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Comic Belief 

The soul in two dimensions

Wednesday, Aug 4 1999
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Photo by Claudette Barius
BACK IN THE 1950s, EVERYBODY FROM LEADERS IN Congress to the nuns at my parochial school warned that comic books would be the ruin of civilization. They were living in fear, the occupational hazard of authority figures, blind and deaf to what we instinctively knew but were too young to articulate -- that comic books, like rock & roll, were an art form taking its baby steps in tandem with our generation. If anything, these offspring of our fantasies would remake civilization as we hoped to know it. And they have: a sometimes ambiguous blessing, given that comic-book logic and cartoon characterizations shape not only most of our movies but govern a good deal of our political discourse. Yet comics, like rock & roll, have an undeniable saving grace, a capacity to touch the heart and soul with a perfect economy of technique. Despite the dangers inherent in any invitation to think in two dimensions, great comics can move through the imagination, sowing instruction and delight with equal power -- the medieval definition of art. At the very least, given enough talent, cartoon work can cleanse with laughter -- the task of art's drinking buddy, satire.

Both are endangered species at the box office, but the new film Mystery Men gives proof that satire isn't dead. The place is Champion City, a dark metropolis that conflates the futurama of Ridley Scott with the inky toontowns of Tim Burton. It's a tribute to the clever eye of director Kinka Usher that this feels more like parody than theft. The local superhero is the jut-jawed Captain Amazing (ably incarnated by Greg Kinnear), a muscular narcissist whose sleek costume is covered with the labels of his corporate sponsors. The Captain is the prisoner of his own success -- all the worthy supervillains have been locked up, and lately he's been reduced to fighting riffraff and chewing out his publicist over the inevitable losses in revenue. Thus, when the most evil of the bygone supervillains, Casanova Frankenstein, comes up for parole, the desperate Captain weighs in at the hearing in favor of his release. This self-promotional tactic backfires a scene later when the villain (played with Rasputin-ish exuberance by Geoffrey Rush) takes the Captain hostage and runs roughshod over the city.

Champion City's only hope of rescue is the Mystery Men, a band of wannabe heroes whose powers are restricted to intensive daydreaming: the Shoveler (William H. Macy); Mr. Furious (Ben Stiller); the Bowler (Janeane Garofalo, with bowling ball); the Spleen (Paul Reubens); the Blue Raja (Hank Azaria); and Invisible Boy (Kel Mitchell), who claims he can turn himself invisible only when no one is watching. They spring ineptly into action, get their butts kicked, then rebound like stumbling understudies from a Rocky sequel, attacking Casanova and his henchmen with such "nonlethal" weapons as Canned Tornado and an argument-provoking contraption called the Blame Thrower.

All this is amiable stuff. Writer Neil Cuthbert has a caricature artist's mercilessly reductive sense of how the world is put together (corporate sponsorship, greedy lawyers), and director Usher has packed the frame with ticklish details. The fart jokes have been timed with a care worthy of the bombs detonating the bridge on the River Kwai. One wishes for more of Kinnear, whose marionette face seems custom-made to spoof superheroes; or Lena Olin, mostly wasted as Casanova's exotic girlfriend; or Wes Studi (the great Magua from The Last of the Mohicans), whose cameo as a mystic teacher would have been more enjoyable had we been allowed to see his flinty face free of a mask. Macy, venting giddy frustration as a blue-collar guy trying to be all that he can be, unwinds his gift for deadpan intensity at full strength, while Garofalo, a livepan comic if ever there was one, serves as a heroic role model for put-upon girls in grade school and beyond.

WHAT'S MISSING FROM MYSTERY MEN IS SOUL. It's a quality present to a beautiful degree in this week's other big release, the animated The Iron Giant, one of the best films of the year thus far. Like E.T., like Babe, the movie has a child's heart and an adult's wit. It also has a rich pedigree, being loosely based on a children's book by Britain's late poet laureate Ted Hughes. Director Brad Bird has reshaped the story to fit the Cold War paranoias of the 1950s, and co-writer Tim McCanlies has fleshed out the tale's themes with a wealth of sparkling dialogue.

Hogarth, a junior high schooler named, we may surmise, for the pioneering British cartoonist, is a fatherless boy with a vivid imagination. As with Eliot in E.T., or King Arthur or Hamlet, being fatherless is excellent preparation for befriending the supernatural. One day, Hogarth (voiced by Eli Marienthal) spies a giant robot prowling the forest outside his hometown. The creature (Vin Diesel), apparently a heavily armed probe sent by an unknown race of extraterrestrials, stands about the height of a skyscraper and feeds on metal objects such as cars, bridges, lengths of railroad track. Hogarth is the only person in town who's seen the monster. His mother (Jennifer Aniston) is a hard-working waitress who humors him, albeit with thinning patience. One of her customers, a beatnik artist (Harry Connick Jr.), supports Hogarth's wild tales on rebel principle. Otherwise, our hero is a local laughingstock; the only folks who give him any genuine credence are the half-cracked UFO geezers whose cars and farm equipment have served as the monster's first menu du jour. Bent on proving his story, the boy stalks the Iron Giant, and, after he rescues it from a set of high-tension wires, the two become inseparable allies against the repressive might of no less a monster than the Pentagon.

The Iron Giant's theme of fear of the unknown is craftily balanced against the power of innocent imagination. Using the 1950s as a focal point, dazzlingly tricked out with period details (my favorite was a commercial for a nearly forgotten breakfast cereal called Maypo), the filmmakers map a witty prophecy of contemporary America, where the same dreads and dreams are doing battle. The animation is particularly beautiful: Though the characters have a comic-strip physicality on the order of King of the Hill, their movements are beautiful and subtle, and to these eyes surpass Disney. The way the pickup truck belonging to Hogarth's mom gives a little shake when she shuts it off; the misty way car headlamps halo a face against the night sky -- The Iron Giant abounds in such microscopic delights.

Hogarth eludes the Pentagon man (Christopher McDonald) by hiding his new friend in a metal scrapyard run by the beatnik artist, where for once the giant is free to eat his fill. There's a nice bit where the artist has to try to teach the creature to distinguish between his sculptures and random junk. This is no cheap shot: Time and again, art in one form or another saves the monster from his terrified persecutors. Hogarth shows the Iron Giant his collection of comic books, and the giant repeats the word Superman with the same tender cognition he later applies when he discovers the word soul.

The idea of a monster with a soul would have horrified the nuns at my parochial school, but the filmmakers make it come alive with a sweet vengeance. There's a wonderful moment, midway through the film, where the giant simply lies on his back in the junkyard, pondering the stars. In endowing him with such poetry, Bird and McCanlies repay the comic books they clearly loved as boys by making visible their true value. Superman is nothing if not a vision, available to all children, of the powers and the goodness locked up within them. The Giant -- like the '50s children who were browbeaten for their love of comics -- feels within himself the soul of a superhero, but he discovers this only through careful attention to the playthings of the human imagination.

THE IRON GIANT | Directed by BRAD BIRD | Written by TIM McCANLIES | Based on the book THE IRON MAN by TED HUGHES | Produced by ALLISON ABBATE and DES McANUFF | Released by Warner Bros. | Citywide

MYSTERY MEN | Directed by KINKA USHER | Written by NEIL CUTHBERT Based on the Dark Horse Comic Book series created by BOB BURDEN | Produced by LAWRENCE GORDON, MIKE RICHARDSON and LLOYD LEVIN Released by Universal Pictures | Citywide

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