Fifteen years later, Tropic Thunder is a flawed comedy we still can’t agree on

It doesn’t take much effort to come across memories of Robert Downey Jr.’s work in “Tropic Thunder,” no matter what year we’re in. Clips of Downey as Kirk Lazarus are always popular GIFs, especially those with running transcripts of one of the character’s most outrageous lines. Benign fools and warty trolls alike offer them as provocative answers to every imaginable problem.

However, the memes and references to “Tropic Thunder” have been particularly prevalent over the past week, for reasons unrelated to the film’s 2008 15th anniversary, a threshold that falls on August 13 officially exceeded.

Scroll through a few threads discussing whether Bradley Cooper should wear a prosthetic nose to play legendary conductor Leonard Bernstein, and there’s the face of Downey’s Lazarus as Black Army Sergeant Lincoln Osiris.

Not long after Cooper’s “Jewface” controversy subsided, another shared shot of Judy Garland in horrific blackface next to a photo of her as Dorothy Gale shot through the internet, sparking rebuttals in the form of Downey as Osiris next to a picture of him as Osiris from Tony Stark.

Downey as Kirk Lazarus as Lincoln Osiris, for some reason, emerges to the surface of the online furor stream. A few weeks ago there was a heated debate about whether his work on Tropic Thunder was any better than his acclaimed performance on Oppenheimer, and for a while GIFs of a painted Downey snarling about it were inevitable. A guy playing a guy disguised as another guy.

In February, there was a lot of groaning over Ben Stiller’s decision to take the bait of a MAGA lunatic. The man insisted the actor-director stop apologizing for “Tropic Thunder,” and Stiller, who is currently being praised for his Apple TV+ drama “Severance,” felt the need to reply that he never did — which led to a New York Post headline. Of course, bringing this image to the surface doesn’t require a news hook at all, because there’s always someone like Megyn Kelly wondering why she can’t get away with supporting blackface on national television while Downey is doing an entire movie wore long.

Fifteen years after its release, Tropic Thunder has the odd legacy of being a rallying point for the crazies and a display of what not to do and how not to do it, both intentionally and thoughtlessly. People with drastically opposite political, social, and cultural views share the opinion that it’s objectively hilarious.

They can differ on which gags they find particularly funny and, more importantly, why. This is where the question gets heated as to whether “Tropic Thunder” really stands the test of time or meets the quality standards of satire, whatever that is.

Stiller directed, produced and co-wrote “Tropic Thunder” with Justin Theroux and Etan Cohen. Stiller also plays Tugg Speedman, an action star whose fate was shattered by his poor decision to play Simple Jack, a man with an intellectual disability who can talk to animals.

Tropic Thunder is now commonly understood as a maximalist shock comedy wrapped in a fig leaf blanket.

To revitalize his career, he resorts to the classic Hollywood gag of starring in a bombastic Vietnam War film, using Jack Black’s Jeff Portnoy (modeled on Chris Farley) and Downey’s Lazarus, the ensemble’s multiple Oscar-winning heavyweight . Very quickly the production goes awry and the core ensemble finds itself confronted with people armed with real guns instead of props.

Every man embodies a version of Hollywood’s self-aggrandizing pomp. Portnoy is best known for a number of films in which he appears as a series of pompous characters in heavy suits reminiscent of Eddie Murphy’s Klumps series – when starring Chris Farley. Speedman’s “Simple Jack” satirizes season hits like “Rain Man,” “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape,” and “Forrest Gump,” albeit without the care Stiller and the writers devote to Downey’s character.

Incidentally, this aspect of the never-ending cycle that brings us back to all discourse surrounding Tropic Thunder shows why comparing Cooper’s performance in Maestro to Downey’s character is a false act of trolling. Cooper makes an honest effort to approximate Bernstein’s physical appearance and consults with the artist’s family in developing the role.

Downey’s Kirk Lazarus is a fiction based on horrible and encouraged behavior designed to shock and offend. Stiller mitigates his awfulness by constantly reminding Brandon T. Jackson’s rapper and actor Alpa Chino Lazarus that he’s not black, that what he’s doing is immoral — the aspect of the character Downey previously explained, that he is attracted.

Lazarus’ whole being satirizes the obscene extremes to which method actors go. Not content with just putting on makeup, he undergoes surgery to darken his pigmentation all over his body. Later, the white Australian actor, who dresses as a black man, lectures his actual black co-star about how slurring the N-word for “their people” is, and complements the jawline by saying the lyrics to The Jeffersons’ theme song quoted.

It’s all an extreme exercise in blackface monstrosity – again – and to remind audiences that Hollywood is normalizing it. That largely works. But not quite, because at the end of the day blackface is still played for entertainment.

