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.
The low-rent-hero-overcoming-his-limitations shtick is played less successfully in Blankman (1994, Columbia TriStar, 92 mins., PG-13), the story of a nerdy misfit whose dim-witted courage and genius for building gadgets out of junk turn him into a ramshackle costumed avenger. Borrowing heavily from the campy ’60s Batman TV series (right down to the Wham!s and Pow!s), this earnest spoof means to be both funny and charming but comes off as neither.
Blame star and co-writer Damon Wayans, whose Blankman is such a shrill post-Jerry Lewis jerk that by the time he’s placed in a tacky death trap, you half hope he won’t survive. Despite Wayans’ best intentions, his character never becomes more than a softened version of the handicapped hero he played on TV’s In Living Color, giving the entire film the slapdash quality of a comedy skit that never should’ve been stretched to feature length.
A more notorious failure is Batman & Robin (1997, Warner, 127 mins., PG-13, also on DVD), in which director Joel Schumacher takes the Batman franchise on a freaky ride into parody and leaves it wrapped around a telephone pole. Trying to create a comedy of excess, Schumacher pushes every element of the production to a perverse extreme, from the production design to the oversexed costumes. But what he achieves instead is a kind of meta-comedy, a parody of a parody in which the only thing funny about the movie is how unfunny it is. Something is rotten in Heroesville when veteran filmmakers can’t get an honest chuckle out of a guy dolled up like a bat fighting evil hockey players.
While the other Bat-films use the lunacy of characters like the Joker and the Riddler to mirror their (and Batman’s) troubled psyches, Batman & Robin is devoid of emotional complexity. Relentlessly spewing bad one-liners, Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Mr. Freeze is a joke — but not a funny one — compared with the somber version of the character in the animated TV series. And George Clooney’s Batman is swallowed up by the carnivalesque shenanigans he’s dropped into.
To his credit, first-time director Kinka Usher has more 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 unlike Schumacher’s neon-glazed Gotham City, here 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. Mystery Men: B+ Blankman: D+ Batman & Robin: D