Teenage kicks at the box office
Forget superheroes, syrupy-sweet teen movies are taking over Hollywood, says Ed Power
The Caped Crusader may be sweeping all before him at the box office, but superheroes look set to become an endangered breed as Hollywood rediscovers the commercial potential of the coming-of-age teen drama.
Though 2008 is proving to be the year of the spandex-clad crime-fighter, we are, it seems, witnessing a final hurrah rather than a harbinger of future trends.
In the 12 months ahead, the flow of comic-book adaptations is predicted to slow to a trickle -- just two will be released in 2009 -- while the film industry is preparing to unleash a deluge of syrupy teen drama.
Indeed, teen cinema's creeping takeover has already begun. Released to lukewarm reviews, Wild Child, starring Julia Roberts' niece Emma, has nonetheless become one of the summer's surprise smashes.
Set in the sort of picture-postcard English boarding school that exists only in the imagination of Los Angeles Anglophiles -- a de-magicked Hogwarts where none of the students sneak out to guzzle alcopops or roll joints behind the bike shed -- the film casts Roberts as a Paris Hilton-esque Malibu ditz dispatched to Blighty to receive a boot-camp lesson in British decorum. Japes ensue -- although not before Roberts' character learns some salutary life lessons and gets to snog the hunkiest guy in class.
Closer to home, meanwhile, there's been a rush to praise Marian Quinn's Raheny-set adolescent drama 32A. Drawing on the director's own experiences growing up in late 1970s Dublin, the film explores well-trodden coming-of-age tropes. Nonetheless, its sweetness of touch has wooed critics who have proclaimed it one of the best Irish productions in recent memory.
But these are just a taste of what is to come. One of the most buzzed-about projects in Hollywood is Twilight, a teen-centric Vampire drama adapted from a mega-selling series by Stephenie Meyer. While vampire novels tend to be associated with black-clad, mascara-plastered men, Meyer's fanbase is comprised overwhelmingly of young women.
Taking place in a Washington State high school, Twilight concerns a love affair between footloose teenager Bella and an immortal -- and naturally very dishy -- vampire named, seriously, Edward Cullen. Think of it as a sort of Mills & Boon revisiting of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, with a dash of My So-Called Life sprinkled on top.
"Coming-of-age movies appeal to adolescents obviously but they are also very popular with older audiences," says Sarah Breen, editor of Irish girls' magazine Kiss. "I think a lot of people enjoy a fluffy night at the cinema. Teen films are about fitting in and discovering who you are, which is something everyone can relate to."
For an industry often accused of an unhealthy obsession with guns and booty, Hollywood has demonstrated a surprising degree of saviness by rekindling the teen film. As the surprise box office success of Sex and the City and Mamma Mia! has demonstrated, putting on a 'girly' movie during a season dominated by fanboy schlock such as The Incredible Hulk and Iron Man, can be a winning strategy.
"That approach has worked out quite well," says Vincent Donnelly, editor of Movies.ie. "A lot of people were surprised by how well those pictures did. It shows that there was an audience out there for non-action movies, even at the height of summer."
In a way, of course, the vogue for teen flicks merely marks the re-emergence of the old order. Throughout cinema history, adolescent-centric movies were part of blockbuster season with super hero adventures regarded largely as nerd oddities (a stigma not fully laid to rest until Tim Burton's original Batman was a hit in 1989).
John Hughes' Breakfast Club, a learning-to-love-yourself tale about five high school misfits, was one of the biggest hits of the mid-80s. A decade later Clueless, an LA-set re-telling of Jane Austen's Emma, turned Alicia Silverstone into a star. Still, perhaps we shouldn't write off superheroes too quickly.
"Maybe there is some fatigue among audiences, but movie studios still think there's a lot of mileage in the genre," says Donnelly, who points to the planned adaptations of such lesser known comic book characters as Thor and Wolverine. "And no matter how well something like Wild Child does, it pales when you compare it to the performance of The Dark Knight."