Teen Wolf: The Movie Is a Fun Bummer

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<i>Teen Wolf: The Movie</i> Is a Fun Bummer

In many ways, I am the absolute worst person to be reviewing Teen Wolf: The Movie. Not because, god forbid, I’m a Teen Wolf hater; nor because—worse!—I’m a Teen Wolf purist. On the contrary: I could never hate Teen Wolf, just as I would never suggest it contort itself to fit inside literally any box. This is a show that, over the course of its exhilarating six season run, sent its teen characters to at least a hundred blacklit raves, put them up against supernatural Nazis, and erased at least three of them from reality entirely. One of its most ambitious episodes was a period piece bottle episode about a Japanese internment camp during World War II! Expecting a Teen Wolf joint to be just one thing? A fool’s errand.

No, the problem is that, of all the critics in the world, I’m the only one who’s committed to Paste’s digital pages the two exact takes that Teen Wolf: The Movie seems determined to be in a fight with. Namely, the idea that 1) Scott and Allison’s canonically permanent break-up was the kind of audacious, narratively propulsive (post-)romantic development more shows should aspire to, and that 2) Scott and Stiles’ BroTP friendship was the blazingly obvious beating heart of the entire series.

And yet, here is what we get in Teen Wolf: The Movie: Allison Argent (Crystal Reed), supernaturally returned from the dead—and right when, wouldn’t you know it, a very single Scott (Tyler Posey) is ruminating on why he “just hasn’t found the right one” to settle down with!—and absolutely no Stiles (Dylan O’Brien).

When I say my unnecessary-’ship-hating, filial-love-loving heart wept at this realization, I’m only half exaggerating. Because as fun as it is to see Beacon Hills’ favorite hot dummies (and Lydia Martin) back on the inexplicably rain-soaked and lacrosse-loving scene, a Teen Wolf that doesn’t trust the power of the story it told about Scott and Allison’s teenage romance (or, for that matter, about Allison’s self-sacrifice to live up to her fiercely held value anti-Argent value of protecting those who can’t protect themselves), and that’s willing, moreover, to pivot away from the emotional anchor that is Scott and Stiles’ friendship…well, it’s hard to take seriously as a Teen Wolf that’s worth watching.

And that’s before taking into consideration the disheartening reports of the offensive salary inequity that allegedly stopped Season 3-5 regular Arden Cho from signing on—not least given the fact that the Big Bad brought back to terrorize Scott (Tyler Posey) and friends for their one-off Adult Wolf adventure is the Nogitsune. In his original incarnation, he tied intimately to Cho’s Kira not just by mythology (through her kitsune/firefox root), but also by personal history, through her grandmother’s tragic star-crossed romance with a white American soldier during her imprisonment in a Japanese internment camp during World War II. Yes, the Nogitsune was also the malevolent force behind Allison’s heroic death, and yes, it was O’Brien’s Stiles who made the Nogitsune *iconic*. But it was Kira who gave the Nogitsune any meaningful emotional valence. No Kira, and the Nogitsune’s just another vagabond trickster villain.

Anyway, this is the point at which I’d love to reveal how wrong the actual experience of watching Teen Wolf: The Movie proved my reservations to be. How the opening montage— with Scott as a big-city hero who seems to regularly rescue both kids and dogs from collapsing buildings; Lydia (Holland Roden) as the wunderkind CEO of a sustainable sonic energy start-up; Malia (Shelley Hennig) and Parrish (Ryan Kelley) as Beacon Hills’ hottest secret supernatural couple; and Derek (Tyler Hoechlin) as the emotionally terrorized single dad of a snarky, lacrosse-playing teen (Vince Mattis)—sets The Movie up to be a non-stop rollercoaster ride of Peak Teen Television nostalgia. How the inclusion of Stiles’ beloved blue Jeep does more to keep his comedic spirit present than I possibly could have anticipated. How deliciously Ian Bohen wraps himself up in high camp as Peter Hale, to the point that it feels like forgiving whatever sins brought him and his blowtorch back to us should just be considered the price of admission. How, even, the standards-and-practices leeway afforded by airing on Paramount+ means characters like Malia and Argent (JR Bourne) can play fast and loose with their fucks in a way that’s truer to who they each are at their core than anything MTV could ever have allowed.

And yet.

While it genuinely is a kick to dip back into puppy dog True Alpha Scott McCall’s goofy, supernaturally convoluted world, the emotional dissonance between the triumphant final note of the story Teen Wolf spent six seasons telling and the muddy “true teen love wins” message this half-baked rehash of a Nogitsune story is trying to tell is just too strong to push aside. Basically, it would have taken one of the Nogitsune’s own Divine Moves to make a Stiles-free, Kira-free, Allison-centric Nogitsune storyline work. And (no spoilers but) given how banal and utterly unnecessary the Divine Move is that ends up shutting this latest outing with the Nogitsune down, that was just never going to be in the cards.

