Today at my local United Artists megaplex there are 45 total film screenings. Thirty of those screenings are superhero movies, 24 of them Avengers alone. But even without the biggest piece of content in world history, Shazam and Captain Marvel would still occupy nearly a third of total slots. We’ve come a long way since my dad took me and my siblings to a midnight showing of Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man in 2002. Now “flying hot people in goofy costumes” is the clear dominant cinematic genre.
I do not like comic book movies. From playful action comedies to grimdark “realist” reimaginings, these superhero franchise installments are vehicles for their own loose ends, locking together like a child’s floor puzzle. And no matter where a film falls on the Shazam-Joker spectrum, it’s perpetuating a hulking multi-billion-dollar meta-franchise so big we have felt the need to add “extended” to “universe,” the word for everything that exists. They are the bubblegum vodka of cultural products: made for undiscriminating adults and/or children, depending on who asks. The dialogue and references in the movies are barely comprehensible to anyone under 14, while the computer-animated visuals are designed to entertain children. In my deeply under-informed view, there has only been one truly good superhero movie in the 21st century: Sky High.
A clean mashup of Mean Girls, Harry Potter, and generic-brand spandex, the 2005 movie Sky High follows high school freshman Will Stronghold (Michael Angarano)—the son of celebrated heroes The Commander (Kurt Russell) and Jetstream (Kelly Preston)—as he heads into his first year at the titular super school. Like Hogwarts, Sky High is a place apart—it’s literally in the sky—allowing us to reasonably put aside our questions about the relationship between heroes and the regular human world. Unable to manifest any powers at first, Will is laned into sidekick classes (“hero support”) taught by a washed-up Robin-type named “Mr. Boy” (Dave Foley). There, like Cady Heron and Harry Potter, Will befriends some socially marginal weirdos who have seemingly insignificant abilities.
In its narrative construction, Sky High draws far more on high school freshman stories than the lose-win-lose-win-lose-triumph arc we’ve become accustomed to in superhero movies. Russell keeps it especially loose, playing Commander as a dumb jock dad who assumes his son will be Super Man on Campus and buys him an XBox for winning a fight at school. (The football/quidditch equivalent is “Save the Citizen,” a two-on-two P.E. class game with powers allowed and a rag doll civilian at stake. It’s a great scene.)
No high school movie would be complete without a girl-next-door friend, and Sky High has Layla (Danielle Panabaker, herself now part of the “Arrowverse”), a vegetarian pacifist who can control plants but refuses her school’s Sorting Hat type “power placement” exercise because it “sounds fascist” and she “doesn’t believe in the hero-sidekick dichotomy.” Angarano’s Will is clueless about Layla’s crush on him, though as per the teen rom com genre it’s obvious to everyone else. In a very believable move for a 14-year-old boy, he falls for her in turn as soon as he figures out that she already likes him.
Being the son of Superman and Wonder Woman equivalents is a big deal when the range of powers at the school includes “melting” and “glowing,” and Will walks into Sky High with baggage, including a nemesis. If absolutely nothing else, the movie is memorable for naming a character “Warren Peace” (Steven Strait, doing his best attempt at Heath Ledger in Act I of 10 Things I Hate About You), a brooding bad boy whose villain dad was imprisoned for life by The Commander. When Will and Warren tussle in the cafeteria, Will’s super-strength manifests, and he’s upgraded to hero classes with the popular crowd. He forgets a dinner with Layla when upperclassman Gwen Grayson (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) drops by to flirt.
From there the plot develops much as you might imagine: Will temporarily loses his friends before reconciling with them in time to save the school from an unexpected existential threat. “Having powers doesn’t make you a hero, sometimes it just makes you a jerk,” he learns, and also says out loud. Sky High is definitely a kids movie, without any of the risqué sexuality featured in the teen comedies it’s drawing from or the earnest dramatic stakes of a Marvel installment. The PG rating is earned, and you can watch it with a 10-year-old without risking any scary or awkward moments. But there are also enough references (including Wonder Woman herself Lynda Carter as Principal Powers) and jokes to keep adults engaged for the tight 100 minutes.
The comic book franchise movies, on the other hand, have become increasingly unwieldy. They regularly stuff hundreds of millions of dollars in special effects and Hollywood star power into three-hour runtimes that bulge at the post-credit seams. They lock down actors for a decade at a time and stretch them from part to part, like a torture victim on the rack. Now it’s not just the world that’s at stake, it’s the universe, many universes, and even abstract concepts like time and death.
Regardless of the product quality, our branded cinematic universes seem too big to fail, and it’s hard to imagine how or why their producers might be forced to quit. If the dramatic death of an iconic star hasn’t stopped the introduction of a new Joker, no amount of bad publicity is likely to do it. Maybe our only hope for narrative diversity at the box office is that, looking for novelty, directors are eventually forced to reenact the history of film using superhero intellectual property. First it’s Wolverine in a noir, then Batman in a musical, and before long Aquaman is in a romantic comedy. Perhaps in a few decades the vestigial cape will melt away like a snake pelvis.
Sky High is the kind of superhero movie that a society that maintains a healthy relationship with superhero movies might make, which is why it’s such a refreshing surprise that it was made in ours instead. It’s a movie about superheroes but, like Mystery Men (1999) or My Super Ex-Girlfriend (2006), it’s not the type of superhero movie we’ve been bashed over the head with. Sky High lets us picture a place where, instead of the sun around which the entertainment industry revolves, superheroes are like, say, vampires: just one of many metaphors people use to talk about ourselves. I don’t know how we can get there from here, but it’s nice to imagine that in another version of our universe, human beings never opened this particular can of worms and consequently live slightly better than we do.