Monday, March 20, 2017

Character Depth in Superbad - A Movie Essay

Note: This essay is a slight revision of one I originally posted on You can read the original essay in its entirety here.

I was 16 years old when the 2007 movie Superbad was released. At the time, I thought of it as nothing more than a really funny movie full of lines that were quotable for years to come (as evidenced years later by my friend Yuriy shouting "prepare to get fucked by the long dick of the law" as we exited my vehicle to crash a freshman party - unknowingly right in front of the mother of the kid hosting the party).

Over time though, as I read about, reflected on, and re-watched the film, it became apparent that it is much, much more.

Character Depth in Superbad

As an adult, the first thing that becomes apparent about the quality of Superbad is just how accurately it portrays the thoughts and behaviors of an otherwise hard-to-capture time in a growing boy's life; sex is a constant topic of thought and conversation, girls are magical and mysterious creatures, the best friendships feel like true love, and why can't someone just invite me to a party already?

But now, as a writer, what really astounded me upon my recent viewing of Superbad was the story structure and characters. For something that appears on the surface to be nothing more than a raunchy film about trying to get drunk and laid that was written by two stoner comedians when they were in high school, Superbad has some of the best and most layered characters of any comedy movie, which helps to make the plot that much more intricate.

Let's look at each of the main character's motivations:

Seth (portrayed by Jonah Hill)
Seth's primary motivation is to get laid a few more times before college. The object of his desires is Jules (Emma Stone), who tells him after a fun time together in baking class that she's throwing a party. He offers to buy liquor for her party, thinking that will not only impress her but get her "drunk enough to get with him."

Seth's secondary motivation is his feeling of betrayal that his best friend Evan (Michael Cera) will be going to a different college than him and is going to be living with Seth's frequent punching bag Fogell (Christopher Mintz-Plasse). Though we have not seen their friendship prior to the events in the film (aside from a brief flashback Evan has to a prior night of hanging out), it can be assumed that this motivation is the reason for Seth's constant desperation and annoyance with Evan.

Evan (portrayed by Michael Cera)
On the surface, Evan's primary motivation seems to be the same as Seth's; to get laid. However, it is slowly revealed that he is actually much more motivated to have a meaningful romantic relationship with Becca (Martha MacIsaac), as evidenced by his repeated insistence to forget about the alcohol because he can just tell Becca how he feels instead of going with Seth's line of logic to get her drunk. Nonetheless, he promises to buy her favorite liquor for the party, which remains a goal of his throughout the film.

Evan's secondary motivation is to keep Seth happy, and specifically to keep Seth from learning about his future living arrangements with Fogell. This explains why he puts up with all of Seth's bullshit.

Sam Fogell (portrayed by Christopher Mintz-Plasse)
Fogell isn't quite as well-developed of a character, and acts more as a plot device to give Evan and Seth more obstacles in the way of their quest to acquire alcohol, but nonetheless his primary objective seems to be to get to the party with the booze. After getting punched in the face while trying to purchase alcohol, he spends the majority of the film with two hilarious police officers who say they'll drive him to the party (and even they have secondary motivations that inform their actions; to show Fogell that cops can be cool).

Fogell's secondary motivation is very similar to Seth's primary. He wants to get laid. The object of his affection is Nicola (Aviva Baumann), whom we only see in the very beginning and end of his character arc.

How the filmmakers use this to tell a complex story:

So we've got two and a half complex and layered characters to follow. This allows for both external and internal conflict, as the three get separated and are often at odds with each other over their conflicting motivations. From strictly a story perspective, it's also brilliant how Fogell, the least developed of the three, basically exists in an entirely different type of movie from Seth and Evan that intersects first in the liquor store, then when the police hit Seth with their car, and again when Jules' party is broken up. His plot fits his depth.

But the movie's climax doesn't come about from the characters simply making it to the party, because even the two main girls have a surprising amount of depth considering their limited screen time (and the genre of the film they're in). Despite Seth's desire to drunkenly hook up with Jules, it turns out that Jules isn't the girl he thought she was because she doesn't drink and doesn't seem interested in hooking up. Similarly, despite Evan's desires to (soberly) tell Becca how he feels after her liquor bottle is smashed, she seems more convinced with the idea that she must express her feelings for Evan with drunken sex. It's almost like Seth and Evan fell for the female versions of each other...

This isn't just a twist for twist's sake, either. There is evidence of it throughout the film that my 16-year-old self was completely oblivious to. Becca repeatedly tries to express to Evan how much she's into him, yet her flirtations go over his head, and instead he focuses on the idea that he needs to bring her a bottle of Goldslick Vodka to get her attention. Similarly, Seth and Jules have such a great time together in class that Jules invites him to her party, yet he convinces himself that the only way to get her attention is to perform the grand gesture of bringing the liquor to the party.

Oh, and Fogell gets laid. Kind of. He's really the only one who gets exactly what he wants in this movie.

In the end (the mall scene, specifically), Seth and Evan learn from their mistakes and move on from each other and toward a more realistic method of pursuing a their relationships with women.

People (and writer Seth Rogen himself in a podcast interview) talk about this movie being about two things; on the surface it's about getting booze and getting laid, and the deeper story is about friends dealing with growing up and growing apart.

I'd argue that the surface-level story is even more complex than that, though; this is a story about two friends going through hell to impress girls that already like them. It's a story about the misguided perceptions of being a teenager who's still trying to figure out how the world works, and it's executed brilliantly thanks to incredibly well-developed characters and multiple plot lines and character arcs that ebb and flow and twist and turn through each other.

If you haven't seen Superbad recently or at all, I highly suggest it. It's leagues above your average teen sex comedy.

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