Batman had it easy. Loadsa money inherited off his dead parents, to spend on "all those wonderful toys". And Superman? Didn't even know he was born, Superman. He could fly, lift buildings, see through women's clothing... Fighting crime was never much of an effort for him, was it? But what about all the loser heroes? The amateur, mundane-powered vigilantes - the dull, the crap and the average?
You've got to admit, it's an amusing premise. Superheroes are, by their very nature, a silly concept. Spandex-clad bodybuilders prancing around fighting each other. How can you not find that funny? And Mystery Men simply takes a preposterous idea, sabotages its own, strange logic, and throws up something even more ludicrous.
So the biggest hero in the world depends on Pepsi sponsorships and plugging brands of toothpaste. Mean-while, other smaller-time, wannabe -heroes patrol the streets, desperately seeking respect and recognition. There's The Blue Raja (Azaria), who wears a green turban, and specialises in hurling cutlery. But not knives. There's The Shoveler (Macy), a sensitive, family man who wields a big spade. And there's Mr Furious (Stiller). He just gets angry.
But, despite a great premise, Mystery Men (ironically) received little respect or recognition from American audiences. The problem is primarily one of structure. The idea's great, but there's just too much to squeeze into a two-hour adventure flick. Consequently, it never knows quite where it's going, muddling satire, romance, slapstick, action, effects and the now obligatory gross-out gags (The Spleen! He farts!) into a garish superstew. Perhaps the movie's biggest crime is neglecting Geoffrey Rush, who's only given an opportunity to chew the Gaudi-inspired scenery in a few, slim scenes.
Strangely, though, there's still much to like about Kinka Usher's directorial debut. It's messy, but you've got to admit it brims with boldness. In other words, it may be pants, but at least they're worn proudly on the outside. Occasionally, a one-liner will prove to be a full-on rib-cracker ("Death Man? Death Man is dead"), and the sly lampooning of popular heroes and comic-book clichés will appeal to anyone who knows their Marvel from their DC. Mr Furious constantly speaks his thoughts out loud so everyone can hear them ("Anger... Subsiding... Blood pressure... Dropping..."). And the Shoveler is scoffed at for suggesting that Captain Amazing may really be bespectacled billionaire Lance Hutton.
But none of this would mean anything without such a comically astute cast. Simpsons voicer Azaria lays on a mummy's boyish charm; Stiller and Garofalo engage in some superbly childish verbal sparring (is this what they were like when they were dating?); Reubens' Spleen is so slimy he makes ooze look fluffy; and the mighty William H Macy imbues the Shoveler with a touching level of dignity. It might not be laugh-a-minute, it may be patchy and erratically paced, but only Captain Humourless could fail to find Mystery Men at least slightly amusing.
Maybe the end result doesn't justify the $68-million budget, but this ain't exactly Waterworld. It's loud, brash, colourful and shameless. But, most importantly, it's funny - - with a big red capital F on its chest.