The late 2010s saw a resurgence in superhero movies. Iron Man made it to the screen with itself and a sequel, Spider Man was brought to film not once but twice, rebooting itself before people had stopped watching the original franchise, even. Before Captain America, Loki, The Hulk, The Avengers, Ant-Man and so on and so forth, there were a glut of superhero movies in the 1990s, spurred by the early success of the stylish Batman.
They were not the very serious, very earnest films we now associate in the wake of Heath Ledger almost getting an Oscar nomination for The Joker and the gritty reboot of the superhero genre as something that actually could happen - as a gangster movie, The Godfather in greasepaint. Batman was played by George Clooney, the costumes had stiff latex nipples, Arnold Schwarzenegger was chewing up scenery as Mr. Freeze and the whole visual was an orgy of neon and bright color, a cross between the Adam West 1960s goofy Batman TV show and a hyperkinetic live-action Tron.
In the midst of it was dropped a pre-Watchmen parody of the superhero genre, an ensemble cast of comedians in a Cannonball Run-esque cameo-heavy riot of one-liners and gags, with a buddy movie at heart.
The spoiler-heavy story is as follows:
A gang of three would-be superheroes gathers at the local diner in an attempt to make a difference in the Blade Runner meets 1940s Noir "Champion City". Champion City is protected by "Captain Amazing" (Greg Kinnear), whose daring exploits have rendered the city pretty-much crime free, so there's not really that much call for any other superheroes. The other problem, of course, is that none of the three have any actual superpowers, or even exceptional human characteristics. "The Shoveler" (William H. Macy) carries a shovel and wears an outfit that is reminiscent of his actual day job, involving maintenance underground for the city. The "Blue Raja" (Hank Azaria) is a slightly effeminate not-British man who speaks sort of like one (think Stewie Griffin) in a green outfit without even a tinge of blue (including an over the top turban). Who throws forks. Not very accurately. Rouding out the trio is the least useful of them all, "Mister Furious" (Ben Stiller) - whose superpower is... well, getting angry. And theatrically screaming at the heavens while shaking his fists. Which doesn't come in handy in a fight, at all.
Returning to the diner after getting their asses handed to them by a gang called the "Red Eyes" (who wear backlit Steampunk red lensed glasses) and being saved by Captain Amazing himself - they have a crisis of faith. The Shoveler's wife despairs that her husband is out at night rather than at home with her and his two daughters, and could get hurt. The trio doesn't really scare anyone - even the police, who tell them to go home and leave everything to the pros. Furious notes absentmindedly that what they really need is an agent, you know, and sponsors. They could really get somewhere if they could make that happen. The Shoveler is more realistic. They couldn't protect a group of senior citizens who were the victims of a nursing home heist - against a third rate street gang.
Captain Amazing DOES have an agent, and a super-suit that is festooned with enough advertising decals to make him resemble a NASCAR driver. He also has the opposite problem. He's too good for this sort of thing. Having relegated the real supervillains of the world either to the grave or to prison, he's stuck doing simple jobs like... protecting 80 year olds from a third rate street gang. Amazing is actually the alter-ego of a rich playboy lawyer, the character is a parody of Batman: but in this world he doesn't use his own money. He has sponsors, and he's losing them - because it isn't really that great press, "Captain Amazing saves old ladies from a few out of shape wannabe hoods." He needs a REAL fight, but there's nobody left to give him one. And the only one who isn't either dead or permanently incapacitated is the Joker-like Casanova Frankenstein (Geoffrey Rush). An insane genius who was buried in an asylum 20 years ago and left to rot, but in his prime he was a serious contender.
Amazing concocts a simple plot - use his day-job to have Frankenstein released, and then show up as Captain Amazing to save the day. He gets more press and better press, keeps his sponsors, and perhaps inspires the underworld to up its game.
Frankenstein, for his part - has not forgotten having been buried in an asylum for twenty years by Captain Amazing, and holds a grudge. He knows who Amazing is, who he is in his day job, and what he's up to in having had him released. But he intends on changing the script slightly. Incapacitating Amazing, who because of age and being off his guard has fallen for an old trick of Frankeinstein's - he locks him up in a James Bond style execution device set to go off in the future and leaves him to contemplate his fate. Luckily for Amazing, Mister Furious has been watching the whole thing from afar in an attempt to get in with Amazing and have him and his friends join superheroes of Amazing's caliber. But the long and short of it is, Amazing is so angry at being on the losing side of things and the sheer incompetence of his would-be rescuers that he ends up killing himself by proxy, triggering the machine in advance. Not only did they not rescue Amazing, the would-be superheroes actually contributed to killing him. They flee in panic.
Frankenstein returns to find Amazing's body horribly melted, and the now-very real only hope for Champion City have a problem. It was fine and dandy when they were play-acting at it and hoping to hit the big leagues someday, but that day has arrived. And whereas Amazing was super, and Frankenstein most certainly is - he spent his incarceration designing and developing the same horrible doomsday weapon with the intention of destroying Champion City that was used to melt Captain Amazing into an unrecognizable puddle of warped and charred tissue. The would be heroes retreat and wonder what to do next, and Frankeinstein regroups every criminal group in the area, including the "Not So Goodie Mob" (Atlanta's Goodie Mob in a one-off joke cameo)) and Eddie Izzard (as "Tony Pompadour") and Pras of The Fugees (as "Tony C") as the leader of "The Disco Boys", a bell-bottomed, sequin-covered and pantsuited riot of Afros and slickbacks.
