Ten Years Ago, Superbad Subverted the Teen Sex Comedy

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Ten Years Ago, Superbad Subverted the Teen Sex Comedy

Every generation of teens has its generation of teen movies—my colleague Amy Glynn has been writing some excellent pieces about hers, the Hughesverse—and Greg Mottola’s Superbad is the epitome of mine. In Seth (Jonah Hill) and Evan (Michael Cera), my friends and I had a mirror for our own insecurity and awkwardness—they were our modern-day Anthony Michael Halls. In Fogell/McLovin (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), we had an icon of weird who somehow ended up a winner, a sort of photonegative of Ferris Bueller (Matthew Broderick). And in Superbad’s constant dick jokes (care of a script by namesakes Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg), we had an accurate representation of the way we all talked, maturity be damned. The film would join the pantheon of mid-2000s comedies—most notably Anchorman and Step Brothers—that created a white-adolescent-boy language made up entirely of lewd, absurd references.

It’s been ten years since Rogen and Goldberg’s story hit theaters, just distant enough to judge the impact Superbad has had on both teen movies and comedies in general. On the whole, the film has aged reasonably well, with one notable exception: its liberal use of the word “fag,” which has gained proper and wide recognition as a very-not-OK slur in the decade since. For the most part, though, Superbad, destroyed the archetypal relationships of the teen flick, changing the types of conversations that movies of its ilk could have.

It’s a rom-com in many respects, but unlike its predecessors, Superbad is a romance between two buddies, a story wherein the ostensible sex drive is secondary to Platonic need. Most of John Hughes’ ’80s oeuvre centers on the cringe-worthy struggle of X character getting Y other character to notice their existence in order to have Y inevitably fall for X. No matter what else Sixteen Candles and Pretty in Pink have to say, their endgame remains Molly Ringwald getting with the correct Good Guy. Ditto Amy Heckerling’s iconic contributions to the genre, Fast Times at Ridgemont High and Clueless, and the literary reimaginings (Ten Things I Hate About You, et. al.) that followed in the latter’s wake. Despite her legendary status among female protagonists, Cher’s (Alicia Silverstone) great realization is that she loves her step-brother Josh—the best of Good Guy names, played by the Ultimate Hollywood Good Guy™, Paul Rudd. Of course, distilling a desire to get laid into true Good Guy romance is the entire raison d’etre of the American Pie series and its bawdy peers.

In Superbad, Seth and Evan’s versions of the Good Guy aren’t Jules (a precocious Emma Stone) and Becca (Martha MacIsaac): they’re each other. In the film’s denouement, with the two leads snuggled up close in sleeping bags, Seth literally says, “I just wanna go to the rooftops and scream, ‘I love my best friend, Evan.’” For teenage boys struggling with anxiety over the seeming hopelessness of losing their virginity, Superbad provides a welcome respite, an acknowledgement that focusing your entire life upon your dick is pointless when there’s fulfillment to be had by your side the entire time.

Superbad’s realism doesn’t stop at its depiction of male friendship. The film’s dialogue and characters leap out of hackneyed tropes and into a high school experience that lacks any silver screen sheen. Rather than being lazily tossed into the Unpopular Kid or Unappreciated Nice Boy bin, Seth and Evan are given complex social statuses—spit upon by bullies, yet well-liked enough to be invited to Jules’ party and garner the attention of girls who aren’t the Prom Queen or the Ugly Duckling. Jules herself destroys both the Popular Girl and Good Girl archetypes by combining the two: She’s the eye of the social hurricane who doesn’t drink, a type of person found far more frequently in real life than in movies. Becca, meanwhile, is an utterly quotidian character who doesn’t fit into any predefined teen flick role, which makes Evan’s attraction to her all the more a Hollywood unicorn. Like most couples, the two appear totally ordinary to third-party observers, reflecting Superbad’s insight that mutual attraction comes entirely from subjective perspective.

Instead of peddling wish fulfillment, the film operates in a universe of real people and their real relationships, and anyone watching could step into the characters’ shoes without having to launch themselves into fantasyland. Superbad shouldn’t get full credit for this development—The 40-Year-Old Virgin and Knocked Up both predate it—but teens, with their precarious self-esteem, are often in particularly dire need of a reality check and a healthy dose of earnestness. Superbad delivers both in a way that hadn’t really been the focus of teen sex comedies before, and which has arguably been the predominant milieu of all comedy ever since, even as great works like Master of None and The Big Sick add necessary perspectives of color to the overarching style.

(Here, I should note that Stone’s Jules, like many of the other characters she’s played, is woefully under-written. That we get any idea of Jules’ inner life is a testament to Stone’s acting talent, which is on full display even at this early stage in her career. She embodies dignity and honesty as Jules, a role that, with a less-convincing performance, would’ve been reduced to a mere drunken fantasy.)

