Parody isn’t easy — you have to know your subject well enough to not only make the jokes, and also make sure your audience gets them. But when filmmakers get it right, there’s rarely anything funnier. Some of the best genre films of all time have good-naturedly poked fun at the tropes and themes that fans love.
On August 21st, American Ultra hits theaters, and will become the latest in a long line of parody films. In the vein of The Bourne Identity, it stars Jesse Eisenberg as an easygoing stoner who learns he’s actually been trained as a highly skilled assassin. In the process, he encounters many traditional action movie situations – exploding cars, high-tech government operations, and a brave love interest (in this case, the equally awkward Kristen Stewart) who can help him on his journey.
There’s no way to know whether American Ultra will be a success. While early reactions to the film have been pretty positive, it may fail to bring in both fans of the genre and the indie fans that Eisenberg and Stewart tend to attract. Here are five other great parody films that won over fans and hit it big at the box office.
1. Tropic Thunder (2008)
This critical darling and box office hit isn’t just a parody of Hollywood’s most hyped-up war films — it shines a comedic, if critical light, on Hollywood as a whole. Tropic Thunder follows a team of preening actors and self-involved filmmakers as they trek through the jungles of Vietnam — until they find themselves off the grid, and unaware they’re no longer making a movie, but actually fighting for their lives. This leads to over-the-top plays on moments that are quintessential to any military movie — dramatic gunfire, earnest bonding between soldiers, and moments of existential reflection.
The premise of the film alone is enough to elicit more than a few laughs. But Tropic Thunder’s true genius comes with its self-referential digs at Hollywood’s obsession with power, money and accolades. With cameo-packed trailers-within-the-movie and hilarious performances from Tom Cruise, Ben Stiller, Matthew McConaughey and Robert Downey Jr., Tropic Thunder is a perfect parody in more ways than one.
2. Airplane! (1980)
The 1970s saw a rash of big-budget disaster films hitting theaters. The creators of Airplane! ran with the genre’s popularity and turned it on its head, taking viewers on one heck of a funny ride. The film parodies the “ship of fools” trope that often shows up in disaster films, pairing strangers together in an enclosed space and forcing them to figure out a way to survive. Airplane! also features a cast of actors who were known for heavier dramatic roles, like Robert Stack and Lloyd Bridges to add a deadpan, ultra-serious air that balances out some of the more slapstick sequences. In the end, Airplane! ends up being more entertaining than many of the films it so cleverly poked fun at.
3. This is Spinal Tap (1984)
Rock documentaries like Gimme Shelter and The Last Waltz give us an inside look at the relationships, creativity and hardships that come with a rock and roll lifestyle. This is Spinal Tap perfectly parodies those films as it follows a fictional British rock group and chronicles their life in the spotlight. This film is credited with popularizing the “mockumentary” comedy subgenre — and you’d be hard pressed to find a film that does it better. From the morosely serious interviews with Spinal Tap band members to their terrible, over-the-top songs, This is Spinal Tap effortlessly shines a light on how silly it can sometimes feel for musical artists to take themselves so seriously.
4. Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery (1997)
When the first Austin Powers film hit theaters in the late ‘90s, the James Bond franchise was enjoying a resurgence in popularity. That helped make the Mike Myers film, which directly parodies many aspects of Bond and other British spy films, feel all the more relevant. Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery wasn’t as financially successful as its two sequels, but it’s the most effective parody of the series. It’s especially successful in its send-up of the heavy innuendo, often implausible plotlines, and underdeveloped characters that show up in spy films. And placing the titular character in a modern day setting, the film can easily poke fun at many of the customs that spy films often showcase that aren’t quite as acceptable now.
5. Shaun of the Dead (2004)
Zombie films are a lot of fun — even though they often tend to tell the same story over and over again. Shaun of the Dead took that fun to the next level by cleverly playing up the most obvious zombie movie themes. And it forces its characters to confront the goriness, the ridiculousness, and the extreme severity of an apparent zombie apocalypse in a way that these types of films often let fall by the wayside. Shaun of the Dead is most effective as a parody when it pauses the action to have Shaun (Simon Pegg) and his band of terrified and confused survivors react to the terrifying events around them. And it succeeds in making horror funny where many other films have failed.