They're enhanced with the addition of "The Spleen" (Paul Reubens), who has a real superpower, albeit not a useful one - he blamed one of his farts on a gypsy woman, who cursed him with superhuman flatulence. Kel of Good Burger plays "The Invisible Boy", who can turn invisible, but only when nobody is looking at him. Rounding out the new members is Janeane Garofalo as "The Bowler", who has superlative bowling skill and a possessed bowling ball containing the skull of her father, which she can use as a boomeranging, mind-of-its-own sometimes style weapon. These are chosen out of a group of others, including Dane Cook in a cameo as "The Waffler", "Ballerina Man" and someone claiming to have menstruation based powers but can only join in five days a month.
They also gain a mentor in "The Sphinx", a man who speaks in pop-psych guru style platitudes ("if you do not master your fear, fear will become your master", etc.) but also has the ability to shear through metal with the power of his mind, which he uses to save them from death at the hands of the guns of the Disco Boys. As they regroup, and decide their best course of action is to sew new uniforms, the Sphinx desperately tries to rally them around their rather human powers and to believe in themselves, before going after Frankenstein.
You can tell the rest: the Bowler kills off Tony Pompadour and avenges her father, his skull destroys the Doomsday Machine. The Blue Raja finally learns to throw forks right, Invisible Boy really does have that skill and bypasses a camera-guided death ray to get them past an obstacle. They believe in each other, and Furious finally gets the real rage he needs to get the adrenalin required to beat Frankenstein senseless and kill him with his own machine. Cue Smash mouth's "(Hey Now, You're A) Rock Star" and the credits, as the news wants to know who these people are, and dub them the Mystery Men.
So here you had a feel-good buddy movie, superhero kinetics, a superlatively loaded cast with tons of talent - I mean, sure it has Ben Stiller but come on, Geoffrey Rush given FREE REIN to ham it up as an INSANE SUPERVILLAIN? Tom Waits as a mad scientist? Eddie Izzard in a flamboyantly glam outfit, dancing under a disco ball? What could go wrong?
The movie tanked.
It was a flop. Never made the money back, and was rapidly pulled from the few theaters it played in. It did gain cult status afterwards, though, in DVD release, but this wasn't enough to make the movie "successful".
It was based loosely on a property in Dark Horse comics called "The Flaming Carrot". But the actual eponymous "carrot" is never used, only the supporting players, and even then only some of them. You have to actually end up following the movie on its own merits or lack thereof, with the vast majority of people unable to make the connection between this film and the comic franchise it was based on.
Part of the problem was that what made the movie so great also made it disappointing. With that kind of star power around, and the number of stars around, everybody except Izzard were fighting for screen time and wanting to change their lines - and this sort of pressure was imposed on a novice director moving out of advertising and into movies with this as his first film. The stars ad libbed, tried to make things funnier and themselves stand out more, which meant the shoots didn't go perfectly as planned and the movie needed some editing afterwards. It has some pacing problems as a result and a new music writer and a new scriptwriter were brought in to tighten up and gather together the edges of what they were working on.
The few stars who stuck to the script and tried to keep to pace were "wasted" somewhat as a result, especially the flamboyant Izzard, who you can see just trying to fit in to get the ensemble to work. His subplot, that he killed the original "Bowler" and is dealing with a revenge situation with the daughter - gets lost in the multiple threads going on.
But the ensemble IS what makes it work.
Despite the fact that the scriptwriter wasn't exactly the best, the director was in over his head, the pacing drags, amazing talent goes underutilized in some parts and overutilized in others and so forth.
Oh sure, there's fart gags, over-the-top costuming and a main hero who flies in with a jet-pack and a villain who can melt reality. But what makes the movie is that it switches seamlessly between playing for laughs and playing for pathos. You might not have been the guy who really only ever wanted to play in the NFL or the Olympics, who drags his bag from college team to arena team to any kind of walk-on competition hoping to be noticed... refusing to admit a core lack of "the right stuff". Juggling a dream and a family and a day job, with a spouse who has dreams of her own, thank you, and though she appreciates yours, there's only so far she can let that go and be the one adult around the household. Very few of us would BE in the NFL/Olympics kind of situation thinking that reaching the pinnacle would be the end, but really it's just the beginning of a longer nightmare of press, sponsors and media management.
You may or may not have a pedestrian job you go to, because you have to. Working a retail job or maintaining a sewer tunnel - or being an unemployed and unemployable mom's basement dweller. But literally everyone can identify that there's stuff you do because you have to, and there's stuff you wish you could spend your life doing - and you can identify with that gang around the diner table who never made it as rock stars but play the odd VFW gig together not even making enough to pay the gas money there, never mind the hours and hundreds of dollars lovingly spent on equipment and the pursuit of that dream.
It's a very, very human movie - even in the midst of a fantastic set with a word salad of Asian languages and Cyrilic, and glitter-clad villains with blinged-out pistols. And it's worth it just for that. People have compared it to Watchmen, which was about actual human superheroes and their foibles, or Kick-Ass, about people playing a superhero role in the real world as opposed to a comic book world. But in the end it is this that makes Mystery Men unique, watchable, and a real gem. It's about watching those who didn't quite get born with that X Factor still try out anyway, and still reach their potential, fleeing though it may be. And finding out that teamwork, heart, and discipline can overcome an innate lack of talent.