Spoofs Like 'Superhero' Make Anyone Climb the Walls
Saturday, March 29, 2008
Until 1980, the actor Peter Graves had specialized in parts that might have been described as "humorless Nazi mole" in Billy Wilder's "Stalag 17" or "grimly earnest scientist" in the sci-fi paranoia fest "Red Planet Mars." From 1967 to 1973, he was the serious-as-a-heart-attack Jim Phelps on TV's "Mission: Impossible." So when, in "Airplane!," Graves asked 10-year-old Joey, "Have you ever seen a grown man naked?," it was as if the actor's entire deadpan career had been a setup -- for lines that had moviegoers spasmodically spurting Coke and popcorn. ("Joey . . . do you like gladiator movies?")
A revolutionary comedy in 1980, "Airplane!" now seems to have been more like a virus. Its imitators are legion, and its sensibility has spread through the culture to the extent that the satire long ago became shtick. Of course, you don't have actors like Graves -- or co-stars Robert Stack and Lloyd Bridges, who were so funny cast against type -- because you don't have the same kind of typecasting. But you also don't have a culture that takes much of anything seriously. At least not seriously enough to make a parody interesting. ("Weekend Update" on "Saturday Night Live" is an example: Making fun of the news? Why bother?) We're too quick to parody everything. And since you can't parody parody, the edge of such comedy has been worn till it's smooth, round and dull.
Still they persist. (And for good reason: The "Scary Movie" franchise, for example, has grossed close to a billion dollars worldwide.) "Superhero Movie," which opened yesterday without being screened for critics (how shocking!), may not have Peter Graves, but it does have his erstwhile "Airplane!" co-star Leslie Nielsen, the sultan of spoof (notably, "Police Squad!" and the "Naked Gun" series). In "Superhero Movie," Nielsen plays Uncle Albert (we're so sorry . . . ), whose nephew, Rick Riker (Drake Bell), has been bitten by a radioactive dragonfly. Rick then becomes . . . Dragonfly, a conflicted, wall-scaling superhero who needs to learn that with great power comes great responsibility.
That it's taken so long to get a burlesqued "Spider-Man" off the ground, literally as well as figuratively, would seem to imply that a great deal of care and craft and humor had been put into it. This would be incorrect. "Superhero Movie," like so many of its ilk, appears to have been made for about $14.25 and -- considering the relative speed with which "Meet the Spartans," the spoof of "300," got out and raked in the dough -- to be inexplicably late to the game.
Some things, we suppose, never get old, although Nielsen, a spry 82, is no longer carrying the whole load for what turns out to be a "Spider-Man" clone accessorized with toilet jokes. Bell, whose "Drake & Josh" is one of the major pollutants on Nickelodeon -- an entity that's spreading its mediocrities to other media at an alarming rate -- is assigned to look dim or aghast, depending on the circumstances. Not much else in the repertoire. The more interesting casting choice is Christopher McDonald, who plays bad guy Hourglass. McDonald has spent many movies playing unlikable, arrogant, postmodernly cartoonish bad guys and stuffed shirts (1997's "Leave It to Beaver" couldn't have been what it was without him). But McDonald is like the entire comedy conceit of "Superhero Movie": You know exactly what you're getting, in a format that hasn't packed a delightful surprise since, well, maybe 1980.
Craig Mazin, the director, was a producer and writer on the "Scary Movie" franchise. He also takes a writer's credit on "Superhero Movie," although the makers of "Spider-Man" could probably take issue with that. For all intents and purposes, Mazin lifts the entire plotline of the other guys' "SM" film, larding it with such predictable and usually tasteless gags that pretending to have "written" this thing seems delusional at best.
"It's never too late," says Rick's love interest (Sara Paxton), "to become the person you were meant to be." But it's a bit late in the game for "Superhero Movie," which was never going to fly, and barely crawls.
Superhero Movie (85 minutes, at area theaters) is rated PG-13 for crude and sexual content, comic violence, drug references and language.