Building a 'Mystery'

"Everyone in the comic business wants to do movies and everyone in the movie business wants to do comics," says Mike Richardson, who founded Dark Horse Comics in 1986, then segued into Dark Horse Entertainment four years later to produce film versions of their popular series like "The Mask and Barb Wire."

"I can tell you for a fact that movies are being influenced by the comics," Richardson continues, "and if you saw my mailing list, you would know that many of the filmmakers out there -- directors, actors, producers -- are all looking in."

What's the aesthetic connection between movies and comics? Look no further than a movie's storyboards. These drawn panels, rough illustrations of scene compositions, resemble comic strips without the dialogue balloons. In addition, both movies and comics are narrative-driven media that combine text with visuals.

One key factor in the current popularity of comic-book adaptations is their larger-than-life characters, particularly psychologically complex super-heroes. Mystery Men, based on characters created by Bob Burden, offers a distinctive twist on this formula.

In Champion City, where Captain Amazing keeps crime in check, live a host of frustrated wannabes. The Sphinx, Invisible Boy and The Spleen are just a few of "these blue-collar, sort of end-of-millennium-type, suburban-shopping-mall guys, average joes, trying to be super-heroes," says Geoffrey Rush, who gleefully plays the movie's arch-villain, the continental megalomaniac Casanova Frankenstein.

Each of the "Mystery Men" has one particular skill, like fork-throwing or bowling, which aren't actually all that super. The second-rate nature of these crime-fighters, as well as their quirky philosophy, attracted actors like William H. Macy to "Mystery Men."

"The idea of loser superheroes, that's funny right there," says Macy, who plays The Shoveler, "and I love the sensibility of the thing. It's not nonviolent, but it's nonlethal. `Weapons like` a blame thrower, that's just inspired. You know, we want to vanquish crime, but we don't want to hurt anybody."

Just finding a common ground for Burden's characters which "run the gamut from being very simple and relatable to being absolutely surreal," was a particular challenge, explains producer Lloyd Levin, which meant it was vital to establish the right "tone so there'd be some sort of consistency."

"`Director Kinka Usher` assembled such a wild team of unlikely personalities into one group," says Rush admiringly, adding that Usher encouraged actors to improvise, which resulted in "a lot of invention on set."

All the actors were so clever with the way they worked on their characters," explains Macy, "like, Ben Stiller came up with this idea that Mr. Furious never did anything, he just warned people that he was about to blow. And I, at the last minute, trying to be a clever as everyone else, decided to do a sort of Gary Cooper, so we cut all my lines by two-thirds. I always thought of The Shoveler as being the moral center, the conscience of the "Mystery Men."

Each of the performers, whose backgrounds range from classical theater to stand-up comedy, brought something quite different to "Mystery Men." But they shared the sense that the film is, above all, meant to be fun.

"I mean, there's never going to be layer upon layer of depth," says Oscar-winner Geoffrey Rush, "when you're saying, 'I am going to take over the world at midnight.'"


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