“There was no way it wasn’t going to be an insulting nightmare of a movie,” Downey told Joe Rogan when he asked the actor about “Tropic Thunder” on a 2020 episode of his podcast. “And 90% of my black friends are like, ‘Dude, that was great.'”

To the other 10%, Downey said, “You know, I can’t disagree with you. But I know where my heart was.”

That conversation, along with all the others that keep coming back, is a holdover from the age of equality offenders in comedy, a time when Stiller thrived as part of the group colloquially known as the “Frat Pack.”

In 2008, Stiller was widely known for showing “Tropic Thunder” for representatives of the NAACP and some black journalists. A decade and a half later, this detail is cited as a shield for those who have allegedly asked their black friends (who may or may not also be their Canadian friends) if they have permission to do and say things they shouldn’t be doing.

A few seconds before voicing that quote, Downey also jokes that the role has allowed him “to be Black for a summer, I think, so there’s something in it for me.” That’s different now than it was in January 2020, Months before the names Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd and Breonna Taylor all changed what it meant to “be black for a summer.”

The changing eras have changed our interpretation of some entertainment content. Like other films created and made with the best of intentions at the time, and showing their cracks over time, Tropic Thunder is now commonly understood as a maximalist shock comedy wrapped in a fig leaf. The question is whether you are involved in the joke.

It’s obvious to scoff at this observation, as it’s mostly found funny, including by many black people, but certainly not by all. Also, Jamie Foxx pointed out to Rogan in a previous appearance on his show, “Here’s the thing: We’re fucking with Robert Downey Jr. That’s our guy.” (Also: Jamie Foxx is one who speaks on behalf of millions who he has not consulted.)

What’s most striking about the film’s legacy is that both supporters and critics consistently return to the film controversy’s actual poster model, Downey Jr. in blackface, while citing deliberate fouls like Tom Cruise’s “Les Grossman,” an absolutely perfect nod to “Les Grossman,” easily skip a greedy, selfish studio boss who also drew “Jewface” accusations, or who overlooked decisions like the script’s two-dimensional Asian thugs or a hint of gay panic that got late-laughs.

Tropic Thunder remains the offbeat, wide-ranging comedy that invites reflection on both the jokes three privileged white people thought of as thoroughly as they could and the jokes they missed.

The part considered most offensive in 2008 and barely mentioned in 2023 is the grotesque portrayal of “Simple Jack” and the oft-quoted speech from Lazarus summarizing why it brought Speedman’s career to a halt.

A slur referring to people with developmental disabilities is used several times in this monologue, in addition to describing similar roles in pejorative terms, including the term “slow and stupid.” But the phrase that comes up the most is the clincher: “Never get full (expletive).”

Somehow, though, “Tropic Thunder” remains the offbeat, broad-based comedy that invites reflection on both the jokes Stiller, Theroux, and Cohen thought through as thoroughly as three privileged whites could, and the jokes they missed . One might also reflect on how morally contradictory it is that Downey accepted an Oscar nomination for a performance designed to skewer such endorsements of reprehensible acts committed in the name of practicing his craft.

It’s one of the reasons Tropic Thunder fans are celebrating and lamenting that the film may never be made in 2023, and reactions to Cooper’s Maestro trailer back up that claim. However, making room for all artistic possibilities means that considering the more complex conversations people are having outside of angry social media arenas today could result in something just as outrageous, provocative and more thought-provoking than anything 15 years ago considered nervous thinking.

People would also be offended by this portrayal.

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That’s the fate of black comedy when it’s taken to the extreme. Channeling despicable behavior and practices into comedy may never be acceptable to some, regardless of the intent behind the plot. Others will twist the joke’s intent to validate their biases, or use it to call other artists hypocrites, which is reason enough to stay away from restricted areas where “Tropic Thunder” dove face first.

A lot more people can just take the film for the blended comedy it is and enjoy the guaranteed laughs while also exploring why we laugh or why the filmmakers think we should be.

Perhaps that can defuse future excitement over who gets to play who, unless the choice is truly outrageous. There’s always going to be some guy who plays a guy, dresses up as some other guy that people don’t want to play, and does it badly. “Tropic Thunder” gives the world an example that we can all understand, even if there are very different interpretations.

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Tom Vazquez

Tom Vazquez is a USTimeToday U.S. News Reporter based in London. His focus is on U.S. politics and the environment. He has covered climate change extensively, as well as healthcare and crime. Tom Vazquez joined USTimeToday in 2023 from the Daily Express and previously worked for Chemist and Druggist and the Jewish Chronicle. He is a graduate of Cambridge University. Languages: English. You can get in touch with Tom Vazquez by emailing

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