Can a parody be superversive?
I’m going to stop myself right here. The answer is yes. A parody absolutely can be superversive, and there are several examples of this, which I will get to shortly. But before I get there I want to do a brief primer on the three main types of parodies.
First on the list is the subversive parody. Probably the most famous example of one of those in the modern age is “Deadpool”, the original moreso than the recent sequel. “Deadpool” is a mean, cynical movie that mocks and belittles the very concept of the superhero, but does so while still being very, very funny. It’s a good movie and a good parody, just a mean one.
Second is the neutral parody, a collection of jokes made at the genre’s expense, not necessarily focused on being meanspirited or on being uplifting, only on being funny. The example of this type of parody I am most familiar with is the Pink Panther series of films starring Peter Sellers as Inspector Clouseau, a series of movies that parody the detective genre. The Pink Panther films never came across as mean-spirited or cynical. They just took common tropes used in these sorts of films and crafted jokes around them – “What if the genius investigator was actually an idiot? What if his boss knew that but nobody believed him?” There’s nothing in particular that this is actively opposing but it makes for some good genre-based humor.
It’s worth noting that this is arguably the most difficult of all of the varieties of parody to write, because it relies entirely on the strength of its jokes, which is the hardest type of writing to get consistently right. If the jokes fail there is no substance to fall back on and the movie comes off as a total waste of time. Even the subversive parody is at least trying to say something.
So we have the subversive parody that uses its status as a parody to mock and humiliate the sort of work it’s parodying, and we have the neutral parody, which just uses the conventions of the thing its parodying as an opportunity to make jokes. Of course, I said there were three types of parodies, and indeed there are. The third type of parody is, when done right, undoubtedly the best type, and produces by far the most classics, and that is what I’ll call the parody as homage.
Parody as homage is something of a sliding scale. What I mean here is that while the media is definitely making jokes at the expense of the thing its parodying, it’s not doing it in a way that’s mean-spirited or cynical like the subversive parody or in a way that doesn’t really point to anything substantive like the neutral parody, but rather comes from a place of love for the work or genre it’s parodying.
“The Princess Bride” is of course probably the most famous example of this. The movies mocks and makes fun of classic tropes from adventure movies and Ruritanian romances, but it also just happens to be a fantastic example of the genre in its own right. The fight scenes are fantastic, the heroes are heroic, the characters are vivid – and it is VERY telling that by far the most famous scene from the entire film is not played for laughs AT ALL (“My name is Inigo Montoya. You have killed my father. Prepare to die!”). This is a strong tell that the movie is a parody as homage to the genre rather than a subversive or neutral parody.
As I said, there is a sliding scale. “The Incredibles”, one of my all-time favorite movies and certainly one of the greatest animated movies ever made, has clear parodic elements to it, especially in the first half of the film. But it definitely falls closer to the homage end of “Parody as homage”, ending up as an absolutely kickass example of the superhero genre in its own right. A little closer to the parody end is the classic film “Galaxy Quest”, reviewed here by Bryan Neimeier, and then closer still are the Starkid Very Potter musicals; the third musical in particular is in some ways an improvement on the backstory we get of Voldemort in the original series. As Cirsova has pointed out even the Phineas and Ferb Star Wars special provided the blueprint for a plot much, much better than what we actually get in “The Force Awakens”.
And this was really all a very long prelude to get to a plug/review of “SAO Abridged”.
For those who don’t know, the anime “Sword Art Online” is both incredibly popular and notorious as one of the worst anime of all time. It is the old “stuck in an MMO” story but distinguished itself in its first episode by adding strong horror elements and an “anyone can die” feel to the world, then promptly betrayed those elements by giving hamfistedly obvious outs to their major characters, making those characters share a spectrum from bland to unlikable, and having an absolutely asinine plot with more holes than a slice of swiss.
SAO Abridged is a parody of the original series (Abridged series generally are versions of shows, generally anime, that are shortened into sections that can be easily dubbed over and rewritten by voice actors). But what makes it great isn’t it’s humor, though it is absolutely hilarious.
