‘South Park: Joining the Panderverse’ Is Peak ‘Both Sides Are Equally Dumb’ ‘South Park’
In an epic, 49-minute takedown of billionaires, butt-hurt white-collar workers, the tired multiverse trope dominating big-budget movies and, of course, the casting decisions of Disney reboots, South Park: Joining the Panderverse shows Trey Parker and Matt Stone at their best as they masterfully imagine a universe where racism and sexism are equally as bad as a Black mermaid.
The structure of the latest Paramount+ South Park special, which hit streaming this morning, is a straightforward parody of the annoying and endless iterations of the multiverse premise made mainstream by the Marvel Cinematic Universe and their overlords at Disney. After experiencing strange dreams in which he and all of his friends are replaced by women of color complaining about white male patriarchy, Eric Cartman is suddenly sucked into a portal and thrust into an alternate universe where his nightmare is a reality. In his place, a Black woman version of Cartman from the woke universe appears.
Meanwhile, Randy Marsh harangues his kids for being coddled by technology and not knowing how to perform simple household tasks like fixing a loose oven door as he tries to demonstrate to them how his superior generation gets things done — by calling a handyman. However, Randy quickly finds that handyman services have skyrocketed in price and demand as white-collar workers like himself lack any practical skills and can easily be imitated by artificial intelligence. Suddenly, the handymen become the richest class of citizens in South Park to the protests of the soft-handed.
Over at the Disney headquarters, CEO Bob Iger is panicking over successive box office bombs like Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny while his board tells him, “We don’t understand it sir. We keep making the same movie over and over and pander to everyone, but suddenly it’s not working.” They call in controversial film producer and Lucasfilm head Kathleen Kennedy to help them out of the mess, but, lo and behold, their “Kathleen Kennedy” looks suspiciously like Cartman with long hair. Every time a struggling project comes up, he tells them the solution is to “Put a chick in it, make her gay!”
Those three storylines escalate and eventually converge as it’s revealed that the original Kathleen Kennedy, who is also trapped in the Woke Universe with original Cartman, abused the power of a mythical piece of ancient Disney technology called the Panderstone to generate repetitive reboots of beloved films that don’t change anything about the movies besides recasting white male characters with POC women. The Panderstone movies earned her tens of thousands of insulting pieces of prejudicial hate mail, which, in turn, only further fueled her desire to fight racism and sexism using unoriginal films.
Bob Iger recruits Randy to help return everyone to their own universes before the dimensions crash in on themselves, hilariously telling a crowd of dejected white-collar workers in Skeeter’s Wine Bar, “To breach the Panderverse, we need a place with integrity that has a broken door.” The group creates an interdimensional portal using Randy’s broken oven, and he spelunks through space and time while experiencing “an infinite number of universes with an infinite number of pants and shirts” before finding Cartman and Kathleen Kennedy and returning them to the original universe. The Cartman Kathleen Kennedy returns to her own mysterious dimension as well, and OG Kathy tells Bob Iger, “From now on we’re only going to make original content that doesn’t pander!” To which he replies, “Sure you will Kate, sure you will.”
South Park: Joining The Panderverse is chock-full of the hilarious and topical put-downs South Park fans expect from the twice-yearly Paramount+ specials that have become the focus of the franchise. Parker and Stone lay into coddled white-collar workers whose fears over A.I. highlight their own elitist opinions of those who work with their hands — a dejected Randy declares, “A.I. could do everything better than we can except for stuff that requires arms.” The special also satirizes the billionaire class once the handymen whom Randy and his friends looked down upon engage in a Elon Musk versus Jeff Bezos-style space race and even threaten to MMA fight each other like Musk and Mark Zuckerberg.
But, as the title suggests, the central target of the special is the tired debate over “woke casting” and the forces that have created an endless annoying feedback loop of outrage and counter-outrage every time Disney releases a new trailer for the same movie they’ve made 20 times with a woman of color front-and-center in a role that was previously whites-only. This thread culminates in a sit-down between original universe Kathleen Kennedy and Cartman in which Cartman admits to being solely responsible for the tens of thousands of hateful messages Kennedy received every time she rebooted a movie with a new lead. Kennedy blows up at Cartman, telling him, “I wouldn’t have tried to fight racism with the Panderstone if you didn’t write all those letters” To which he replies, “I wouldn’t have written all those letters if you hadn’t tried to fight racism with the Panderstone!”
The conclusion of this conflict comes when Cartman admits to Kennedy, “I guess we created each other.” Kennedy apologizes to Cartman and says, “I’m sorry I was so reckless with the things that you love. It was just lazy.” Cartman tells her, “I guess just wailing on woke stuff all the time is pretty lazy, too.”
There we have it — both sides are equally bad. Balance restored.
In proper South Park fashion, Parker and Stone don’t let anyone fully off the hook in their critiques of a complex issue, but, once again, their signature centrism tends to flatten nuance for the sake of a satisfying conclusion that makes the fence-sitters feel smart. The central reason Cartman gets caught up in the entire multiverse story is because he’s responsible for vicious hate mail toward Kathleen Kennedy, but, in real life, the producer isn’t the only target for racists like Cartman who lose their minds every time a new princess has too much melanin.
In fact, the worst backlash to casting decisions made in Kennedy’s films is often reserved for the cast members themselves — following the release of the controversial Star Wars: The Last Jedi in 2017, Kelly Marie Tran, the actress behind the fan-least-favorite character Rose Tico endured years of vicious, racist and sexist harassment and trolling. Tran penned an essay for the New York Times addressing the attacks she received daily from racist Star Wars fans who took her inclusion in their favorite fictional universe as a personal affront, writing, “I want to live in a world where children of color don’t spend their entire adolescence wishing to be white. I want to live in a world where women are not subjected to scrutiny for their appearance, or their actions, or their general existence. I want to live in a world where people of all races, religions, socioeconomic classes, sexual orientations, gender identities and abilities are seen as what they have always been: human beings.”
South Park: Joining the Panderverse’s assertion that racist backlash and pandering moviemaking both created and deserve each other minimizes the reality of racism as it relates to entertainment. But, again, this is — and has always been — par for the course for South Park. The ethos of “mock everyone equally” implies that, regardless of the issue tackled, both sides are equally deserving of criticism when that simply can’t be a universal truth.
Though so much of South Park: Joining the Panderverse was punchy, hilarious and incisive, the satirical lens of the series continues to be bogged down by South Park’s insistence that every cultural debate must boil down to “Douche vs. Turd.”