Spoilers ahead for Superbad (2007). Duh.
According to boxofficemojo.com, only five movies classified as “High School Comedies” have crossed the $100 million box office threshold*: American Graffiti (the success of which allowed George Lucas to make Star Wars), Porky’s, American Pie, Superbad, and the recent 21 Jump Street.
*Note: these figures are not adjusted for inflation. While that shows how unbelievably successful American Graffiti and Porky’s were (which made closer to $500 million and $300 million, respectively, in 2016 dollars), the numbers are still meaningful for the other three films. Even for modern High School Comedies, benefitting from decades of rising ticket prices, the $100 million threshold is still exceedingly rare.
You can set aside American Graffiti (1973) and 21 Jump Street (2012) as kind of being their own thing, but it’s clear that Porky’s, American Pie, and Superbad are all cut from the same cloth: the high school sex comedy. But let’s back up a bit.
In the 1980s, John Hughes owned the high school comedy. In fact, with the exception of Porky’s (1981) and Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982), he kind of invented the modern high school comedy. But after Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986) and Some Kind of Wonderful (1987), Hughes shifted gears into family comedies, with Planes, Trains & Automobiles (1987), Uncle Buck (1989), and Home Alone (1990), before quietly disappearing from the spotlight in the 90s.
In his absence, the high school comedy continued to evolve. There were some high-concept efforts like Heathers (1988) and Encino Man (1992), which ditched the Hughesian characteristic of being about the typical high school experience, instead opting for attention-grabbing, flashy hooks, vis-à-vis high school murderers (Heathers) or a thawed caveman (Encino Man). Then came a trend of adapting older classics into the modern high school setting, from Mark Twain (Class Act) to Jane Austen (Clueless) to Cyrano (Whatever It Takes) to George Bernard Shaw (She’s All That) to Shakespeare (10 Things I Hate About You), Shakespeare (Get Over It), and more Shakespeare (She’s The Man).
But American Pie (1999) was easily the biggest post-John Hughes high school comedy – the one that both made the most money (by far) and spawned the most imitators. It managed to hark back to the pre-John Hughes era, when the combined successes of Porky’s and Animal House (1978) proved the commercial viability of the sex comedy. Like Porky’s, American Pie successfully merged the high school comedy with the sex comedy, as both movies involve high school guys trying to lose their virginities.
And that concept seemed to drive teen comedies for the following decade. How many comedies can you think of where the stated goal of the young characters is either sex, finding prom dates, or both (as the two so often go hand-in-hand)? Road Trip, Euro Trip, Drive Me Crazy, Dirty Deeds, The Girl Next Door, Miss March, Sex Drive. To say nothing of the God-awful straight-to-video sequels and prequels like Road Trip: Beer Pong, a Van Wilder sequel and prequel, and four (FOUR!) inexplicable American Pie spinoffs (different from its three theatrically-released direct sequels).
In my mind, the premise of American Pie helped solidify this notion that losing one’s virginity – or having sex in general – should be viewed as a goal, as an endgame, or even as the end-all be-all of existence. I recognize that that’s probably a reflection of reality for a lot of high school boys (and girls), but is this a notion we should encourage? Is it healthy to view sex as a finish line? What kind of sexual interactions and relationships result from such a “sex at any cost” attitude?
On a surface level, Superbad (2007) has remarkable similarities to American Pie. Both center around socially- and romantically-hapless young men on a quest to lose their virginities before high school ends (not quite as explicitly-stated in Superbad, but still stated). Both are crude, raunchy, and – in the humble opinion of this viewer – hilarious. Both contain a comedic situation stemming from bodily fluid (the phrases “pale ale” and “blood brothers” take on new meaning after watching the two movies).
Superbad is simultaneously a part of this trend started by American Pie and a response to it. It’s interesting to consider the potential influence that teen sex comedies (like American Pie) may or may not have had over the characters in Superbad. As a real-world example, I was nine when American Pie came out, and while I didn’t actually see it until I was 12 or 13, its pervasiveness and cultural influence (see above) gave me a particular attitude towards sex that I carried with me throughout middle school and high school. When Superbad hit theaters – and became the most wildly popular and ubiquitous movie among every single person in my grade – I was 17, and it was clear that these characters (who were about my age) harbored similar attitudes towards sex that I had, informed by the same movies that had surrounded us and were targeted specifically towards our demographic. For what it’s worth, screenwriters Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg – who were so transparent about the autobiographical nature of the film, they didn’t even bother changing the names of the lead characters – were both 17, or about the age of Superbad’s fictionalized Seth and Evan, when American Pie came out.
