News

Sky High's Portrayal of Everyday Superhero Life Was Ahead of Its Time

15 years after its release, we look back at a unique superhero movie that showed us what teenage life in a superpowered world would look like.

by | July 29, 2020 | Comments

Poster for Sky High

(Photo by Buena Vista)

Comic book movies have given us plenty of fun and interesting worlds to visit — the Marvel Cinematic Universe keeps expanding, from the streets of Queens to the vastness of outer space, and the DC Universe has brought to life famed locations like Gotham City and Themyscira — but few of those worlds have portrayed what life would look like if the presence of superpowered beings were normalized. One of the first glimpses we got was in 2000’s James Gunn-penned The Specials, which was really more of a “dysfunctional family” comedy that just happened to take place in a world populated by superheroes.

But in 2005, Disney released a playful, unassuming little movie called Sky High, which addressed not only what a world filled with superheroes would actually look like, but specifically how it might feel for its extra-gifted teenagers. Despite a much lower budget than your average blockbuster, Sky High delivers a lot of heroic action and plenty of nods to the Silver Age of comic books, all wrapped in an intimate story that still manages to have high stakes. For its 15th anniversary, we’re taking the “Hero or Sidekick” test to tell everyone why Sky High is one of the most inventive and overlooked superhero films of its time.


ITS WORLD IS FULLY FLESHED OUT FROM THE BEGINNING

Kurt Russell in Sky High

(Photo by Buena Vista)

What would the world look like if superheroes were commonplace? Prior to 2005, we rarely saw depictions of “normal” life for superheroes — The Specials and, to a lesser extent, Mystery Men and The Incredibles are notable examples — but Sky High hints at a larger world early on. Spoken by the story’s hero, Michael Angarano’s Will Stronghold, the first line of the film literally begins with “In a world full of superheroes…” and runs with that concept, showing what it might look like if nearly everyone (or at least a big chunk of the population) had superpowers. The film introduces the idea that the children of superhuman folks inherit at least one of their parent’s powers, so not only is legacy a big theme in the film, but there are hints at a long history of superhero lineages stretching back across decades.

Of course, if you’ve got superpowered children, it only makes sense to have a school for young would-be heroes; the Sky High campus rather appropriately floats in the clouds, and the only way to reach it is a flying bus. All the courses are related to superheroes and dedicated to teaching how to control one’s powers. Imagine Hogwarts, but instead of Quidditch, kids play “Save the Citizen,” where teams of heroes and villains battle to save a mannequin from a deadly trap — or destroy it. The bullies are naturally super fast or super strong, and the caste system is divided between those who the teachers deem “heroes” and those they deem “sidekicks.”

Nowadays, it’s common for superhero movies to riff on different genres like rom-coms, heist flicks, and road trip movies, but Sky High utilizes the teen comedy setting to demonstrate how to depict a fully fleshed-out world without the benefit of a blockbuster budget or a connected cinematic universe.


IT POKES FUN AT CLASSIC SUPERHERO TROPES

Dave Foley in Sky High

(Photo by Buena Vista)

Years before Deadpool made fun of superhero clichés and elaborate plots, Sky High found the right balance of spoof and homage, fully embracing the inherently absurd nature of a world populated by superpowered beings who dress up in ridiculous costumes. The film is a self-aware comedy through and through, featuring a ton of references to comic book tropes, and it trusts its audience enough not the spoil the fun with unnecessary explanations, the way that something like Glass does.

Superhero movies as we know them really began to take over the mainstream during the early 2000s, but for a good portion of the general moviegoing audience, the genre began and ended with Spider-Man, Superman, and particularly Batman, who had just been successfully rebooted in Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins a month before Sky High was released. Naturally, Sky High has plenty of references to that Silver Age classic character, like the Batcave-esque Secret Sanctum of Kurt Russell’s Commander and Kelly Preston’s Jetstream, only accessible via fireman’s pole. At school, Dave Foley’s teacher (and former sidekick) Mr. Boy teaches an “English for Hero Support” class that focuses on different iterations of Robin’s famous catchphrase, “Holy ____, ____Man!” It’s all cheeky stuff, but it reflects an admiration for the campy superhero stories that inspired the film.


IT ANTICIPATES THE PITFALLS OF SUPERHERO FAME

Kurt Russell in Sky High

(Photo by Buena Vista)

In the film’s DVD extras, director Mike Mitchell said that he wanted the adults in Sky High to be “all insane” in order to focus on the teenagers figuring things out and saving the day themselves. This inadvertently makes Sky High feel ahead of its time, as it anticipates a wave of superhero stories taking a cynical look at the genre.

