by Jay Seaver
Movies like "Sky High" should cause Marvel and DC to worry. Sure, it seems like clever superhero movies doing well would only indicate more demand for their characters, but think about it - "Sky High" selling tickets and DVDs means that America likes superheroes, even if they don't have a forty-year publishing history. So licensing "Spider-Man" might be worth it, but why bother with the second- or third-tier guys when you can just create your own? In terms of pleasing the audience, you only have to worry about whether or not "Sky High" is a good movie (yes), not whether or not Michael Angarano gets Will Stronghold "right" (N/A).Will, you see, is the son of two of the cities most popular superheroes, Steve "The Commander" Stronghold (Kurt Russell) and Josie "Jetstream" Stronghold (Kelly Preston). The trouble is, though, it's the first day of high school, and he hasn't had any powers manifest. This is a problem, since he's going to a private school for the children of superheroes, and as soon as he gets there, he's classified as a sidekick. He's cool with that, though - his friends are sidekicks, and it means he's not in classes with Warren Peace (Steven Strait), the son of his father's arch-nemesis. When his father's super-strength manifests itself during a fight in the cafeteria, he's transferred to the "hero" classes, and a pretty upperclassman girl (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) takes an interest in him, and that's not so bad, either. Unless, of course, he starts taking his true friends for granted, or there's something more sinister going on than just the usual high school rivalries.
"Marvel and DC should be taking notes about getting kids into superheroes."
Superheroes and superpowers allow storytellers to take a simple, mundane story and put it on a grander scale, as well as putting relatable characters into larger-than-life situations. They do it in part by making the extraordinary part of everyday life for the characters, filling the world with enough different super-powered people that each individual one is interesting and special, but not to the extent that the characters and audience have to dwell on how interesting and special they are. High school stories are already exaggerated, if only because their characters (and audience) see everything as more dramatic and having greater consequences than is warranted, since they don't have a frame of reference. Putting the characters in a world where their actions really can match their emotions evens things up a bit. Indeed, teenagers and superheroes are a natural combination, something long recognized in comics - Batman, The Flash, Green Arrow, and Wonder Woman all had teen sidekicks for DC, with Teen Titans at times being its most successful book; meanwhile, Stan Lee originally presented Spider-Man, the X-Men, and the Human Torch as teenagers.
It's also pretty good satire; the division of students into "heroes" and "sidekicks" - cliques which the parents and teachers give tacit acknowledgment, even if they say they don't approve - is a clever reflection on the divisions that form in actual high schools - or at least the 1980s high school movies from which the soundtrack, at least, takes its cue. Despite the fantastical setting, though, the kids are grounded and believable. It's helpful that the two freshman we spend most of our time watching - Will and his best friend Layla (Danielle Panabaker), who can control plants just like a certain Batman villainess who also has the red hair - are actually relatively young themselves. Not the characters' actual ages, of course, but only a couple years older, so they don't look like adults trying to play kids. It's also nice that they are, well, relatively innocent Disney teenagers rather than ironic, quip-ready Whedon types. They'll occasionally say clever things, but they sound more like kids than like screenwriters.
And the kids can act; they're thoroughly believable and likable, easily building natural presences even though I couldn't recall seeing any of them in anything before. This is a huge relief, because even if it was the fun adult cast who sold me on the movie (I was signed up once I saw Bruce Campbell in the trailer for a movie people will see), it belongs to the next generation, as it would have to with that name. Still, the grown-ups are a blast: Kevin Hefferman is lovably dorky as a somewhat star-struck bus driver, while former sidekick Dave Foley's dorky is a little more creepy and off-putting. Kelly Preston and Kurt Russell (especially Russell) are tons of fun as the parents, as enthused about their cover as real-estate agents as they are about being superheroes, with neither of them as important to them as being parents. The aforementioned Bruce Campbell is note-perfect as sonic-powered Coach Boomer, often playing off Kids In The Hall's Kevin McDonald as a former supervillain turned science teacher. And their parts are small, but Lynda Carter and Cloris Leachman are great, too.
And all these actors, both younger and more seasoned, are given plenty of fun things to do. The actors play very well off each other, and the action/adventure parts are handled close to ideally: Even when it's time for the big action set-pieces, they're full of whimsy. The finale is inevitable - the sidekicks will wind up using their initially-unimpressive powers to take down a supervillain who had underestimated them - but it's also satisfying and well-executed, much like the rest of the movie. There's nothing edgy or revolutionary about this movie, but neither is there anything abrasive or unpleasant.And that's part of why Marvel and DC should watch their backs. To make a licensed character a success, you've got to worry about pleasing the longtime fans (who will kick up a big stink even if there aren't that many) and the general public. Here, Disney has no existing fanbase to worry about, and just delivers the kind of family-friendly fantasy comedy that they used to produce with regularity.
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originally posted: 08/23/05 12:54:18