In 2005, Disney showed us what a superhero high school would look like — the results are fun, but they fall short of their deconstructive potential.
As an artifact, Disney’s 2005 superhero high school comedy Sky High is a treasure trove of a movie. Its young leads have gone on to do a wide range of interesting work in the 15 years since its release. The older members of its cast include some beloved genre film stalwarts who it’s always a pleasure to see on screen. It’s a take on cinematic superheroism from before the genre’s gargantuan leap into the public consciousness (Batman Begins had only hit theaters two months before Sky High’s release, and The Dark Knight and Iron Man were still three years away).
And, as every film is, it’s a time capsule of the way an era – in this case the mid-2000s – wanted to look and feel. Sky High’s got a fair amount to chew on. But it’s more fun to think about than it is to watch.
In a world where superheroes and superheroism are a regular part of life, superpowered teens attend the titular Sky High – a high school that is, in theory, dedicated to teaching the youths not only about their powers, but about heroism. In practice however, Sky High is cliquey to the extreme, with a rigid dichotomy between those who are “Heroes” and “Sidekicks” – a split enforced by the school’s own academic policy.
Enter Will Stronghold (Michael Angarano, Haywire), son of the two most beloved superheroes on the planet – the Commander (Kurt Russell, Big Trouble in Little China) and Jetstream (the late Kelly Preston, Christine). He’s attending Sky High under the expectation that he will obviously be as stupendous as his famous parents.
But, while his peers have developed powers ranging from transforming into a guinea pig to launching acid spit, Will seems to be powerless. Add in a swiftly formed rivalry with the son of a supervillain (Steven Strait, The Expanse) and the possibility that he might like his best friend (Danielle Panabaker, The Flash) romantically as well as platonically, and Will’s first year at Sky High is set to be fraught.
Will does develop powers of his own, but they do not make his life any easier or less intense. Suddenly he’s not just living up to expectations, he’s caught the eye of his crush (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) and is (intentionally or otherwise) being an ass to his friends – a motley crew of kids shunted into Sidekickery. All the while Royal Pain (Winstead again, voiced while in costume by Patrick Warburton), one of his dad’s old foes, plots in the shadows, eagerly awaiting the opportunity to take revenge. First on the Commander, and then on the superheroic world at large.
Sky High’s got a fair amount to chew on. But it’s more fun to think about than it is to watch.
Sky High’s world does not feel like the Marvel Cinematic Universe or DC Extended Universe. Instead, it draws on multiple aspects from multiple eras of superhero comics. It’s a world where the wild and the out there is wild, out there, and part of everyday life. Kevin Heffernan’s character, Ron Wilson, Bus Driver, is a prime example of this. Ron Wilson, Bus Driver is a big-hearted goof who desperately wants to be a superhero and is really into being a bus driver for superheroes. But the work itself – namely regularly flying a transforming school bus to Sky High – is part of his normal. The weird is part of his job.
Similarly, Sky High’s look is built more on the superhero films of the 1980s and early 1990s than on the tactical gear and leather of 1998’s Blade and 2000’s X-Men – films whose work the later superhero explosion would draw inspiration from. In particular, the costumes worn by Sky High’s adult heroes and villains, designed by Tron Legacy and Man of Steel’s Michael Wilkinson, are striking. Russell’s Commander uniform recalls the thick, muscled texture of the work Bob Ringwood and Tony Dunsterville on Tim Burton’s Batman. Royal Pain’s cyber-empress gear has wicked echoes of Marilyn Vance’s work on The Rocketeer, with a bit of the flash Ingrid Ferrin and Robert Turturice brought to Batman & Robin. They and the world they are a part of are, at their best, bold and colorful.
Sky High has real charm. But it has major tonal and structural weaknesses. The superhero-specific humor is often flat and generic, playing more on their image in popular culture than on the film’s specific heroes. The humor that is based in character; Russell’s moments of amiable cluelessness, and the deep and abiding aggravation played by Winstead and Warburton in their shared role, plays much better than jokes about sidekicks having crummy powers and Lynda Carter once having played Wonder Woman.
More seriously, Sky High’s climax is a mess. It bounces between goofiness and reasonably heavy stakes so frequently that the goofiness feels out of place and the stakes feel weightless. The elastic bully being defeated by a swirlie and one of Royal Pain’s goons revealing that the villain has rigged the school’s flight system to fail.
When the climax combines the silly and the sinister, it works. Royal Pain tops off her nefarious scheme (revert every single hero and student attending the Homecoming dance to a baby and then re-raise them as an army of supervillains) comes with a legion of Royal Pain branded car seats – after all, the earlier the kids are started on the path to serving her, the better. That her evil car seats are just as much of a hassle to assemble as their civilian counterparts is a genuinely good joke, one based in character and a specific, recognizable experience.
Unfortunately, this sequence is a mere side plot, resolved by the heroic appearance of Ron Wilson, Bus Driver. The final battle itself is split between underwhelming action choreography, underwhelming comedy, potentially alarming implications about Royal Pain’s mental age that don’t really go anywhere, and a truly bizarre joke about a character ogling his implied romantic interest’s legs while she’s in the form of a guinea pig. The whole affair, which should in theory bring everything that has come before it together, just sort of sits there.
Sky High isn’t a calamity of a movie (it’s lightyears ahead of 2006’s atrocious Zoom: Academy for Superheroes). The cast, particularly Winstead, Strait, and Russell, are game. The core idea of a superhero high school combining the adventures and pressures of both is a darn good one (see the phenomenal global success of Kōhei Horikoshi’s My Hero Academia manga and its associated anime).
There are some genuinely neat ideas in play about social stratification in a superhero world and the way such a world would be affected by the inevitable changes that come with time. They’re ideas worth spending more time on. And Sky High, for better and worse, is more focused on high school, run-of-the-mill humor and dubious hijinks. For folks investigating the trophy room of the cinematic superhero, it’s interesting. Otherwise, it’s an acceptable rental.