This isn’t to say I recommend against longtime fans watching Teen Wolf: The Movie. As the brief highlight reel I rattled off above hopefully makes clear, The Movie has a lot going for it. Just about every main player who’s back—Roden, especially—is putting in as solid a performance as ever, while newbie Mattis more than holds his own as Eli Hale, filling the teenage-shenanigans hole that teen!Scott and teen!Stiles left behind. The adult characters, too, are given real consideration, with Melissa (Melissa Ponzio) even earning a quiet promotion to Dr. McCall in the intervening 15 years. *Cue confetti; cue streamers*

(On that note: The Movie opens 15 years after the events of the Season 3 finale. Fifteen! Which means that either that 2014 season really took place in 2008, or The Movie is set in 2029. I don’t know which I want to be right, but I’ll never not be tickled by the kinds of acrobatic moves long-lived teen shows like this will make to get their Adult Teen math to work out.)

As for the plot? Well, being obliged to perform a dangerous ancient ritual with a hard deadline of the next full moon in the middle of a paradoxically dark and rainy night is absolutely par for the course for Scott and his friends, as is said dangerous ancient ritual completely backfiring in a way that’s all but certain to leave someone dead. So, The Movie’s got that going for it. And like all the deadly dangerous rituals performed under the full moon on a paradoxical night that came before it, the one the Nogitsune kicks into gear to get the Allison Argent of it all going has a classically small-scale goal: kill Scott and his pack. Truly, there’s something just so perfectly Teen Wolf about the smallness of its villains—no ambitions to take over the world, just endless personal vendettas and malevolent designs on a small town sheriff’s department. Deadly, sure. But also petty. In fact, the only thing more perfectly Teen Wolf is its commitment to lacrosse, on which point fans will decidedly not come out of The Movie disappointed. Honestly, name me a better Greenberg callback than the one Coach (Orny Adams) gets to throw out here in the fourth act. I’ll wait.

Still, none of these high points can do much to take away from the fact that the story Teen Wolf: The Movie is trying to tell isn’t just a straight retcon of what made the series so singular, but an unconvincingly executed one. I paid as much attention to my screener as a critic can, and I still don’t understand what the Nogitsune’s core grievance is, why Allison is brought back, how Derek ends up alone and with a kid, or even how Scott’s pack now works, what with all of them off and isolated in their own separate adult worlds. I don’t understand why Mason (Khylin Rambo) became a Beacon Hills sheriff’s deputy, or why Corey (Michael Johnston) is MIA. I don’t understand what Liam (Dylan Sprayberry) is doing in a Japanese ramen house, or who Hikari (Amy L. Workman) is relative to anyone else in Scott’s pack. I definitely don’t understand why this is the hill they’re all willing to die on, or why right now.

Part of the issue, of course, is that Teen Wolf, the series, excelled at weaving long emotional threads together not just over many episodes, but multiple seasons; a single 2-hour movie just doesn’t leave room for that kind of slow burn. But the trouble here runs deeper, as even with Allison’s supernatural return in the mix, there’s just not enough on the screen to justify The Movie even trying to weave something new together for those two hours.

This isn’t at all a knock on Reed, who does the best job possible with what she’s given—genuinely, it’s lovely to have her and her silver-tipped arrows back on the screen. It’s just that the only reason I can see for Allison to be back for The Movie is so that Allison can be back for The Movie, which just feels insulting to everyone involved. (Ditto, a spoiler tied to another character as part of The Movie’s Divine Move, which I won’t share here.) And as for the Stiles of it all? Well, while the writing team puts in the work to make the reason behind his absence key to Lydia’s part of the story’s climax, that doesn’t go very far in explaining why Scott doesn’t mention his best friend and brother even once, and certainly doesn’t make up for the comedic vacuum O’Brien’s absence leaves behind. (Colton Haynes, going all “bored beautiful mind” on Lydia’s banshee scribblings as a now-proudly-out Jackson Whittemore, does his best to help with this last point, but alas, O’Brien is a tough comedic act to follow.)

All of which I guess brings me to my bummer of a conclusion: As fun as any Teen Wolf outing is going to be, by sheer dint of being a Teen Wolf outing, Teen Wolf: The Movie is disappointing. For a show that went as hard as it did when it was on the air, and that then managed to go out on such a decisive, self-assured note, to now come back and muddy the waters this much… it just sucks. And for no reason!

Still, Teen Wolf: The Movie does give us Scott as the soft-boi dog rescuer we always knew he was destined to become, and Lydia as the badass, genius-with-a-heart-of-gold world-changer we always knew she was destined to become. And that’s not nothing.

Teen Wolf: The Movie premieres Thursday, January 26th on Paramount+.

Alexis Gunderson is a TV critic and audiobibliophile. She can be found @AlexisKG.