No, what makes SAO Abridged great is that it’s way, way better than “Sword Art Online”!
The main character of the original series, Kirito, is a genius, a brilliant fighter, and just about the nicest nice guy to ever nice. And that’s it. Seriously, read Kirito’s Infogalactic page. There isn’t even a section describing his personality, because he doesn’t have one.
His love interest Asuna is the typical Strong Wymyn Character we all know and hate, with zero depth or substance to her personality, and both her and Kirito go through virtually no character development. Characters are introduced and very quickly killed off before we can care about them just to inflate the artificial “anyone can die” feel they were originally going for, unless the writers decide that they have potential as protagonists in the future, in which case they are saved in ridiculously contrived ways. There’s almost nothing to say about the plot. It is borderline nonsensical, a ludicrous mess with motivations that make absolutely no sense, and it ends incredibly anticlimactically.
SAO Abridged is absolutely nothing like that. When you strip away the jokes, the story and characters are really, really good.
Kirito in SAO Abridged is, like the original Kirito, a brilliant player in the game as well as a highly intelligent person. Unlike the Kirito of the original he is a jerk and an antisocial loner who looks at the rest of humanity with utter contempt. In real life he was a weak, bullied loser, so his contempt at humanity makes sense: Why wouldn’t he have contempt for humanity when all he’s known of humanity is that they’ve treated him like garbage his entire life? His character arc involves him getting grudgingly attached despite his best efforts to various people and realizing that there’s something about humanity that’s actually worth fighting for.
Asuna is still an extremely powerful fighter who is almost a match for Kirito in combat, but unlike in the original series where she is also beloved and sweet and kind and boring Asuna is a borderline psychotic jerk who only learns how to become such a good fighter because she was too incompetent at the rest of the game to even know how to open the menu. She tags along with Kirito at first not our of devotion but because it’s pretty much just convenient, and slowly falls in love with him – and him with her – because despite their bad attitudes they recognize kindred spirits in each other (it’s implied that Asuna’a bad attitude is partially due to her parents’ divorce, which is a reason she escaped into the virtual world of Sword Art Online).
By the time the Abridged series ends Kirito realizes that just because he had problems with humanity in the past doesn’t mean there aren’t people worth fighting and even dying for, and Asuna grows enough as a person to become capable of selfless self-sacrifice for someone she loves. Even the villain, Kayaba, is a more believable character with a rather silly motivation for his villainy but a motivation that at least makes sense, and there is something to his character besides just being a complete sociopath.
I can go on, but there is no point. There are tons of videos on Youtube analyzing what exactly makes SAO Abridged so great. It is a parody as homage, but executed to perfection, filing Sword Art Online down to its most essential points and improving on the original in every respect. If I had just one criticism it’s that I would have toned down the humor slightly in the final conversation between Kayaba, Kirito, and Asuna, and played it a little more seriously, though the very last moments with Kirito and Asuna are excellent.
And of course, the show is outrageously funny. It’s actually kind of hard to quote it out of context because so many of the jokes are organic to the characters and situations that occur in the show, which of course makes the show even funnier. There’s little more to say besides that – it’s clever and witty and has crackling dialogue.
It is worth noting that the creators of SAO Abridged, Something Witty Entertainment, aren’t really doing this out of a love “Sword Art Online” itself; I say this because I occasionally see the mods expressing agreement in the comments sections of videos that criticize “Sword Art Online”. I still think it is very much in the parody as homage category, though, because it was made out of great respect for the concept and genre of “Sword Art Online”. It is clear that SWE saw something in the show and did their level best to bring that something out – and succeeded with flying colors.
And I think for a parody to truly go beyond “good” and reach greatness it has to be a parody as homage, because only that version both allows you to tell a real story with real stakes AND does so in a way that doesn’t actively undermine western civilization in the telling. That’s why “The Princess Bride” will resonate in our hearts and minds long after “Deadpool” has stopped making us laugh. And it’s why “SAO Abridged” is so much better than it has any right to be.