In general, there are two crucial elements to a successful spoof. One is the source material. Something has to be part of the pop culture consciousness before it can become potential lampoon material. Cult entities can’t cut it, while the overexposed tend to ridicule themselves. The balance is not perfect, but it must be maintained. And then there is the humor itself. No one is knocking the lowbrow and the scatological, but a send-up must have some modicum of wit less it wallow in mindless unfunny business. The best benchmark for such a stricture is the 1980 farce Airplane! Directed by Jim Abrahams, and brothers David and Jerry Zucker, this comedy classic found the perfect combination of material and mirth to become a prime example of parody perfection.
Since then, however, the genre has died a thousand Scary Movie inspired deaths. Specifically, a pair of sadly untalented writers named Jason Friedberg and Aaron Seltzer have become the de factor frauds in charge of the post-post modern movement in so-called take-offs. Their string of cinematic abominations includes all four of the horror-inspired joke-a-thons, as well as Date Movie, Epic Movie, Meet the Spartans, and the upcoming Disaster Movie. How they avoided getting their dumbed down, derivative fingerprints on Superhero Movie (new to DVD from The Weinstein Company and their Dimension Films division) is a minor miracle. Sure, this bumbling burlesque is only a tad more competent than the Friedberg/Seltzer sputum purporting to be comedy, but you can tell that the people behind the scenes at least have an idea of what spoofing is all about.
Craig Mazin is an alumnus from the Scary franchises (he helped out with numbers three and four) and with the help of original parody pro David Zucker as producer, some of that incomparable ZAZ spark has found its way into the desperately DOA format. The storyline is the spitting image of Spider-man. Rick Riker, on a field trip to a science lab, gets bitten by a genetically altered dragonfly. Soon, he’s taking on the characteristics of the bug, and exploring his newfound powers while pining away for sexy next door neighbor Jill Johnson. In the meantime, dying industrialist Lou Landers partakes in a radical experiment that turns him into a kind of vampire - he must kill someone everyday in order to live. As the Dragonfly becomes a celebrated crimefighter, Landers assumes the identity of the Hourglass, and uses his insane arch-villainy to try and live forever.
Right up front, you can see the main difference between Superhero and any of the other “Movies” mentioned. This film actually has a plot, a quasi-coherent clothesline upon which all number of timely and already dated riffs can be assembled and presented. We actually get something similar to a three part story arc, Rick going through the necessary origin motions before taking on his inadvertent nemesis. In between, there are takes on Batman Begins, X-Men, comic book culture, and everything that made Sam Raimi’s blockbuster a glorified geek classic. Sure, the sexually oriented material with Happy Day‘s Marion Ross and the way to aged Leslie Nielsen barely works, more uncomfortable than comic, and the random cameos from Brent Spiner and Jeffrey Tambor are more irritating than enjoyable, but overall, the performances are part of Superhero Movies limited positives.
Another is Drake Bell. While his partners it pre-teen Nickelodeon crime - The Amanda Show‘s Ms. Bynes and Drake and Josh‘s Mr. Peck - have both gone on to major motion picture careers, the music minded 22 year old has been stuck in big screen second banana mode. Superhero Movie won’t change that status for now, but Bell is very genial as Rick Riker. He does dopey slapstick well, and his expressions offer the perfect combination of cluelessness and self-referential irony. Without Bell, this film would be an even bigger dud. That he manages to keep us engaged even as fake animals are fornicating with his leg (as well as other body parts) indicates the inherently endearing quality he brings to the role.
As part of the DVD extras, we are treated to a full length audio commentary featuring Mazin and producers Zucker and Robert K. Weiss (best known for his work on the entire Police Squad series) along with some unnecessary deleted scenes (jokes that really misfire), an alternative ending (similar to what was eventually seen, if only smaller in scope), and a collection of cast and crew featurettes. Perhaps the most interesting element here is the notion that many recognize the reputation the genre has garnered, as well as how desperate they are to keep Superhero Movie from facing the same fate. Mazin and Zucker argue over how to approach parody, while Bell describes some of the pitfalls of being an on screen action star.
Certainly there are facets of this farce that just do not work. Christopher McDonald is way too manic to be anything other than a scenery chewing goof, and the random arrival of Pamela Anderson, Tracey Morgan, Simon Rex, and Regina Hall make about as much sense as the shout outs to Barry Bonds, Facebook, and Dr. Stephen Hawking. And anyone with fond memories of real send-up masters like Mel Brooks and such ZAZ masterworks as Top Secret! will wince at any comparable comparison. For what it’s worth, Superhero Movie is just a tad less inventive than the Star Wars workout Spaceballs, while not quite as shabby as other non- Friedberg/Seltzer stupidity like The Comebacks. While the entire comedic category may still be on life support, at least Mazin and crew aren’t contributing to its demise. Instead, Superhero Movie may suggest there’s life in the old filmic format after all.