Remembering Sky High, the first teen movie superhero hybrid

The following was commissioned by Flickering Myth


Henry Bevan on Sky High…

In the week since its release Spider-Man: Homecoming has created a lot of web traffic. People have posted countless thought pieces on the wall-crawler with many focusing on how it attempts to be Ferris Bueller’s Day Off with spandex. While I think the film admirably fails to transcend the superhero genre (partly because it’s too dedicated to the superhero genre) many of these thought pieces are acting as if Homecoming is the first attempt at this type of synthesis. It makes me wonder: Why have people forgotten about Sky High?

Starring superhero stalwarts like Lynda Carter and Bruce Campbell, and future superhero stars like Kurt Russell and Danielle Panabaker, Sky High focuses on Will Stronghold (Michael Angarano), son of the world’s two most famous superheroes (Russell and Kelly Preston), as he starts superhero high school. Director Mike Mitchell turns what could have been a cheap attempt to capitalise on the success of Harry Potter and the emergence of the modern superhero genre into a touching film about the trials and tribulations of adolescence. Will is concerned with fitting in, impressing his parents and falling in love.

It’s amazing how seamlessly the film blends its two genres. The hero-sidekick dynamic that ranks a character’s importance becomes code for the popular kids and the losers. Those classified as heroes become popular, while those classified as sidekicks become losers. Their rank defines the characters and their status for their entire high-school life even though their powers are beyond their control.

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Before he was Star-Lord’s father, Kurt Russell played super-dad Steve Stronghold //©WaltDisneyStudios //source: FlickeringMyth

The fact the school plays an active part in classifying the students, and by extension encourages bullying, speaks to the fascist representation of teachers in high school movies. Think of Ed Rooney (Jeffrey Jones) and his obsessive pursuit of Ferris Bueller (Matthew Broderick) or Paul Gleason’s headteacher, who makes assumptions of the respective members the breakfast club based on their clique. In a teen movie, the teacher exists to ruin the teenager’s life by being all powerful. In Sky High bullying is institutionalised and the major arc for most of the characters involves overcoming the segregation and accepting people no matter their powers.

Each character isn’t randomly assigned a power, either. Their powers reflect their role in the film and society. Some are obvious (the hippie gets flower powers and the burnout bad boy controls fire), and others are nuanced. If most cheerleaders in teen movies look the same, Sky High has them be replications of the same person. Naturally, the gym teacher’s powers involve him having a loud voice. It always felt like your gym teacher only had the job because they could shout. Also, Coach Boomer classifies the students in gym class because in teen movies your popularity always correlates with your sporting prowess.

Except if you’re a girl. Then, your attractiveness defines your popularity. Mary Elizabeth Winstead is Gwen Grayson, the resident Queen Bee and mean girl. Refreshingly, Gwen isn’t the typical high school bitch. She is super smart and easily manipulates the Stronghold family into playing into her hands. The reveal she is the primary villain shows the filmmakers have an innate understanding of the teen and superhero genres. Of course, the girl who rules the halls desires to rule the world. To most teens, high school is their world and they can not see beyond the school border so positioning Gwen as the big bad is a nice nod to the teen movie tradition of the bad girl.

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Naturally, the Queen B becomes the film’s big bad //©WaltDisneyStudios //source: Flickering Myth

Elsewhere, Sky High spends a lot of time on the blossoming romance between best friends Will and Layla (Panabaker), with their subplot being pulled straight out of Some Kind of Wonderful, 13 Going on 30 and Clueless. The final battle is set at the homecoming dance because most teen movies end at some kind of dance. Sky High may be a kid friendly high school, but it’s a film with a firm grip of the teen genre.

Henry Bevan

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