In 2005, the future of superhero movies looked pretty bleak, not in terms of prosperity, but in terms of tone. Batman Begins, Elektra, and Aeon Flux all exhibited the same dark, brooding action style. It didn't seem like we'd ever get the same golden age comic book balance of heart and cheese, humor, and action ever again. Then, on July 29, 2005, Disney stepped in and made Sky High, a movie that struck every chord perfectly without using a single Marvel or DC hero.
Fifteen years later, Sky High isn't given the credit it deserves for establishing the tone of modern superhero movies all while skewering the genre. Here's why you need to watch this underappreciated classic right now.
Sky High is everything that makes comic books great; from the costuming, the narration, and the plot, it feels like a young Stan Lee was asked to write a high school drama. It's also a fully original story, its only ties to comics being the title art used in the prologue and epilogue. This gives it the freedom to build its own world and then, of course, save it.
The film follows Will Stronghold, the unassuming son of Steve and Josie Stronghold (aka superhero power couple The Commander and Jetstream). Will and his best friend, Layla, are about to start high school at Sky High, an elite academy for the children of superheroes. The only issue? Will doesn't have his powers yet.
It's the classic example of a Chosen One story. Just like Harry Potter and Percy Jackson, Will Stronghold is the result of a powerful legacy he doesn't feel he can uphold and must navigate his way through becoming the hero he was born to be.
But what makes this story different is the way these powers are shown. Rather than superpowers being a burden that sets Will apart from the others, it's his lack of powers at a school where everyone has one power or another. These powers are sorted into two groups: hero or sidekick, or politically correctly called "hero support." Will, of course, gets grouped into the latter, and that's where he meets his ragtag group of friends.
Thanks to its own originality, Sky High is able to incorporate some of the best gimmicky characters and a star-studded cast to portray them. While the adults are played by proven talents like Kurt Russell, Cloris Leachman, Bruce Campbell, and Lynda Carter (Wonder Woman herself), the young stars have since proven themselves to be household names.
Michael Angarano, now known for This is Us, plays Will. The Flash's Danielle Panabaker plays Layla, who has the power to control plants. Succession's Nicholas Braun plays Zach, who has the power to glow, but only slightly. Other stars include Mary Elizabeth Winstead as Gwen Grayson (now known for Scott Pilgrim and Birds of Prey) and Steven Strait from The Expanse playing a character with the single greatest name ever: Warren Peace.
The plot draws on all the best tropes from the genres it pulls from. Just like a superhero movie, there's peril and mayhem, but not too much that it counteracts the genuine humor. Just like a "magical school" movie, there's a specialized sport Will must learn to play on the fly, and just like a teen drama, there's coming-of-age tension as Will copes with making mistakes, falling for the wrong girl, and considering the possibility that he isn't who his parents expect.
The climax of this movie, like any high school movie, is a big school dance, and it's suddenly up to the "Hero Support" squad to save the day. This is where director Mike Mitchell really shows off his talents, when these gawky teenagers turn into actual heroes, saving the day while dressed in semi-formalwear.
There are countless other details that make this movie outstanding: the score of triumphant, almost parodic superhero sounds, the soundtrack of early 2000s bands covering 80s classics, the classic comic book references, and the costumes that border on cartoonish while still keeping a tacky 2005 flair.
Perhaps the genius in this movie is best summed up in the film's last line: "So in the end, my girlfriend became my archenemy, my archenemy became my best friend, and my best friend became my girlfriend. But hey, that's high school."
It's a simple story, told in the most fantastic way possible, and it absolutely deserves more attention.
Sky High is currently streaming on HBO Max.