We live in an age of superhero movies, in particular an age of superhero team-up movies. We’ve already seen the Avengers assemble, the Guardians of the Galaxy gather, and the X-Men unite, and in the years to come we’ll see the rise of the Fantastic Four (again), the Justice League, the Defenders, the Inhumans and more. These films, varied though they are in character and plot, almost always have one thing in common: They feature heroes with Major Differences who find a way to unite against a common enemy and become a true superteam. Some movies nail it, some movies don’t, but there’s one film all of them could turn to if they want a masterclass in how to construct and unite a team of superheroes bent on a single cause.
That film is 1985’s The Breakfast Club. Yes, really.
It’s a film best remembered as an essential ‘80s teen movie, an essential Brat Pack film, and one of the best movies John Hughes ever made, but there’s no reason to ever think about in terms of superheroes. Here’s the thing, though: I’ve thought about The Breakfast Club a lot. I mean a lot. It was my favorite movie in high school, and it’s probably still in my top 10. Just last week, I revisited the film as part of my ranking of every Hughes movie (it came in at number one), and just when I thought I’d considered everything there was to consider about it, something jumped out at me: The Breakfast Club is a perfectly constructed superhero team-up movie…just without superpowers.
GATHERING THE HEROES
When the film opens, and we meet the five main characters, we’re meant to see them as very clearly constructed archetypes, so much so that their archetypes are quite literally given to us in the opening voiceover: “A Brain, An Athlete, A Basket Case, A Princess, and A Criminal.” The film’s opening moments reinforce this. John Bender (Judd Nelson) arrives at school alone, walking stoically in front of a moving car. Andrew Clark (Emilio Estevez) arrives in his letterman jacket, getting a scolding from his father about blowing his scholarship. Claire Standish (Molly Ringwald) is reminded that she’s in detention for ditching school to go shopping. Brian Johnson (Anthony Michael Hall) is put through the wringer by his mother and told he has to “find a way to study” during detention. Then there’s Allison Reynolds (Ally Sheedy), who arrives wordlessly and meekly, peering in the window of her parents’ car one last time before the car speeds off. As she says later in the film, her problem with her parents isn’t that they’re mean or strict: “They ignore me.”
We see these moments as very deliberate outlines of who these people are, and that continues as they enter the library for their Saturday disciplinary session. Bender taunts Principal Vernon (Paul Gleason) while Claire insists she doesn’t “belong in here” and Brian tries to be helpful by declaring he already knows he’ll never come back, because he’s a Good Kid who Works Hard. By the time Vernon leaves, Allison is in the corner loudly biting her nails, and everyone else looks at her like she’s not even from this planet.
FINDING A COMMON PURPOSE
At this point, only Claire and Andrew have anything in common. They’re the Cool Kids and the other three are Weirdos, and they present a united front when Bender tries to get a rise out of everyone, to the point that Andrew puts on his best Captain America face and tries to threaten Bender with violence when The Criminal pretends to pee on the floor. That’s when things start to get interesting.
As Bender keeps up his shenanigans, climbing out of his seat and onto a nearby railing, Claire attempts to tear him down because all he seems interested in doing is mocking fellow students who are active in school activities. When Brian points out that he, like Claire, is an active student (though he’s into academics, and she’s really not), Bender lays into him, and smiles form at the corners of Claire and Andrew’s mouths. They agree with Bender. They like his teasing of The Brain, though they’re not yet ready to admit it. Bender’s found some common ground, and he leverages that into an attempt to get the group some privacy by pulling a screw out of the propped-open library door. When Vernon, who’s the Nick Fury of the group — the person who pushes them all together — even if he doesn’t know it, returns and asks what happened to the door, everyone is miraculously quiet, even though they could easily turn Bender in. It may be a simple Kids vs. Principal scenario that has nothing to do with how they feel about each other just yet, but it’s our first example of a united front from the five of them.
THE FIRST MISSION
Now, the teens who will become The Breakfast Club are alone, cut off from their jailer, and the forge that will meld them into a team is on a low flame. Bender and Andrew square off physically, to the point that Bender even draws a knife before tension dies down. They compare home lives, and Bender flies into a rage when Andrew refuses to believe the cruelties of his life, which garners some sympathy from Claire. Then, Bender decides it’s time to venture out of the library for his much-needed weed stash. The Breakfast Club are on a mission, their First Mission, and even as no one but Bender is quite sure why they’re risking their necks in the school halls, they all follow, because they’re drawn together by a force they don’t yet understand. When they’re almost caught, Bender sacrifices himself to save the rest of the group from Vernon’s wrath, then sneaks back in to get high with his new friends. At first, they all resist, but again, everyone follows him into this bonding experience, even if they’re not sure why.
Now, we’re getting into the real meat of how this superhero team origin story works. For The Avengers, it was the death of Agent Coulson that pushed them into unity. For the Guardians of the Galaxy, it was the realization that they could all find redemption in doing something greater than themselves. For The Breakfast Club, it’s the realization that they’re all damaged people in a damaged world, and they’re better together. In high school, everything – from dating to grades to college applications – feels like it carries the highest possible stakes. Everything is the end of the world. The same goes for superheroes, so if you go into The Breakfast Club with that “high school is the end of the world” feeling, or if the film reminds you of that, this next phase of the film feels like a sincerely epic final showdown.
THE FINAL BATTLE
It begins with the five teens emptying each other’s purses and wallets, literally picking apart each other’s identities, and then the most important moment in the film comes: The Brain, The Athlete, The Basket Case, The Princess, and The Criminal all sit down and get really honest with each other, painfully honest. Bender snarls at Claire that she’ll never understand his problems with her proms and her diamond earrings. Andrew relates how hard it is for him to continue to submit to his father’s will, and how it causes him to hurt his peers. Brian breaks down in tears explaining how hard it is for him to keep up with always being the smartest kid in the room. Claire weeps over the pressure she feels to always be perfect. And Allison, in what might be the film’s most wrenching moment, responds to Andrew’s question of whether they’ll grow up to be like their parents with a sentiment that almost every teen has felt at some point: “It’s unavoidable. When you grow up, your heart dies.” There’s anger, and tears, and fear and doubt and at some point they all realize they’re all feeling it at once, but rather than go off and fight Ultron, they do what teens trapped in a room together are wont to do: They dance like there’s no tomorrow, each in their own way, but unquestionably together.
In that moment, the battle is won. Tomorrow doesn’t matter. Their parents don’t matter. The rest of their lives don’t matter. They are The Breakfast Club, and nothing can undo that.
And if you don’t think I’m right when I say that this is a film about a battle that forges a powerful team marching to victory, just take a moment to consider the film’s final shot again:
So, if you’re ever looking for some superhero inspiration and you’re not getting it from comic books, trust me: Watch The Breakfast Club one more time.