When Zoolander premiered in 2001, its titular character was supposed to be a joke. As played by director and co-writer Ben Stiller, the male model was unapologetically superficial and self-obsessed (he called himself “really, really ridiculously good-looking”), and audiences loved to mock him for it. The comedy, released just after 9/11, became a sleeper hit, grossing more than $60 million at the global box office.
Fifteen years later, with Zoolander 2 in theaters, it appears the joke is on us. Thanks to the rise of smartphones, which take selfies, and social networks, which enable users to share them with the world, Derek Zoolander’s not-so-model behavior has become de rigueur. We used to ridicule his vanity; now we bemoan our own. We used to laugh at his signature look, a pursed-lips facial expression called “Blue Steel” (below); now we call it “duck face.”
To its credit, Zoolander 2 seems to revel in this irony. A key plot point involves the model using clues from celebrity selfies to unlock the sinister plot of an evil mastermind (played by Will Ferrell). And at the film’s London premiere, Stiller mugged for a 28-foot selfie stick, a nod to the fact that Zoolander is a “progenitor” of the medium, as Stiller put it.
But the writer-actor is not afraid to critique his character–or the culture that celebrates him. “You are the most narcissistic, self-involved person I have ever met,” Derek Jr. tells his father at one point during the sequel. Senior’s response: “That’s not how I think of me.”
This appears in the February 22, 2016 issue of TIME.
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