It’s not a coincidence that the most famous parody films came at a time when New Hollywood was becoming “New Hollywood.” For many years, spoofs were what marked the growing geek culture surrounding cinema. And as film tropes became quickly apparent, filmmakers were eager to subvert them. Citizen Kane is fondly remembered not for its story but for the fact that it deconstructed classic Hollywood’s techniques.
When most people think of spoof films, most people think of the works of Mel Brooks, Monty Python, or of movies like Airplane! Some snobs are quick to remind us that we shouldn’t forget the early works of Woody Allen. What these films all have in common is that they recognized things that were critically scorned but enormously popular with audiences.
Classic monster movies, westerns, silent movies, disaster films – all of these were critical jokes in the 1960s and 1970s. Comedians were eager to show big Hollywood producers exactly where they were wrong. Spoofs represented the best of the underdog spirit of comedy – a bunch of nerds showing the big Hollywood gurus that they understood audiences better than their bosses.
But the films – Mel Brooks’ parodies in particular – also had affection for the films they were mocking. They wanted to share their love of schlock and not only mock it, but examine why it connected with audiences. That’s probably why Roger Ebert used to say his biggest influence as a critic was the movie parodies in MAD Magazine.
And after years of having tropes reflected back at them, audiences were able to examine these tropes on their own. Meme culture is centered on the same sort of jokes that Airplane! was based on. Take a scene from a movie, make a joke over it that shows how ridiculous the logic in the scene would be in real life or how ridiculous it is in the context of the film, and you have instant nerd credibility.
Ironically, as audiences got smarter, spoofs got dumber. Starting with the Wayans Brother’s Scary Movie, the films didn’t seem to want to score points against anyone. They only wanted to remind people of something they saw on TV once. It has the same effect as having a conversation with a seven year old about something he or she just witnessed. The genre reached its nadir with Friedberg and Seltzer, who view actual jokes with the same attitude as someone being asked to vacuum the living room. It’s a chore not worth doing, and they’ll do everything possible to avoid doing it. Even good parodies like Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story and Black Dynamite are treated badly by studios and cannot hope to garner anything more than a cult following.
But spoofs never went away. They just became incorporated into the modern reboots. Studios knew that they were dealing with an audience that would call them to task if they got anything wrong – just look at the much maligned Batman vs Superman. And they also knew that the budgets they were spending on blockbusters meant they had to hire people who had the same affection for comic books that the Zucker brothers had for cop shows.
When the Marvel Cinematic Universe was launched, the audience for the Iron Man and Avengers movies was well versed with the characters. Furthermore, they’d already spent decades making jokes about the characters and laughed at the attempts in the 1990s to make them “edgier” and more serious. Making a movie like Tim Burton’s Batman would have been asking for trouble.
So Disney and Marvel hired Joss Whedon to direct The Avengers. Whedon was at the time famous for his TV shows that tore science fiction and horror tropes to shreds. Shows like Firefly deified Whedon in the eyes of geek culture.
Whedon’s meant that Disney wanted to make the same jokes that the fans were already making. And they got it. When I think about my favorite scenes from that movie, I think not of the action scenes but of the moments of humor where Whedon was practically making a spoof of superhero movies. Loki is defeated when the Hulk grabs him mid speech and smashes him to the floor. It’s a scene right out of Airplane! The characters also make fun of each other using spoof dialogue. When Captain America asks Tony Stark what he is without the armor, Stark replies that he’s still a billionaire playboy. It reveals what was on everyone’s mind already – that crafting personal struggles for superheroes is inherently difficult as they’re meant to be larger than life.
This trend continued with practically every reboot. The studio hired an established cult figure that used the opportunity to make fun of the franchise’s past. JJ Abrams rebooted both Star Trek and included a red shirt joke as well as several jokes about Captain Kirk’s promiscuity. In Star Wars: The Last Jedi, there is a scene of Luke Skywalker tickles Rey’s hand and claims that sensation is The Force. The James Bond reboot Casino Royale included a scene where he exclaims that he doesn’t give a damn if his martini is shaken or stirred.
All of those moments are based on things that people would not have noticed in the past. Before home video, the only way people would have noticed specific moments to spoof is if they went to the theater repeatedly. After a generation, some filmmakers used the medium as a way to pay homage to moments they remember from their youth. But the new generation of filmmakers realized that everything they were making fun of was a shared moment. It was almost impossible to treat Luke Skywalker with reverence anymore. And people like Abrams had a template to follow.
Spoofs will likely never come back as a popular genre. But they don’t need to make a comeback. All of the best aspects of spoofs have been incorporated into the very blockbusters they were trying to destroy. And the audience is certainly still present. They’ve just moved onto message boards, where a macro image that takes three minutes to build gets the same audience. Parodies used to be the one, hip genre that captured a geek audience. Now that the geek audience rules Hollywood, they’re free to show every trick they learned from Spaceballs.