Disney+ tries to blend its love of princes and princesses with its new focus on superheroes, with mixed results.
Jack Kirby and Stan Lee’s legendary X-Men series long ago ceased to just be a source material to riff off than a foundational building material for entire wings of YA entertainment. Nowadays, its enduring allegories about outcasts, oppressive authority figures, and a vast history of prejudicial forces have been transposed with every imaginable level of thematic weight. Such is the disappointment of Anna Mastro’s Secret Society of Second Born Royals (its mouthful of a name is a running joke), the newest addition to Disney+’s stable of originals.
Helmed by TV veterans behind and in front of the camera, The Secret Society of Second Born Royals is the work of consummate professionals. Scrubbed down to a pristine, glossy sheen by DP Jaron Pressant, this TV movie fits so snugly into its bargain bin X-Men template that it feels less filmed than created in a factory press. True to that mold, this is mostly serviceable summer/autumn fare that will be forgotten minutes after the viewer clicks on the next algorithm-approved diversion.
Equally pat and workmanlike in its storytelling, Alex Litvak and Andrew Greens script centers the spunky Sam (Peyton Elizabeth Lee), a reluctant second-born royal of the imaginary country Illyria – a monarchy pitched somewhere between England and Switzerland judging from the clothing and accents. Preferring political park jam sessions with her best friend, Mike (Noah Lomax), to gala obligations, Sam’s rebellious interests entrap her into a mysterious summer school. In a class with a posse of other noble misfits from other countries, they quickly learn they have more in common than absurd privilege.
Their powers will go unsaid here, but they’re not a far thematic stretch for characters who fall into archetypes like ‘wallflower’, ‘well-intentioned bully’, and ‘Instagram idol’. Opting to focus mostly on training sessions with their own Xavier, Professor James Morrow (a game but narratively rushed Skylar Astin), Mastro feels like she’s table-setting for franchise potential rather than taking advantage of its own hooks. It doesn’t help that one of the central training set-pieces looks less imposing than a repurposed laser tag arena modeled after Floor Is Lava.
Mythology-happy Disney has never missed an opportunity for the future brand, but it still squanders the assets they have here. Between an enjoyable sequence hilariously meant to look like handheld but more approximates a tame American Eagle ad, and the quippy interplay of the kids, there’s plenty to like or see as a springboard for development. The homogenized delivery comes part and parcel with every Disney TV show, but at least these kids – especially Sam, Tuma (Niles Fitch), and Roxana (Olivia Deeble) — appear at ease on camera.
The dialogue is largely entertaining; even a Coachella hologram joke lands with relative grace. But a late swerve into angst and an attempted undercurrent of familial pathos feels workshopped from a previous draft, unable to activate without a hint of actual tension with the villain (Greg Bryk). That all further accumulates into the feeling of constant stasis.
Mythology-happy Disney has never missed an opportunity for the future brand, but it still squanders the assets they have here.
There’s a narrative footnote involving royal blood imbuing people with superhero powers, and a telekinetic supervillain whose scheme is pretty much a sanitized version of negative eugenics (I so secretly hoped for anything that could frame this in an objectionable, less mundane way given the subject matter). But Mastro mismanages the formula so much that they may as well have named the aforementioned villain Lodestone.
The sole moments of textual diversion come from a comparatively radical needle drop from Kathleen “Riot Grrrl” Hanna’s fronted band Le Tigre (I wonder what Disney thinks of John Cassavetes?) and an anachronistic one-liner about a character’s resemblance to the protagonist of Perfect Dark. (That latter detail spiraled this nearly 30-year old writer into thoughts about how the early teens in this movie were familiar with a franchise that is, at best, a decade old.)
Then again, I doubt many other viewers are experiencing this existential crisis. This wasn’t made for me, and that’s completely fine. But there’s still hope for something better for kids – especially when there are flickers of something meatier. In the last few decades, there’s been a creative sea change for young adult entertainment, whether it’s dwindling networks diversifying their content or streaming services slotting into that role with relative success. Secret Society… err, let’s just call it SSSBR (Oh, that’s not better at all) didn’t have to feel like an also-ran, but it can’t help but feel like the underachieving younger sibling.
The Secret Society of Second-Born Royals is currently streaming on Disney+.