Control Nathan and Clint: Sky High (2005)
The older you get, the fuzzier and more indistinct time becomes. That’s why those “Want to feel old? It’s been 26 since Sandlot defined your childhood” clickbait articles are so infuriating. I don’t need an arbitrary number of years to pass from the release of some piece of pop culture to feel old: all I have to do is reflect bleakly on the long, broken path of shattered dreams, brutal rejections and heartbreak that have led me to this uncertain moment.
Yet our stubbornly dumb brains are perpetually gobsmacked by this crazy development known as “the passage of time” all the same. When I saw that 2005’s Sky High was released nearly a decade and a half ago I was genuinely surprised. It feels like it came out more recently. Then again, the well-liked Disney sleeper is unmistakably a product of a curious moment in superhero movie history.
It came out the same Summer that Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins re-invented the block buster superhero movie by creating a vision of the Dark Knight much bleaker and more despairing than even Tim Burton’s gothic, revisionist take on the Caped Crusader. The cultural Big Bang that was 2007’s Iron Man was still a few years away and with it the superhero movie boom.
When Kurt Russell adorably played The Commander here no one could have imagined that superhero movies would become so big, and so weird that the Big Trouble in Little China icon would return to the genre 12 years later opposite a talking baby tree with a very limited vocabulary and a whole lot of attitude and a space raccoon that wears people clothes as Ego the Living Planet in the second entry in the multi-billion dollar Guardians of the Galaxy franchise.
Now if you were to tell someone in 2005 that James Gunn would be booted from writing and directing the third Guardians of the Galaxy movie after some offensive tweets he’d written long ago were dredged up by right-wing hacks in an attempt to discredit his criticisms of President Donald Trump but that he was later reinstated as the director once everyone realized he was the victim of a Conservative troll machine operating in bad faith they would be very confused
Comic book movies have gone in some crazy directions as of late but Sky High subscribes to an earlier, more innocent conception of superheroes as wholesome, all-American icons of bravery and selfless compassion, not broken, tormented loners whose grim existences reflect the inexorable horror of contemporary life’s and God’s icy eternal silence.
Before he was the coolest motherfucker on the planet, Kurt Russell was a child star of live-action motion pictures at Disney back when Uncle Walt was still around calling the shots. He also acted opposite Elvis before playing Elvis for John Carpenter. As if all that’s not cool enough, his dad owned his own minor league baseball team, and Russell himself was a minor league baseball player as a young man.
In conclusion, Kurt Russell is the greatest. Sky High brings him back to the cheerful world of live-action Disney as Steve Stronghold/The Commander, a very successful, aggressive real estate agent who works with Kelly Preston’s Josie DeMarco-Stronghold/Jetstream to sell houses AND fight crime.
The Commander and Jetstream are legends in the superhero community, the best of the best. I’m guessing they sell a lot of real estate as well. That puts enormous pressure on their son Will (Michael Angarano) to live up to his parents’ legacy when he follows in their footsteps and enrolls in the titular educational institution.
It’s an exclusive high school located in the sky to make it less accessible to super villains that divides students into heroes and “hero support”, AKA sidekicks. Teachers who revere Will’s parents expect big things from their overwhelmed progeny but when he enters school Will’s powers have not yet presented themselves, leaving him terrified that he does not possess superpowers at all.
The teachers at Sky High include Dave Foley as Jonathan Boy, AKA All-American Boy. Once upon a time All-American Boy was The Commander’s loyal sidekick. Alas, like the sketch comedy icon playing him, life and time have not been kind to poor Mr. Boy. In fact they have been egregiously, unforgivably unkind, leaving him a Willy Loman-like sad sack living forever in the past because the present is just too depressing for him to face.
Foley’s hilarious and unexpectedly moving performance acquires an additional meta-textual power from Foley beginning his career as a famously boyish and adorable man-child primed for breakout stardom before an endless series of devastating personal and professional setbacks, most notably a famously acrimonious divorce, rendered him a poignantly broken man.
Foley was once the All-Canadian Boy but by the time Sky High rolled around he was, like so many of us, barely hanging on. Foley’s Kids in the Hall cast-mate Kevin McDonald is similarly delightful as Medulla, a science teacher with the kind of freakishly oversized brain common among mad scientist types.
Lynda Carter, Wonder Woman herself, is smartly cast as Principal Powers while Bruce Campbell is perfect as the school’s gym teacher, a jock known as Sonic Boom due to his superpowers who has, in true gym school teacher tradition, channeled all of his rage and disappointment in life into being terrible to young people who could very well go on to accomplish all the things he’s dreamed of achieving but never could.
Sonic Boom’s job is to separate heroes from sidekicks and in the process winners from losers and the haves from the have nots. Will is of course worried that he possesses no superpowers, and is not even qualified to be a sidekick. Yet that somehow does not keep two beautiful women from competing for him: Layla (Danielle Panabaker), a gorgeous hippie able to control plants and Gwen Grayson (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) the most beautiful and popular student in the school and consequently almost assuredly not what she seems.
I convinced my four year old son Declan to watch Sky High with me on the basis that it was a superhero movie. There is nothing in the world he loves more than superheroes. What I failed to take into consideration was that the “high” part of the film’s title figures just as prominently as the “Sky” part and that’s not a clumsy drug reference.
Sky High is a fun, lighthearted, inventive superhero movie but it’s also a teen romance deeply immersed in the very strange, yet strangely relatable culture of one very unique school that is so deeply immersed in the cliches of the genre that there’s only one place the film can possibly climax: at a school dance that doubles as a battleground between good and evil, superheroes and super-villains.
My son dug the superhero stuff and was very annoyed that so much of the film involved girls and dances and other things not of interest to four year old boys. I could relate to his irritation at the regular breaks between superhero action even as I could appreciate the movie as a charming hybrid that suggests what X-Men might have looked and felt like if it were a live-action Disney film from the late 1960s or early 1970s.
I’ver periodically contemplated starting a feature where I’d go back and re-watch a movie, or re-listen to an album I wrote about ages ago to see whether my opinion of it has changed with time. I may revisit that idea, but it feels a little redundant and pointless, since I end up revisiting movies I wrote about all the time for this site and my columns over at TCM Backlot.
I was unsurprised, for example, to discover that I quite like Looney Tunes: Back in Action despite giving it a middling review at the time of its release. I was similarly unsurprised to discover that I quite like Sky High as well even though I gave it a mixed review when I wrote about it in 2005.
Looking back, I completely understand what I found underwhelming the first time around. Sky High works much better as a sly riff on superhero movies than as a high school romantic comedy about a schmuck who must choose between two impossibly beautiful rivals for his affection but what I initially saw as blandness I’ve come to embrace as sunny innocence.
When I was a critic if a movie didn’t make me laugh enough I did not consider it a successful comedy. I don’t feel that way anymore. I no longer have a quota of guffaws a movie needs to meet in order to succeed and while Sky High may not offer wall-to-wall hilarity, it has its share of genuine laughs, most courtesy of Foley.
Sky High is not perfect. With the exception of Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure, just about nothing is. But it is thoroughly charming, an extraordinary appealing next step if you dug Shazam and are interested in other, non-revisionist superhero movies that further prove that superhero movies are not just for dour, humorless scolds violently estranged from their inner child.
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