The past several years have seen a reexamination of the role of superheroes in modern society in various films and TV series, ranging from Captain America: Civil War and Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice to The Boys and Watchmen. These projects explore the idea of superheroes as virtual deities who are perhaps out of touch with the common world they supposedly fight to protect and oblivious to the danger they pose to it.

In Sky High, a life of being worshipped as a hero has made The Commander so detached and egocentric that he can’t even remember the name of the sidekick who once saved his life. He’s so dismissive of sidekicks, in fact, that when Will confesses that he’s been placed in the sidekick curriculum, The Commander destroys a phone in a fit of anger and opens up a kitchen drawer to reveal a half dozen more of them, indicating this isn’t an isolated incident. At school, Bruce Campbell’s gym teacher Coach Boomer is something of a verbal abuser who encourages the “heroes” to bully and ostracize their presumably lesser classmates, despite acknowledging that sidekicks have become villains in the past. It’s all played for laughs, of course, but it hints at the sort of abuse of power that has become the central conflict for so many of today’s superhero stories.


ITS ACTION IS GROUNDED IN CHARACTER MOMENTS

Michael Angarano in Sky High

(Photo by Buena Vista)

By nature, superhero movies usually feature a few big action set pieces and massive fights. Sure, it’s exciting to see the heroes use their powers in a battle, but Sky High takes a different and more intimate approach. Take, for example, the first time Will fights his apparent nemesis, school outcast Warren Peace (Steven Strait), or the “Save the Citizen” sequence. These scenes focus on emotional development rather than spectacle; the former sees Will realize and use his powers for the first time, while the latter illustrates how Will’s confidence begins to warp his self image. Even the film’s climactic battle uses action to highlight the theme of acceptance and overcoming social and familial expectations to find yourself and your tribe. They’re fun scenes in and of themselves, but they also serve to illustrate deeper ideas at the core of the film, and that’s arguably more meaningful than watching the good guys beat up on another generic horde of nameless baddies.

In the 15 years since the release of Sky High, the superhero genre has ebbed and flowed between gritty realism and popcorn fantasy, but few films have dealt with the ins and outs of superpowered life quite as playfully. It wasn’t the first superhero film to treat its subject matter with a healthy dose of cheeky meta humor, but it offered a unique perspective on some familiar themes that would find an echo in the later X-Men films, Shazam!Spider-Man: Into the Spider-VerseThe Umbrella Academy, and even the popular Japanese manga/anime series My Hero Academia, which shares a lot of the same DNA. Turns out, being a teenager is never easy, even when you’re blessed with extraordinary powers.


Where You Can Watch It Now

FandangoNOW (rent/own), Vudu (rent/own), Amazon (rent/own), Google (rent/own), HBO Max (subscription), iTunes (rent/own)


Sky High was released on July 29, 2005.

#1

Sky High (2005)
73%

#1
Adjusted Score: 77.057%
Critics Consensus: This highly derivative superhero coming-of-age flick is moderately entertaining, family-friendly fluff.
Synopsis: An ordinary teenager finds out he's not so ordinary after all in this comedy-adventure. Will Stronghold (Michael Angarano) has his... [More]
Directed By: Mike Mitchell

