When the coming-of-age comedy Superbad was released in 2007, it quickly became a pop culture phenomenon. The movie is still best known for its dirty jokes and heartfelt-yet-horny teenage antics, but the generational impact of the film has proven to be longer lasting than its foul-mouthed shock value. Similar to its teen movie counterparts of the 1980s, Superbad touches on timeless adolescent themes like underage drinking and sexual frustration. Ten years later, in an era of unprecedented digital interconnectivity, how does a film centered on the mid-aughts teen experience hold up with today’s technology-obsessed youth?
If you missed the buzz when it came out, Superbad was both a cultural and financial hit. On a modest budget of $20 million, the film grossed more than $121 million in the United States. Box office numbers aside, it also helped launch the careers of its fresh-faced cast, many of whom have since become icons of modern comedy and A-list megastars. Jonah Hill, who played Seth and famously screamed “Ask me about my weiner!” a year earlier in Accepted, is now a two-time Oscar nominee. Emma Stone, Seth’s love interest, won the Best Actress statue in February for La La Land and Michael Cera, who played Seth’s best friend Evan, most recently appeared in David Lynch’s Twin Peaks reboot.
The New York Times film critic Manohla Dargis called the film “sweetly absurd, fully sexed and touchingly virginal,” giving the R-rated flick the esteemed honor of being a NYT Critics’ Pick. Acclaimed reviewer Roger Ebert offered similar praise: “In its very raunchiness, Superbad finds truth, because if you know nothing about sex, how can you be tasteful and sophisticated on the subject?” Both high-profile reviews spoke to one of the movie’s core strengths: the ability of Seth and Evan to comically switch between lewdness and tenderness in the same scene—a characteristic that is wholly accurate to many lovestruck (and sex-crazed) pubescent boys.
Even though the movie only came out a decade ago, the rise of social media and smartphones has drastically changed the day-to-day life of teenagers. The innovative Steve Jobs (who was still alive at the time of the film’s release) unleashed the first iPhone in 2007, George W. Bush was still in the White House and the American people hadn’t yet elected their first African American president, let alone a fear-mongering reality TV star with no prior political experience. In the past 10 years, high schoolers have gone from clunky Razr flip phones and bootleg CDs ripped from dial-up internet to an incessant 24/7 cycle of free streaming content and social media alerts.
‘Superbad’ was one of the last great teen comedies to capture the final era of semi-analog adolescence.
Superbad now stands up as one of the last great teen comedies to capture the now-extinct era of semi-analog adolescence. The presence of cell phones in the film is sporadic and insignificant, and there isn’t a single on-screen text message bubble, which are becoming more and more omnipresent on television and in movies. At one point, Evan dials his crush Becca (Martha MacIssac) and experiences an awkward, bumbling call due to shoddy reception. He eventually has to call her back on a landline phone. At the time, this was a highly relatable interaction for audiences, but in 2017 it seems like a relic of the past that today’s text-savvy teenagers wouldn’t understand.
The lack of being constantly connected via a smartphone also allows for the unpredictable to happen. When the duo’s friend Fogell (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) gets sucker-punched during a liquor store robbery, he has no means of alerting Evan or Seth. This leads to an erratic subplot as Fogell, now separated from his friends, is taken on a chaotic ride by two harmless police officers (played by Seth Rogen and Bill Hader) who want to show the nerdy teenager that cops can have fun too.
Throughout the movie, the characters seems genuinely unphased by the night’s uncertainties: Evan and Seth randomly end up at a coke-fueled party full of twentysomethings and run into the same cops who befriended Fogell. A life full of such spontaneity, although obviously heightened for comedy, was aspirational for youth at the time, who grew up without the option of constantly updating friends via group chats or broadcasting every highlight on social media. Within the confines of suburbia, the possibilities for a Friday night were seemingly endless and a complete mystery to anyone who wasn’t there to experience it firsthand. On Monday, high school hallways were full of kids recalling their wild weekend adventures to anyone who had missed out.
Teenagers’ affinity for adventure is now a shrinking commodity. According to Dr. Jean Twenge, a leading author on youth psychology, the post-millennial generation is “more comfortable online than out partying, and [physically] safer than adolescents have ever been.” If today’s high schoolers are more likely to be at home on their phones, can they relate to a movie like Superbad that centers on an unpredictable journey to a wild house party?
Superbad relies on the timeless codes and conventions of the teen comedy genre: awkward interactions with the opposite sex, the infinite struggle to fit in, and sexual naïveté will always be staples of adolescence, regardless of the decade. The gestures might not be as been as exaggerated as some iconic teen films of decades past (no one shows up blasting love ballads on a boombox or has sex with an apple pie). Instead, Superbad opts for the relatable.
“We believed we had come up with the most relatable movie theme ever. Who doesn’t want to get drunk and sleep with girls?” said writer-producer Seth Rogen at the time of the film’s release. "It wasn’t a re-invention of the genre. It was the simplest version of a high school movie.” In fact, Rogen and writing partner Evan Goldberg based the movie on their own experience of high school in the 1990s. It was funny back when they lived it, and again when the movie was released in 2007, and it’s still funny 10 years later.
Adolescent uncertainty will always strike a chord across generations.
Part of the real pleasure of watching Superbad, other than the endlessly quotable dialogue, is its simplicity. At a time when big studios overproduced plotlines and forced emotions for the sake of maximum entertainment—2007’s 10 highest grossers includes six sequels—Seth and Evan’s quest to get laid cuts through. Being a teenager is rarely as high-stakes as Hollywood imagines it to be, but hormones and peer pressure make it feel that way. The movie hits the coming-of-age tale with a heartfelt truth, and through that truth, finds an overabundance of comedy. Superbad is built on a grounded version of contemporary teenage sexuality and anxiety in a way that few modern teen flicks have been since (Easy A is a notable exception, but even that film is seven years old).
Audiences didn’t need Seth and Evan to teach them how to talk to girls at parties; they needed the characters to reassure them that the frustrations of being an unpopular, run-of-the-mill kid in high school were normal. Uncontrollable hormones and being clueless about the opposite sex are unavoidable parts of being a teenager. Seeing two friends bicker about the concepts of romance, popularity and growing up, with the same vulgar language that mirrored their own, gave a generation comfort in knowing they weren’t alone with their thoughts.
During one’s formative years, movies are more than passive entertainment. They can be engaging, empowering windows that help unsure teenagers find their footing. Today, those windows exist on our phones and in apps like Snapchat and Instagram. Ten years ago, Superbad reassured moody high-schoolers that they’re not crazy for being scared of losing their virginities or leaving behind their hometowns. That sense of adolescent uncertainty will always strike a chord across generations—so much so that even if you’re watching said movie in a different decade by yourself, you might not feel so alone.