog charm. By the end of the film they transcend all the tomfoolery to make you believe, just for a moment, that the idea of an honest person becoming a costumed crime fighter isn’t quite so silly after all.

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