Taking Heroes to School

Despite stealing from other movies, 'Sky High' loves the superhero genre enough to work

Few nonmutant people know this, but the best superhero movie ever made was The Specials, a direct-to-video release starring Rob Lowe. I know, it doesn't sound promising, but for anyone who's been bitten by a radioactive comic-book nerd, it's the holy grail of self-conscious superhero self-parody. What made The Specials work was that it wasn't about superfights or plot or continuity; it was about the mundane life of the world's seventh-greatest superteam. Which is to say, it was actually funny and insightful instead action-oriented and mind-numbing.

Sky High is kind of a children's version of The Specials, in that it's less about superconflict and more about characters. Ultimately, since this is a big-budget Disney movie, it has to bring out the special effects and the punching and the biff and the pow. Further, in order to have a story, the committee who wrote Sky High opted not to take on the difficult task of plotting and scripting, and settled for the more post-modern task of stealing and lifting.

Thus, Sky High is Harry Potter with superpowers, mixed with a little Degrassi Junior High and some Every Freaking Teen Movie From the Eighties, but Especially Breakfast Club and Pretty in Pink. Still, in spite of that, it does manage to love the superhero genre enough to salute it and punk it and buy it a big, atomically charged birthday cake made of killer robots.

The story centers on young Will Stronghold (Michael Angarano), whose mom (Kelly Preston) and dad (Kurt Russell) are the greatest superheroes in the world. Sadly, Will lacks superpowers, but in an ill-explained bit of plot, he has managed to convince his parents that he's superstrong. Thus, when he comes of superage (14, the age at which young people discover their superpowers to produce strange odors and emissions), he's sent off to Sky High, the airborne superhero high school.

In good John Hughes fashion, it turns out that superhero high school is divided into two cliques: the cool kids who have awesome powers like popularity and prettiness, and the nerdy "sidekicks" who can do things like glow in the dark or turn squirrels into chipmunks. Will, lacking any power whatsoever, is sent to sidekick class, much to the chagrin of his high-powered dad.

From there, it's a very standard tale of in- and out-crowds and acceptance and love and death rays. What keeps it moving are a few clever sequences and a roster of actors who are actually funny.

Dave Foley plays the former All American Boy, erstwhile sidekick to Will's dad, Captain Stronghold. Now, the teacher of the sidekick (or "hero support") class, he goes by the more dignified moniker of Mr. Boy and spends his days educating and cowering from any menace.

He's joined by his fellow Kids in the Hall alum Kevin McDonald, and the two of them provide most of the yucks. Arizona native Lynda Carter, best known for her role as Wonder Woman's superenhanced cleavage, plays Principal Powers, who's just like your high school principal in that she's fair and authoritative and will be appearing in The Dukes of Hazzard movie this Friday.

While the teachers provide the comic and mammary relief, Will must decide whether to join the cool-kid crowd or to hang with his sidekick homies. If you think that he first rejects his friends in the name of popularity and then reunites with them when he learns that loyalty is more important than being cool, then you've probably already seen a movie.

Still, in spite of all its incredible derivativeness, Sky High manages to focus enough on the effects of superpowers on ordinary life to set it apart from the more recent spate of superhero films like Hulk and Daredevil and The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, where superaction and superemotion are substituted for anything resembling the actual, quotidian problems of real people who just happen to be able to shoot heat beams out of their butts.

And that, I think, is the future of the superhero film. Everyday, more and more people acquire superpowers, but only a few of us use those powers to stop invasions of space monkeys or make recess appointments to the United Nations. Instead, as radiation turns out not to kill us but rather to give us the ability to leap tall buildings or convert corporate debt into tax-free S corporations, we'll be focusing on how we can find love and fulfillment in a world that's rife with mole people and Spandex. And we'll need stories to guide us through this. While Disney's Sky High doesn't provide all the answers, it does give us a few moral pointers on how to survive in a future where stem-cell research and genetic engineering can turn us all into busty supervixens. And maybe, in this crazy, upside-down world, that's enough.