Tag Cloud

police drama pirates of the caribbean Disney Channel The Arrangement BET kong hist what to watch Music FX on Hulu Winter TV book adaptation zombies black die hard DGA BBC One The Walking Dead Kids & Family basketball justice league BBC America Nickelodeon spanish cars Horror BAFTA king arthur HBO Max sag awards documentary spider-man christmas movies Red Carpet San Diego Comic-Con 20th Century Fox TruTV BET Awards Calendar Chernobyl TCM Winners Film Tumblr new york Pacific Islander YouTube Premium Video Games prank Awards Tour Food Network doctor who E3 Fall TV Tarantino Family Disney spanish language talk show APB godzilla Best and Worst harry potter screen actors guild TNT films Musical batman Turner Classic Movies TLC book all-time rt archives breaking bad aapi scorecard halloween tv Elton John RT History monster movies DC streaming service crime drama dogs canceled TV shows italian Marvel Film Festival crossover south america news movies Premiere Dates USA ratings remakes jamie lee curtis live action worst reviews Fantasy Stephen King 4/20 A&E Disney+ Disney Plus archives space facebook hidden camera Comedy Holiday free movies richard e. Grant Nominations blockbuster cartoon Spike NBC comiccon Fox Searchlight Hallmark Christmas movies child's play Lucasfilm Paramount Network Turner Academy Awards political drama Pride Month Endgame Lifetime Captain marvel First Reviews target Trophy Talk stand-up comedy 2017 Drama OWN sequel YA french women SXSW foreign Apple TV Plus Rock CMT Epix based on movie quibi Sundance Now anime Paramount Chilling Adventures of Sabrina Trivia Ellie Kemper cancelled Creative Arts Emmys Box Office comic books kids emmy awards cancelled television social media Western 2020 Christmas zero dark thirty technology series Lifetime Christmas movies Hulu The Purge MCU The Academy slashers Disney Plus Cannes wonder woman Polls and Games Election king kong comics japan Sundance spy thriller Action best halloween Heroines anthology boxoffice Character Guide stop motion Superheroe CW Seed Universal PlayStation Comics on TV binge documentaries hispanic franchise Oscars CBS cats video MTV Black Mirror Extras robots Amazon Studios zombie romantic comedy Biopics laika Rocketman asian-american telelvision football unscripted Tokyo Olympics adenture rom-coms TV lord of the rings Television Academy Ghostbusters video on demand Amazon Prime game show 2018 golden globe awards Toys kaiju Television Critics Association rotten movies we love nature SundanceTV nbcuniversal WarnerMedia Dark Horse Comics versus HBO Go Hear Us Out Rocky Thanksgiving Emmy Nominations Infographic OneApp saw Amazon Amazon Prime Video streaming movies crime dark Apple TV+ medical drama History Classic Film Walt Disney Pictures Black History Month Podcast TBS 2021 Set visit comedies Mindy Kaling Image Comics Pixar DirecTV cooking Vudu new zealand Marathons TIFF FXX 71st Emmy Awards 2016 Esquire Musicals Showtime Shondaland Baby Yoda YouTube Summer serial killer TCA Winter 2020 Photos Disney streaming service Fox News Arrowverse crime thriller Writers Guild of America 93rd Oscars AMC ViacomCBS Martial Arts discovery Peacock NBA Apple Cartoon Network new star wars movies Pop TV international Alien Marvel Television know your critic reboot superman Freeform werewolf cults 007 Opinion Interview Rom-Com james bond adventure cops El Rey sports Teen Pop ESPN vampires Animation singing competition 1990s television Columbia Pictures American Society of Cinematographers romance miniseries australia The CW Marvel Studios historical drama 2019 period drama GIFs MSNBC ABC TV One adaptation blockbusters PaleyFest sequels Exclusive Video olympics TCA Sci-Fi Legendary ghosts Holidays IFC Starz Trailer stoner Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt Avengers Certified Fresh criterion Country chucky Binge Guide X-Men jurassic park Anna Paquin GLAAD animated classics Emmys Nat Geo biography Comic Book YouTube Red FOX scene in color ABC Family Year in Review strong female leads NYCC dceu Sony Pictures Mary poppins japanese Star Wars hollywood obituary Comedy Central marvel cinematic universe Broadway satire theme song screenings Reality Competition SDCC Netflix Christmas movies ABC Signature scary movies Hallmark Tubi movie dramedy dragons Wes Anderson docuseries Spectrum Originals concert indiana jones PBS supernatural TV Land children's TV Acorn TV festival Masterpiece deadpool CBS All Access festivals cancelled TV series revenge Awards Netflix critics psycho DC Comics renewed TV shows streaming sitcom award winner natural history golden globes 21st Century Fox TV movies Superheroes thriller blaxploitation transformers finale Reality WGN Lionsgate fresh independent Mary Poppins Returns A24 green book boxing rotten latino Comic-Con@Home 2021 legend dc Song of Ice and Fire CNN RT21 spain GoT diversity disaster venice razzies Schedule 72 Emmy Awards Mudbound Pirates suspense trailers The Witch BBC casting TCA Awards Pet Sematary 2015 ID Funimation docudrama VICE witnail heist movie 24 frames Mary Tyler Moore LGBTQ VH1 Spring TV USA Network New York Comic Con 78th Annual Golden Globe Awards directors Shudder 45 Women's History Month President Sneak Peek LGBT Mystery superhero cancelled TV shows Discovery Channel The Walt Disney Company VOD nfl name the review mission: impossible travel Valentine's Day 99% high school Travel Channel game of thrones Ovation Brie Larson TCA 2017 FX Sundance TV composers IFC Films comic Grammys DC Universe 90s Watching Series HBO National Geographic universal monsters Britbox popular TV renewals teaser Super Bowl Logo science fiction Countdown fast and furious toronto Tomatazos joker ITV elevated horror a nightmare on elm street See It Skip It aliens Adult Swim worst movies indie Crunchyroll Crackle canceled Star Trek politics Syfy Paramount Plus psychological thriller First Look true crime mutant twilight Bravo parents mockumentary Warner Bros. war E! spinoff toy story cinemax Cosplay Quiz tv talk