The set-up of Superbad is extremely familiar. Both Seth and Evan have the same goal: have sex before leaving for college. This is the premise that was sold by the trailers and – in a lot of ways – by the movie’s first act. Seth’s (fairly troubling) early line, “You know when you hear girls saying ‘Ah, I was so shit-faced last night. I shouldn’t’ve fucked that guy.’ We could be that mistake!” is perfectly in keeping with the lessons taught by the teen sex comedies of the previous decade (and it’s a line that didn’t really raise my naïve eyebrows when I was 17, though it certainly does now).
And yet, that’s not what the movie’s about. It’s a misdirection.
Even though the entire plot is about the boys’ attempts to obtain alcohol, get to a party, and potentially hook up with an intoxicated Jules or Becca, the climax, resolution, and over-arching themes have nothing to do with booze or sex. It’s the classic bait-and-switch. While (an edited version of) Seth’s line above was featured heavily in the marketing, the real set-up of the movie can be found in Seth’s interaction with Evan’s mom, in Evan’s interaction with Becca, in a portion of Seth’s interaction with Jules (which appears in the Unrated version but not the Theatrical version, presumably cut for time). With these three conversations, the movie hammers home three separate times in the first 20 minutes that Seth and Evan are going to different colleges and that both are completely unwilling to admit how much that freaks them out.
The low point of their story isn’t a moment where it looks like they’ll fail in their quest for sex (which is the low point for Oz, Jim, and Finch in American Pie), but the moment where their friendship nearly unravels as they blame each other for their co-dependence. The climax of the movie isn’t Evan hooking up with Becca or Seth kissing Jules; it’s their simultaneous realization that their Act I attitudes towards sex and girls were very wrong (Evan goes so far as to actively resist losing his virginity) and Seth’s subsequent “rescue” of Evan from the party (drunkenly revealing his priorities).
The movie ends with Seth and Evan symbolically parting ways to explore the mall with their respective romantic interests, a not-so-subtle metaphor for their impending separation when they leave for college months later. That’s the movie. Neither Seth nor Evan have been popular in their school careers (as shown many times throughout the movie), but they always had each other and that made it ok. Now they’re both venturing out to the scary world of college without the security blanket of the other.
But that’s ok, because that’s what growing up is.
I completely recognize that losing one’s virginity is supposed to be a metaphor for growing up. But how much can the characters really grow up if they maintain such an immature view of sex? And how much are the unfortunate souls who watch American Pie Presents: The Book of Love aware that it’s supposed to just be a metaphor?
The characters in American Pie do some pretty questionable things on their quest to lose their virginities: prolonging a doomed relationship (Kevin), pretending to be someone they’re not (Oz and Finch, to different degrees), asking a girl to prom for no other reason other than she has a pulse (Jim), and – most egregiously – filming a girl changing clothes (and more) without her consent and then broadcasting it to the whole school. Yes, they come out the other side a little wiser (or so we’re led to assume), but how much wiser? What did they really learn? Did their attitudes change? The sequels seem to indicate ‘not much.’
Personally, during my first week of college, the reality that I was no longer surrounded by my friends and that I had to actively try to make friends for the first time in years was daunting (as indicated by Superbad). Whether or not I had yet had sex for the first time wasn’t really at the forefront of my mind and didn’t really aide me in navigating my new environment (thanks for nothing, American Pie). But maybe that’s just me.
Of course, there are plenty of post-John Hughes high school comedies that don’t focus much on sex or prom – special shout-outs to Rushmore (1998) and Mean Girls (2004) – but if we’re talking trends, then it’s easy to see how American Pie was a trend-setter, for better or for worse. I’ve said it before, but I hugely appreciate when a movie can subvert my expectations, as difficult as that is. In that respect, Superbad deserves a ton of credit for appearing to be yet another imitator of American Pie (and maybe some people still view it as such) when it was actually a much-needed revision of it.
It’s nice to know that high school comedies – like their characters – are maturing.