The Strongholds, Steven (Kurt Russell), Josie (Kelly Preston) and Will (Michael Angarano) are an ordinary family, sending their son off to high school. The high school is Sky High, for young budding superheroes. Steve and Josie, realtors by day, are also The Commander and Jetstream, the world’s top heroes. But Will is yet to develop his powers, which Brett’s pretty sure is a metaphor for not hitting puberty. He gets placed in the ‘sidekick class’, the first clear distinction of the typical high school clique structure, complete with classification by public humiliation that can only be done by an overbearing gym teacher (Bruce Campbell). A minor subplot turns out to be a major threat and luckily Will has discovered and learnt to control his powers by the time the villain arrives to kidnap all of the Sky High students. With these newly discovered powers and newly developed friendships, Will not surprisingly saves the day and his proud parents.
Lee didn’t really need to tell Brett the year it was released. The costumes made that pretty clear from the start. The clothes that kids would only wear in the mid-2000s, including a sidekick that could have been an extra in an Offspring film clip. Despite the questionable fashion choices of the time the costume design is very deliberate. Each character has their own colour palette. Layla (Danielle Panabaker) can talk to plants and wear greens, Zach (Nicholas Braun) glows so wears yellow. Will is set to be the next great American hero so, you guessed it, red, white and blue. It’s handy if the viewers ever forget a character’s powers.
Lee didn’t need to tell Brett the year it was released. The costumes clearly place this film right in 2005. Despite their obvious fashion, the costumes are styled perfectly to suit each character. Almost as if the filmmakers were worried that without the colour coding you’d forget what each character’s power is.
It sits in two genres and ticks all of the boxes. It’s a high school movie, complete with all the tropes. As a superhero movie, there isn’t much that it misses. We’re pretty sure it approaches both of those genres in a pretty ‘meta’ way. We think. Is it Meta? We couldn’t decide. It ticks all the boxes of all of its genres but also is a bit tongue in cheek about it. Does that make it meta? Here’s the definition. It’s more subtle in its meta-ness than than Deadpool, which Brett appreciated.
But some of its best moments come from making fun of its genres. We meet a high school kid that’s trying to live up to his parents’ expectations, whose best friend is actually in love with him, hears a daggy 80s ballad when he sees the pretty older girl and needs to find a way to fit in. That first scene in the gym, as well as being a typical public humiliation, also pokes fun at the limited number of powers that we’ve seen from our superheroes over the years. And of course, the typical high school party that goes awry when the parents get home. Despite it being 2005 there’s a vinyl record that winds down when The Commander announces himself. But that’s probably more dramatic than a kid turning off a Bluetooth speaker or asking Alexa to shut off the music.
Many of the laughs in the movie come from the powers fitting into the real world. Something we always wonder about when watching hero movies. The Commander’s super strength is a challenge for Steve Stronghold, breaking phones and pool balls regularly. Kelly Preston’s Jetstream loves selling houses and they’re really good at it, despite it being only their cover.
The casting of Lynda Carter, the original Wonder Woman, as Principal Powers is very meta, despite it being a pretty average character name. But her closing line ‘I’m not Wonder Woman’ as she leaves the detention room is a step too far for us. It’s not as bad as Mike Myers’ cringey line in Bohemian Rhapsody but that’s mainly because Sky High is meta to start with. The role is meta without the line, it’s a bit too far. If they’d cast Adam West, which we think would’ve been a great choice, would he have said ‘I’m not Batman’?
The rest of the acting is overall pretty good. The kids are passable without being great. Panabaker is a big part of the DC TV universe and Braun has an Emmy nomination for his role in Succession. But the acting of the adult cast is where the movie is its strongest. Russell and Preston play up to their roles as the heroes and concerned parents. The costumes are a bit much, Commander’s plastic pecs and Jetstreams cavernous cleavage only add to the hamming up of their great roles.
From there down it’s a list of incredible character actors. Cloris Leachman as the nurse, Campbell as the gym teacher, even Kevin Heffernan as Ron Wilson Bus Driver. Brett’s review of Dave Foley isn’t as strong and we’re still not sure where he sits on character actors. Apparently, it’s OK for Thelma Ritter in All About Eve and Rear Window but less OK for Dave Foley. The discussion of character actors reminded Lee of a great stand-up bit about actors by Patton Oswalt, check it out here.
We always like to ask if there’s anything ‘problematic’ in our reviews and the main one we questioned was about Gwen Grayson (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) as a high school senior, cracking onto Will Stronghold the freshman. Not sure that would work if the genders were reversed. Just a little odd.
In our full review on the patron-exclusive podcast, we ask a lot of questions about Sky High.
What’s the whole point of this school? Obviously, like Hogwarts, kids go to learn to use their powers, but then what? Is there a Sky University? Do you get assigned at graduation? Maybe Will Stronghold is destined for New York while the kid that melts is stuck in a suburb of Melbourne. All of these questions and more are discussed at maybe too much length in the pod.
Our biggest criticism of the movie, other than the names Principal Powers and Warren Peace, is that the build-up of the supervillain’s threat isn’t really built up enough. We have a couple of references to Royal Pain early and then a couple of scenes in their lair and then all of a sudden Gwen Grayson is zapping everyone in the school gym. An unexpected twist but also a little bit of an unexpected threat based on the rest of it. Brett wasn’t sure of her plan, Lee wasn’t sure how The Commander couldn’t notice the huge breasts on her armour.
But despite that, she’s been at the school all along and she zaps the students back to babies and aims to take them away and raise them as evil. But she couldn’t beat the plucky troupe of new students. Their very niche powers seem to come in handy at the end plus the power of friendship. The real winner is friendship. Will Stronghold saves the day with his newfound powers and Steve and Josie couldn’t be prouder, especially now that their superhero family is complete.
It’s a great little Disney-style superhero family. But Lee had to remind Brett about the number one family, The Incredibles, and how Brad Bird came up with the powers for each family member. He detailed it in this article.
It’s the kind of movie that you would think Disney would’ve loved having a sequel but after only grossing $86mil from a $39mil budget it probably didn’t do as well as they’d hoped. Regardless, it’s a bit of fun. A meta homage to hero movies and high school movies rolled into one neat 100-minute package.
The full review and all of the other tangents we couldn’t fit into this blog article are in our patron-exclusive podcast. If you’d like to support us Patreon you can do it here. The rest of our podcast episodes are here.