The mid-'80s Michael J. Fox comedy film Teen Wolf, co-written by current head of Marvel Television and bestselling comics scribe Jeph Loeb, was maybe my favorite movie when I was ten. I held it in nostalgic affection for years after -- until I made the mistake of watching it again. It didn't hold up.
Yet even as a fan, I was baffled when MTV announced plans to adapt Teen Wolf as a TV show, and especially as a drama that shared little in common with the original but a bare bones premise -- "teenage werewolf" -- and a few character names. A couple of years later it's one of my favorite shows -- and one of my favorite superhero stories.
Teen Wolf is a hit for MTV. It draws in around two million viewers every Monday night, mostly from the cable channel's target audience of people born after the movie was made. It's truly a superhero show at heart, despite the lack of capes and cowls; it's about great power, and the great responsibility that comes with it. Yet it draws in a female audience that traditional superhero stories often leave behind, and that audience grows every season, thanks in part to the show's traction on social media.
Mid-way through its fourth storyline (the back half of its third season), the show is as strong as it's ever been. So what's the secret of its success? I have some ideas.
The lead character in Teen Wolf is Scott McCall, a young man who received supernatural powers from a werewolf bite : strength, speed, enhanced senses and accelerated healing. Rather than use these powers for greed or glory, Scott uses the to protect the people around him, even while hiding his abilities from them. (With diminishing effectiveness.)
It's a reassuringly old-fashioned superhero premise. Scott doesn't wear a costume or a mask or use a code-name, but in every regard that counts, he's a superhero, with powers, principles, and a double life. Showrunner Jeff Davis and his writing team always look for new ways to test the character and prove that he's a hero, and he always comes through.
That purity, that good-hearted, un-cynical approach to heroism, is refreshing and appealing. Scott McCall is cast from the same mold as Peter Parker.
Tyler Posey, the actor who plays our hero, is a hunk. Tyler Hoechlin, who plays Scott's brooding, chiseled, tough-love mentor Derek, is even more of a hunk. Even the comedy sidekick Stiles, played by Dylan O'Brien, has grown into pouty-lipped, soulful-eyed, fan-favorite hunkdom.
So the cast is attractive. The show is aimed at a female audience, and made by gay men -- showrunner Jeff Davis and lead director Russell Mulcahy -- so it's a show where men are treated as eye candy like women.
Except... not like women. Because they're men. Men in fiction are never just eye candy. They always get personalities, stories, motivations, character. Glamour, swagger and sex appeal are an integral part of superhero comics -- which are, after all, stories about beautiful rock star paragons -- but Teen Wolf doesn't let sex get in the way of substance.
There are women in Teen Wolf, of course -- and yes, they're attractive too. They're also as fully rounded as the men, and they also experience journeys. The female leads, Allison Argent (Crystal Reed) and Lydia Martin (Holland Roden) are love interests who evolve. Allison is arguably the show's deadliest character; Lydia is certainly the smartest. Scott's mother, Melissa (Melissa Ponzio), is as heroic as her son. None of them are victims, accessories, or bystanders.
The show hasn't completely avoided mis-steps in its handling of female characters. Too many women have died, and there have been too few of them to begin with. One of the women has a literally supernatural propensity for screaming, which may be a sly comment on horror cliches, but comes off clumsy. Yet these women are not accessories or bystanders, and that matters to me as a viewer. Great superhero stories should have powerful women who can stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the men.
The superhero genre demands a certain level of crazy. That, after all, is where the "super" comes in. I don't come to this genre for stories about ordinary people with ordinary problems. I want the writers and artists to impress me. I want them to show me the familiar through the lens of the weird.
Teen Wolf understands this, and understands how to build the layers. It's a show about werewolves, which is a good baseline for a first season. But then comes the lizard man, the druid sacrifices, the lady bow hunters, and the murderous haunted motel. That's the backdrop they've offered up for romances, rivalries and family secrets.
This half-season the show has added fox spirits, sword-wielding shadow-demons, and a mass murderer full of flies. And all this on a show that clearly doesn't have much of a budget. They squeeze every cent out of what they have to put a feast of visual weirdness on the screen.
The makers of Teen Wolf have a close relationship with fans. Heck, the show's official Tumblr live-blogs gifs of the episodes as they air. A gif can have well over 10,000 notes before the episode has finished. And the show not only has an after show to promote discussion, but an after-after show as well.
This is a superhero story that knows and loves and engages with its fans, because it understands the special relationship that exists between genre fiction and its audience. That's perhaps why the show's audience has grown every season.
This does mean, of course, that the writers are frequently accused of that most eye-rollingly daft of writerly sins, "trolling." Even this media-savvy generation can't wholly accept that creating an expectation and confounding it is the driving force of narrative. There is a cost to having a fully-engaged audience; they'll love the show so much that they'll never get sick of telling the writers how much they hate it. The writers seem to be able to roll with it.
There are clear lessons here for other superhero stories --- on screen and on the page. One; the appetite for principled self-sacrificing old school heroes has not diminished. Two; women want these heroes too, especially if they're sexy boy heroes. Three; the only reason female characters are ever under-written in superhero fiction is bad writing, not genre convention. Four; the genre has its strengths, and writers shouldn't be afraid to play to them. Five: The audience is not the enemy, even if they are sometimes a bit bratty.
Teen Wolf is a small show on a basic cable channel, so it doesn't have the benefit of a big network behind it, or the budget that comes with that territory. Yet it's held and grown its audience across more than 40 episodes in three years. With more and more superhero shows heading to our screens, they could all learn a thing or two from the little superhero show that could.