MOST PEOPLE WHO STOP FOR DRINKS AT THE Comet probably don't recognize the origins of the man with a carrot for a head that's been painted on the wall. Those of us who do, however, raise a glass to the Flaming Carrot, a mortal man who on a dare read 3,000 comic books in one weekend, which made him simple, and inspired him to fight crime while wearing a giant carrot mask. He is the hero of Bob Burden's sporadically published but always surreal Flaming Carrot Comics, which has been around now for a decade and a half. Early on (issues 15 and 16, I believe) he introduced the Mystery Men to the Flaming Carrot's world -- supplemental superheroes with powers that ranged from the bizarre to the useless.

From the very moment I heard they were making a movie about the Mystery Men, I knew I was going to like it. How could I not? Even with the boneheaded changes that mid-level executives invariably force on unconventional sources such as comic books, something interesting had to stick. Though the producers didn't want to include the Flaming Carrot in the movie -- knowing full well he would quickly become the focus -- they did have Bob Burden create the Bible for the production: a list of about 40 characters that they could draw from to create a new and original story. According to the producers, Burden is very pleased with the movie (though I'm sure he's equally as pleased with a big Hollywood paycheck after years of toiling away in independent comics).

The thing that works best about Mystery Men is the world in which it exists, whether it's the architecture or the economics. Right off the bat, you see that Champion City is much like Batman's Gotham City, particularly the Gotham City of the Batman franchise. The city's resident superhero, Captain Amazing (Greg Kinnear), has done a great job vanquishing super-villains, and he has the endorsements to prove it: a lucrative advertising contract and a racing suit/costume covered with logos. Actually, he's done too good a job. All the super-villains have been locked up or killed, and now he's starting to lose his sponsorships because there are no good battles anymore. Of course, like any Hollywood star worth his salt, the most important person in his life is his publicist (magician Ricky Jay). To revitalize his career and spice up his crime-fighting life, the two of them decide to help free arch-rival Casanova Frankenstein (Geoffrey Rush) from the insane asylum.

Meanwhile, three self-styled superheroes have been trying to break into the business for the last 12 years: Mr. Furious (Ben Stiller, as a ticking time-bomb of terror, whose power is that he gets really, really angry sometimes), the Shoveler (William H. Macy, whose character proclaims, "God gave me a gift. I shovel well. I shovel very well."), and the Blue Raja (Hank Azaria, as a crime fighter who throws forks and spoons, but not knives). Mr. Furious is the leader, and he thinks they should throw down $450 for their own publicist. When Captain Amazing disappears, they take the opportunity to prove themselves, holding an open audition for additional superheroes to fight with them. They end up picking up the talented-with-a-bowling-ball Bowler (Janeane Garofalo), the gaseous Spleen (Paul Reubens), and the invisible-only-when-no-one-is-looking Invisible Boy (Kel Mitchell).

Stiller himself considered directing the movie at one point, but passed when he realized how big a production this would turn out to be. He told me, "I wasn't really up for doing a huge, special-effects, action-type movie. I loved the idea of these guys that wanted to be superheroes but weren't very good. I think what's good about this movie is that the director respected the fact that these people really believed in what they were doing, and I think I probably would have been a little more cynical about the whole thing. I enjoyed acting in it a lot. To be part of a movie like this, and not have the responsibility of having to direct it, is a much freer experience."

Garofalo admits to originally passing on the script, even though she was familiar with the Mystery Men from Flaming Carrot Comics. She didn't think she wanted to be in a big-budget action film, feeling there wasn't much of a challenge there, but when she heard the cast that it was attracting, from Rush to Macy, she signed on, even rewriting her role to make it more interesting. For example, encased in her character's bowling ball is the head of her slain father, Carmine the Bowler, which she named after her own father, and she was instrumental in adding the very funny dialog between her and the ghost of her disapproving dad.

In one sense, it's too bad that Stiller didn't have more of an influence over the direction of the film. It could have used a more sarcastic tone, in terms of characters and plot. The world is fascinating, the characters are great, the actors are phenomenal, but the whole thing slowly turns into a standard children's story where these makeshift superheroes need to learn how to believe in themselves and work as a team to defeat their common enemy. By the end, Mystery Men has forgotten its brilliant hook linking superheroes to showbiz and the star system. Luckily, there's enough fun and surprises before that disappointing ending to earn a recommendation. FILM

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