In 2008, the Coen brothers’ masterpiece No Country for Old Men won Best Picture at the Academy Awards. It contended with another memorable piece of cinema, Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood, which saw actor Daniel Day-Lewis claim another Oscar for his dramatically destructive performance. That same year, Pixar was at the height of their powers and released the unforgettable WALL-E to thunderous acclaim.
And then there’s Meet the Spartans.
Released two years after the film it was parodying, Zac Snyder’s 300, the spoof quickly floated up the turd bowl of every critic’s Worst of the Year list. “Lazy, lame and painfully unfunny” Variety stated. “Witless, tasteless, formless” declared the Village Voice. “You look like assholes who rip their jokes off of YouTube” Austin Chronicle said, presumably to the faces of the film’s writer-director duo—Jason Friedberg and Aaron Seltzer.
The film’s also homophobic, racist, sexist, ableist and every other -ist—it’s too big to list. These “jokes” are as painfully dated as all the pop culture references these filmmakers rely on.
In the first five minutes alone, Meet the Spartans includes the following: a puking baby Shrek; Angelina Jolie adopting a Vietnamese baby; that testicle torture scene from Casino Royale; an animatronic penguin doing a Happy Feet dance; a can of Pedigree; a Subway footlong; something about Taco Bell; and a line about Anna Nicole.
This unrelated reference barrage of all things popular in 2008 never ceases, but that’s exactly why I chose to watch this for the first time, a decade after its release. What kind of experience do you get from a comedy with such a tight expiry date on most of its jokes?
Well, it’s still an ass-ache of a film to watch, but there’s something undeniably fascinating about it that’s only developed with age.
References to reality TV are almost exclusively about judging panels sitting behind desks—American Idol, Dancing with the Stars, America’s Next Top Model—and share as much screen time as the pixelated vaginas this film’s obsessed with. Borat’s mentioned twice, the Heroes TV show gets an odd shout-out, there’s a separate Britney Spears segment, Paris Hilton is a legitimate character in the plot, and the film stops for a You Got Served dance number (a sequence that carries on three whole minutes after we got the joke).
It’s genuinely interesting to know what dominated western brainwaves back in 2008, albeit contorted by the comedy stylings of Friedberg and Seltzer. They are impressively not-funny and to say they usually “miss the target” is an insult to the act of aiming. The way their references don’t relate to the film they’re mocking, their unstoppable urge to pick the rotting scraps from the low-hanging fruit tree, and their overall mean-spiritedness make them a sort of antithesis of Phil Lord and Chris Miller (21 Jump Street, The LEGO Movie).
They also feel a desperate need to explain their jokes, so distrustful of the audience’s ability to put two and two together that they water down any potential chuckles. It’s this very reason that no gag’s left in the background either, as if Friedberg and Seltzer couldn’t even rely on the audience’s eyes to find a gag. It results in an assembly line of bad jokes: stop, tell it, move on, stop, tell it, move on, add 90 minutes.
I needn’t go on this rage-review tangent. Every other critic did that when the film got released.
However, I’m compelled to be fair here. If Meet the Spartans cut out all the pop culture references as well as the sexism, racism, et al, you’d be left with a decently silly 15-minute parody film. That’s because the gags that DO work all relate to mocking 300.
That film’s overloaded sense of muscly masculinity is ripe for mockery and Meet the Spartans sometimes pulls it off. Seeing rubber baby Leonidas born with a beard and a six-pack? Actually funny. Leonidas teaching his son to be a man by performing cartoonish WWE moves on him? Literally laughed. Kevin Sorbo’s appearance? A little inspired.
Even their tweaks to key moments and Snyder-isms are decently dumb in that blunt Mel Brooks kind of way. The traitorous counsellor character is literally named Traitoro, Sean Maguire makes for a pretty good counterfeit Gerard Butler, the obviously cheap sets and makeup humorously counter the overblown production of the original film, the iconic slo-mo fight scene makes great use of a wet towel slap, and a bit about bluescreen would have stood out as the G.O.A.T. if (again) it didn’t overexplain the bloody gag.
This is faint praise though. If a sandwich is made out of 85% bullshit, you’ll still call it a bullshit sandwich, and that’s Meet the Spartans.
To cap it off, there’s a gag near the end that references YouTube and the ‘leave Britney alone’ video. It’s deliciously ironic given how big of a role YouTube played in the ‘This is Sparta!’ viral wildfire that came just a year before. Arguably one of the first big instances of global meme-ory, the internet bet Friedberg and Seltzer to the punch while being fresher, funnier, briefer, and—most importantly—not costing the price of a movie ticket.
It’s perhaps the biggest instance of the internet killing the parody star. As with pop culture references, there’s a time limit to mocking a blockbuster. In this race, online content creators will always beat a film production to the finish line. This doesn’t just go for filmmakers; parody song king Weird Al Yankovic explained to NPR how his competition went from ‘no-one’ to ‘everyone’ when YouTube leveled the playing field.
The effect wasn’t immediate. Meet the Spartans was as successful at the US box office as Friedberg and Seltzer’s previous two films, Epic Movie and Date Movie, and their Twilight rip Vampires Suck pulled in a similar gross a few years later—a lucky release halfway through The Twilight Saga‘s cinema run.
Nowadays, meta is the new parody, with the Deadpool series mocking all sorts of superhero trends while Rebel Wilson vehicle Isn’t It Romantic sees its lead character trapped in a cliched romantic comedy. The parody film itself isn’t dead, it’s just evolved into an entity that can mock popular movies while telling a new story at the same time.
But in the realm of big-screen blockbuster entertainment? The genre’s a bloated corpse floating in the seas of cinema history, with Meet the Spartans acting as the post-humourous belch that confirmed the time of death.
That’s something to remember.