Anarchic cartoons like the old Warner Bros. and Fleischer Studios shorts are always popular with children (even if many of them were not originally written for them) because they appeal to the fantasy of control. Children are not in control of their day-to-day lives, and these cartoons allow them to fantasize about a world where rules can be bent or broken at will. Characters like Bugs Bunny defeat bullies by breaking the systems that give the bullies power.
During times of crisis — the Marx brothers during the Depression; Frank Tashlin and Jerry Lewis during the height of the Cold War — anarchic humor becomes popular with adults as well, when they’re having fantasies similar to the ones their kids have. If the system is holding you down, wouldn’t it be great to break the rules of the system and defeat the bullies holding you back?
We do not generally consider the 1990s as one of these times of crisis in America. Nevertheless, for all the relative peace and prosperity in that decade, many were convinced that masculinity was in crisis due to a combination of white-collar work, feminism, and consumer culture. If you turn to any newspaper’s opinion section in the decade, you will find no shortage of articles that sound like they were written by 19-year-old men who never had a girlfriend, just watched Fight Club for the first time, and have ideas about how men are now the real victims.
This crisis of masculinity gave birth to a cycle of anarchic, cartoon-inspired action comedies. In terms of plot, these films begin with a male protagonist who is established as ineffective or in some way emasculated (at least in part by women). The normal world erupts into anarchy that shatters the system holding the protagonist back. This chaos takes the form of tropes borrowed from Looney Tunes and Tex Avery cartoons such as breaking the fourth wall, impromptu musical numbers, and role-playing.
While you could argue that Who Framed Roger Rabbit? (1988) began the merging of cartoon and live-action sensibilities (literally in that case), the first film to truly establish this sub-genre is Joe Dante’s Gremlins 2: The New Batch (1990). A radical departure from the first film, the sequel follows Billy (Zach Galligan) and his fiancée (Phoebe Cates) as they move to New York to further Billy’s art career. Billy fits the model of the frustrated male hero: He’s in a dead-end job, doesn’t have enough money to get married, and is hounded (and sexually harassed) by his female boss. We see Billy talked over, threatened, and pushed around by his bosses, co-workers, and strangers in the street. He is, to borrow the phrasing of our current moment, a beta male.
As the story progresses, the titular monsters make their return and run amok in Billy’s office building. They destroy the building’s machines and torture the employees. As was so often the case in Looney Tunes shorts, the chaos breaks the fourth wall. At one point, the movie “stops” when the gremlins replace the film of Gremlins 2 with a vintage exploitation film (Hulk Hogan, as himself, saves the day by forcing the gremlins to restart the film).
The chaos allows Billy to transition from emasculated beta male to hero. Instead of talking over him, the bosses now seek his guidance. Once the day is saved, the company’s owner offers Billy a large contract to design and build a new real estate development. The breakdown of the white-collar workplace allows Billy to regain the traditional hallmarks of masculinity (the prestige of a good job, money, and a wife).
If Gremlins 2 was the gateway to this sub-genre, Chuck Russell’s The Mask (1994) is the genre mainlined. The film follows Stanley Ipkiss (Jim Carrey), a bank employee who has many of the same problems as Billy. He is abused by his boss and taken advantage of by his female co-workers. In his introductory scene, he presents his female co-worker with two concert tickets, wanting to take her out on a date. When she says that she wants to bring a friend with her, he offers to stay home and gives her both tickets, forgoing the date (a decision for which his male co-worker mocks him).
This is not the end of his trouble with women. Immediately after this scene he meets a beautiful woman who uses him to case the bank for her mobster boyfriend. When he goes home to his one-bedroom apartment, he is harassed by his landlady, whom he is too timid to confront, instead mumbling an insult after she has left. Finally, he meets a female reporter who initially seems interested in him, but ultimately uses his attraction to her to betray him.
Stanley is a perfect candidate for the modern incel movement absurdity (he even writes a letter to the editor entitled “Nice Guys Finish Last”). It is not until he finds a magical mask that his luck begins to change. By donning the mask he becomes an avatar of chaos, a living cartoon that disrupts the system and its rules.
As the Mask, Stanley gains freedom from the film frame itself. Whereas earlier scenes were shot tightly, making Stanley look trapped, as the Mask he zips out of the frames with a cartoon sound effect. His mobility gives him freedom from the fourth wall; the film can no longer contain him. He also uses his powers to assume roles that include a French lover and a Latin dancer, allowing him to romance women he would otherwise be too timid to approach. He also assumes roles, such as a gangster and a cowboy, that allow him to mock traditional masculinity and defeat the more macho gangster villains.
There were other films that could fit into this sub-genre, such as Mars Attacks! (1996), Looney Tunes: Back in Action (2003), and Kung Fu Hustle (2004), but by the early 21st century it had fizzled out. Why? First of all, most of these films, with the exception of The Mask (and Kung Fu Hustle, which did well in the U.S. for a foreign film), underperformed at the box office. Additionally, some have suggested that 9/11 ended (or rather paused) the 1990s crisis of masculinity. If so, this perhaps played a role in ending the cycle of anarchic action comedies as well.
Between Jordan Peterson and the Incel movement and the recent outrage about the new Star Wars movies focusing too much on the female characters, it is clear that the masculinity crisis is back in full swing. Fittingly, we are also beginning to see a return of anarchic action comedies. Deadpool (2016) and Deadpool 2 (2018) play into the Looney Tunes aesthetic and conform to the parameters laid out in ‘90s films like The Mask, providing a new round of anarchic fantasies for masculinity in crisis.