Why Beat Up X-Men: Apocalypse When You Can Go Watch Sky High?

By  · Published on May 27th, 2016

Why the 2005 Superhero Family Film Is Only Getting Better With Age

By now you’ve probably heard that critics aren’t particularly big on X-Men: Apocalypse. Despite the return of franchise stalwarts Michael Fassbender and Jennifer Lawrence – and the addition of talented youngsters such as Sophie Turner and Kodi Smit-McPhee – the newest entry in Bryan Singer’s X-Men saga has been criticized for putting too much emphasis on disaster porn and not enough on character development. “The genre’s emphasis on potential mass death is obsessive and unimaginative,” wrote Glenn Kenny of the New York Times, saying in just a few words what so many people seem to be thinking.

And while some may choose to dwell on the mixed reviews that Apocalypse received, we should always strive to champion a good movie rather than kick one when it’s down. So let’s talk about Sky High, a 2005 film that tackles adolescence and superpowers and manages to get it right. This isn’t the first time we’ve touched on Sky High at Film School Rejects. Last July, the Junkfood Cinema Podcast dedicated an entire episode to the floating high school and its population of super-millenials. But since our experience with superhero movies has twisted and turned quite a bit these past few months, I figured now might be a good time to revisit the film and spread some love for one of the decade’s best superhero entries.

The premise of Sky High is plenty straight-forward. In a world where superheroes are commonplace, Will Stronghold (Michael Angarano), teenage son of legends The Commander (Kurt Russell) and Jetstream (Kelly Preston), is preparing for his first day at Sky High, a floating high school where teenagers can learn to harness their potential as heroes and sidekicks. The only problem? Despite his famous parents, Will has yet to develop any powers. Now, with the help of his best friend Layla (Danielle Panabaker) and his crush Gwen Grayson (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), Will must learn how to tap into his own heroic side before a mysterious super villain brings the school down around him. While the main cast is nothing to sneeze at – kudos to the filmmakers for making Death Proof the second Kurt Russell-Mary Elizabeth Winstead onscreen pairing – the film gets a lot of mileage from a supporting cast that includes Bruce Campbell, Dave Foley, Kevin McDonald, and 100% more Wonder Woman (Lynda Carter) than even contemporary superhero films.

As a mash-up of high school and superpowers, Sky High found the weak spot in superhero adaptations before the genre even had a chance to hit its stride. While the film might predate the modern superhero movie – it beat Iron Man and The Dark Knight to theaters by several years – its audience was already familiar with characters like Spiderman and the X-Men thanks to the first generation of Sony Pictures trilogies. Here, though, the characters have no larger stakes than high school. Director Mike Mitchell and his group of writers recognize the perfect match between the high school comedy and the superhero film. Both genres emphasize personal discovery and growth as key to their characters’ success; at their darkest, both genres can also touch on the ways that fear and anger touch those who recognize too early that they are different from their peers. Many of these films also share some version of the Spiderman creed involving power and responsibility. Combine the two you have a true superhero; take both away and you are left with a high school student.

Then there’s Kurt Russell’s character. Russell fans may immediately recognize The Commander as a super-powered version of Big Trouble in Little China’s Jack Burton – straight down to the misplaced confidence in his own ability – but in a world where comic book sequels are still trying to make sense of Man of Steel, The Commander stands out as a brilliant commentary on the nature of the superhero. There is no question in our mind that The Commander is a good man, but a lifetime of adoration and infallible physical prowess has made it difficult for him to relate to the people he protects. When he mocks the sidekicks of the world for not being in his class, he seems honestly puzzled that his son would spend time with them for any purpose other than community service. He even openly pressures his son to follow in his footsteps. In a cute take on families and high school legacies, The Commander is secretly thrilled when his son seems to inherit his strength and invulnerability rather than his wife’s gift of flight. “All I can do is punch stuff,” Will complains to his friend. “And yet he’ll be the one on cereal boxes,” a passerby remarks.

And if Sky High seems better equipped to tackle the idea of superheroes as out-of-touch deities, that’s nothing compared to how personal it keeps the stakes throughout. Even the relatively mundane climax make Sky High feel like a breath of fresh air for the superhero genre. Rather than global disaster or mass genocide – a pretty hard sell for any PG-rated Disney movie – Royal Pain’s grand scheme involves de-aging the superhero population and raising them in her own image. This underlines the link between superheroes and villains of the world. It may not be as chaotic and spectacle-driven as watching half of Metropolis fall to the ground, but the casual indifference of a young superhero still has consequences that reach far into adulthood. And as the young Will Stronghold struggles desperately to prevent a floating island from crashing to the earth, two new homeowners stand at the center of the crash site, cheerfully praising themselves for their decision not to purchase moving insurance. It’s funny, it’s light, and it still makes its point.

MORE: Junkfood Cinema Podcast: Sky High

All of which might suggest that Sky High’s best days are still to come. In its initial release, Sky High turned a tiny profit by Hollywood standards, raising over $63 million on an estimated budget of $35 million. Despite this, the film failed to carve out a permanent place in superhero culture. A 2015 ScreenCrush ranking of the Top 25 superhero movies failed to make mention of Sky High, as did a similar ranking at The Playlist from this same week. This is despite generally positive reviews upon the film’s release. RottenTomatoes currently has Sky High at 71%, but more interesting are its glowing reviews in publications as diverse as The New York Times, Variety, and The Village Voice. This is the same film seen by those three critics over a decade ago – filled with the same laughs and standout performances – but in the time since its release, its gentle satire and warm touch have only caused Sky High to stand out all the more. Here’s hoping that the next round of superhero rankings won’t find the film undeserving of recognition.

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Matthew Monagle is an Austin-based film and culture critic. His work has appeared in a true hodgepodge of regional and national film publications. He is also the editor and co-founder of Certified Forgotten, an independent horror publication. Follow him on Twitter at @labsplice. (He/Him)