The great foil to Seth and Evan’s mundane quest is the surreal, satirical adventure of McLovin and the irresponsible cops, Officers Michaels (Rogen) and Slater (Bill Hader). McLovin is Superbad’s lasting contribution to the Movie Character Hall of Fame, because he’s a perfect takedown of the Cool Guy trope from other teen comedies. Protagonists like Bueller and Fast Times’ Jeff Spicoli (Sean Penn) float on an alternate plane. They’re carefree ideals to which we can aspire, larger-than-life figures who order pizza to the classroom and reign over the Von Steuben Day Parade with little negative consequence. But despite their in-film mythos, Spicoli and especially Bueller are never totally divorced from the struggles of the dynamic characters for whom they exist. They’re thus able to serve as instruments for the major narrative arcs of their respective films, providing a bridge that the Cameron Fryes (Alan Ruck) of the world might cross into the land of indulgent escapism in order to learn and grow.

McLovin, on the other hand, bears absolutely no connection to reality. Another great quote from Seth: “No one’s McLovin. McLovin’s never existed because that’s a made up dumb fucking fairy tale name, you fuck!”

And yet under this ridiculous pseudonym, it’s Fogell—the very antithesis of cool, someone no teen boy would ever desire to be—who ends up getting laid. Here’s Superbad showing its audience that not only is the Cool Guy an unattainable myth, but we shouldn’t even aspire to be the Cool Guy, because the events that determine our social clout are totally arbitrary. In a world where McLovin and Ferris Bueller achieve the same outcome, why the hell would anyone look to either for inspiration? Better that people stay grounded in an authentic persona and find meaning in their own awkward growth.

Arguably the most societally important subversion Superbad undertook was shifting the focus of teen sex comedies from the sex to the alcohol consumption (from the end to the means) that’s usually taken for granted. Throughout the Hughesverse, we’re shown that yes, teens get wasted and smoke weed, but we’re never really offered any consequences. In fact, Sixteen Candles verges on unforgivably rape-y, what with Farmer Ted’s (Anthony Michael Hall) stalker tendencies and stud Jake Ryan’s (Michael Schoeffling) suggestion that he could violate his passed-out girlfriend “ten different ways.” Meanwhile, the American Pie lineage channels Animal House, playing up the gross aspects of booze-laden parties for cheap laughs but never commenting more deeply on the matter. And while Fast Times deserves major kudos for depicting an abortion during the uber-conservative Reagan years, hammering home the shame that American culture has built around sex, the film has little to say about the awkward, messy mechanics of the sexual act itself. In Superbad, on the other hand, the whole plot is built around a quest for alcohol, which is not only the central struggle of getting any high school party off the ground, but also the golden ticket to sex in its teenage characters’ minds. Seth plans to get Jules drunk before he seduces her; Evan doesn’t even need to get Becca drunk, instead being told that he has to meet her at her level of inebriation in order for their sex to be okay. Today, these processes immediately bring to mind the epidemic of collegiate sexual assault—Seth’s strategy, in particular, sounds disturbingly similar to Brock Turner’s.

So it’s crucial that Superbad tells viewers that getting hammered is not the way to go about satisfying your sexual desires. Evan’s visceral discomfort in bed with a blackout-drunk Becca isn’t just a signal of the character’s awkwardness, it’s also a brutal lesson in the realities of drunken sex, which is here (and often) far more deserving of disgust than glorification. The vomit that Becca spews all over the bed makes literal the moral nastiness of the scenario. Likewise with Seth, whose two chief assumptions—that Jules would be drunk and that he could only sleep with her if she was in that state—are proven drastically wrong. First, her tender rejection of his advances throws the purpose of the entire evening into doubt. Why did the boys go through all the trouble to get the booze if it actually impeded Seth’s chances of fulfilling his desire? (The answer, of course, is the repairing of the film’s core friendship.) Then comes the coup de grace, in the form of Seth’s unintentional headbutt and Jules’ shocked reaction. It’s silly, unexpected and a total destruction of any romance that might still have come out of the situation.

Superbad finishes on as bittersweet a note as you’ll find in a teen sex comedy, with Seth and Evan lingering on each other’s gaze as they soberly head off in different directions toward different futures, their respective ladies in hand—but not really. It’s an image that still holds true for high schoolers, whose teen lives aren’t going to wrap up perfectly as they approach adulthood. Most teen boys are not McLovins, nor are they Ferris Buellers or Jake Ryans or Spicolis. They’re Seths and Evans, and Superbad celebrates that reality.

Zach Blumenfeld thought “McLovin” was some weird new McDonald’s slogan before a sympathetic friend showed him Superbad. Follow him on Twitter.

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