One thing I’ve learned working as a pop culture critic over the years is that some things just really are not designed to be seriously criticized. Maybe it’s because my formative years consisted in overlapping parts of classic literature and Mad Magazine, fifties jazz and punk rock, Italian wines and cheap beer, TS Eliot and Lenny Bruce, Michelangelo and Jack Kirby, Richard Burton and Warren Oates, Stanley Kubrick and Roger Corman, and numerous other dichotomies. Or it could be all those scattergun reference points, scrambling for their private piece of brain-wrinkle real estate, finally settle for a time share arrangement. Once that happens, all those pop culture fragmented creatures, like it or not, take on personality fragments of their neighbors.
That’s why, when I think of Star Trek, the first thing I think of has nothing to do with the franchise itself — it’s a Mad satire of the series I read as a kid, and the only thing I remember of that is two word balloons. Spock says, “I can’t believe my ears,” to which Kirk replies, “I can’t believe your ears, either.” It cracked me up then, and it still does.
Along that same timeline, Marvel Comics introduced a new series called Not Brand Echh!, a spoof of their own characters, and a good-natured swipe at DC (who was Brand Echh in the Marvel PR of the time), as well. It was Mad for comic book geeks, especially Marvel geeks such as myself. The Mighty Thor was lampooned as the Mighty Sore, the Hulk was the Bulk, Superman was Stupor-Man, and in any given eight pager, the characters invariably had billboard messages stamped on their shoe soles.
The point is, Mad and Not Brand Echh! were not satires—they were parodies. There’s a big difference. Satire points out foibles through sarcasm and wit. Parodies go for the cheap joke — they’re supposed to be stupid. Two movies released on DVD this week are parodies — stupid, puerile parodies full of inside jokes, sight gags, and juvenile nudges. What makes them fodder for fanboy cliques is that they also step on their sacred cows of the moment, the Spider-Man franchise and the green screen epic 300.
305 is as much a sequel to 300 as it is parody — sorta. It began life as a humble video short on YouTube, and focused on five inept accountant types assigned to guard a goat path against the advancing Persians. Essentially, it was a "what if the staffers of The Office were placed in ancient Sparta" sort of affair. It became a major hit on YouTube, attracting more than 4 million viewers. What makes it important is that it is the first viral video to be made into a feature film.
The movie takes up after the events of 300, where we find that the five inadvertently caused the deaths of the 300 by leaving their post at the goat path to unsuccessfully join the main battle. The problem was, the goat path was the route by which the Persians entered. 305 expands on the premise of the original viral video, taking up a year later, and follows the exploits of the Five as they try to redeem themselves. Their path to redemption crashes through the fourth wall, ignoring all sense of history or timelines. Consider it a parody of The Office, if that show was set in Sparta. It’s a Mad magazine-style send-up of that sitcom, and a spoof of the over-praised 300, as well. If 305 has any pretensions at all, it’s that it was done in green screen, as was 300. The DVD’s special features even spoof the green screen process.
While 305 strives for the classic Mad spoof style, Superhero Movie takes its cues from Not Brand Echh!, combined with the now all too familiar touches you expect from the team that produced the Scary Movie and Naked Gun franchises. It’s taken a bit of heat in some quarters for—quote unquote—ripping off the Spider-Man movies. That’s a ludicrous criticism. Superhero Movie uses the origin of Spider-Man as a springboard to lampoon the entire superhero genre, in much the same way the Not Brand Echh! eight pagers did. There are references to the Fantastic Four, the X-Men and even Batman, none of which necessarily enhance the story. Nor were they meant to. They’re incidental gags, poking fun at the somber tones comics have taken of late. It’s all a slapstick farce, and any attempt to review it as anything more would be an exercise in pomposity.
Superhero Movie and 305 are unlikely to be remembered as comedy classics, at least not by this generation. They are what they are. Both films have a running time of just over an hour or so, more than ample time to scatter gun their way through plots that were never meant to be more than a launch pad for humor that never rises above a collegiate level. Both DVDs have an excess of bonus features to over-compensate for the actual movies’ lengths, including the requisite outtakes, deleted scenes and the obligatory alternate endings.
All that notwithstanding, these two movies offer something we don’t see that often these days. Yeah, they’re silly, stupid, frequently vulgar and puerile to a fault. But they remind us that not everything has to be art, or relevant, or socially conscious. In troubled times, we want nothing more than to step away for a moment, bundle up in our personal security blankets of incongruity. 305 and Superhero Movie are lineal descendants of The Three Stooges shorts of the Depression and WWII era. While they never sacrifice a sight gag for an attempt to make a meaningful statement, both movies have their moments when they inadvertently make a comment. Are they funny? That depends on your mood, or who’s watching the movie with you, or how you feel about fart gags or brawls amongst world leaders of peace.
But here’s the thing. If you don’t intellectualize Superhero Movie or 305, and if you don’t deify the source material, you’re going to find yourself chuckling in spite of yourself.
After all, they’re supposed to be stupid, stupid.