A Love Letter to the Superhero Genre: ‘Sky High’ (2005) 15 Years Later

“‘Sky High’ is shameless, effortless, pure, unabashed fun—the perfect superhero story for the moment.”

Childhood movies are the perfect time machine. Finding just the right throwback film can instantly transport you back in time and, with a wave of nostalgia, wash away all your worries. Especially in times of stress, there’s comfort in the familiar—and in the current world of movies, there’s nothing more familiar than superheroes. Fifteen years later, although Sky High is unmistakably of a different era, the movie wears its age very well.

Sky High comes with no promise of a sequel and without the baggage of an expanded universe. There exists no rival property for harsh comparison and little fanbase to highlight every minute detail. Still, this movie is undeniably similar to the endless supply of superhero projects we usually flock to see five times a year. It shares in their clichés and character archetypes, but unlike many recent superhero installments, Sky High embraces the inherently joyful and campy nature of the genre.

With a vibrant color palette and iconic soundtrack (composed of covers of classic 80’s hits), Sky High is pure fun from the moment it begins. Working like the lovechild of Harry Potter and The Incredibles, the story follows Will Stronghold (Michael Angarano), your average teenager who just so happens to be starting his first day of superhero school. 

While most of us endured horrific school lunches and piles of homework, on Will’s first day of high school, he gets all of the superhero staples: a secret lair, an archenemy, a team of heroes by his side and, perhaps most importantly, a chip on his shoulder, because the one thing missing from his superhero bundle package is his powers. 

Will talks to his parents, The Commander and Jetstream, after the final battle against Royal Pain (Gwen's alter ego).
Will talks to his parents, The Commander and Jetstream, after the final battle against Royal Pain (Gwen’s alter ego). Image courtesy of Buena Vista Pictures.

Like the general superhero concept, the film’s plot is nothing new. As Will comes to terms with the idea of being powerless in a superpowered world, he also struggles to live up to his parents expectations—an especially difficult task, given they are the world’s most famous heroes: The Commander (Kurt Russell) and Jet Stream (Kelly Preston). At school, despite his romantic feelings for his best friend Layla (Danielle Panabaker), he starts dating the much more popular Gwen (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) and, in the process, abandons his “loser” friends. Surprising no one, Will eventually develops his powers, apologizes for being a jerk to his friends and gets the girl he was always meant to be with. Sky High follows all the conventions of a million high school movies that came before it, with the addition of a classic and oft cliché superhero narrative. And this is where the film thrives; it takes the very best of two constructs and plays them for laughs, poking fun at every element along the way:

Our hero’s first girlfriend? Also his greatest enemy—who is secretly twice his age.

His teacher and mentor figure? His name is Mr. Boy.

His archenemy who will later be redeemed? Warren Peace! (War… and…. Peace.)

And why stop there? Instead of a terrifying death ray, why not have a gun that will turn all of the heroes into babies? Not only does it pave the way for Gwen’s big reveal, it gives Mr. Boy the chance to confess his love to a baby! The only way to defeat the Pacifier-wielding Royal Pain is, of course, for Will to join forces with his superpowered friends. Among them is the purple tinted Magenta (Kelly Vitz), who can shapeshift into a hamster and everyone’s favorite lanky underdog, Succession star and Emmy nominee Nicholas Braun as Zach (Zack Attack!). Still an awkward ball of nervous energy, Braun’s character leads the way to victory by lighting the way through a vent, showing off the film’s most inspired superpower: glowing in the dark.

Zack, Layla and Ethan (Dee Jay Daniels) stand together in the Sky High hallway.
Zack, Layla and Ethan (Dee Jay Daniels) stand together in the Sky High hallway. Image courtesy of Buena Vista Pictures.

Sky High is obviously the Disneyist of DCOMs. The film never engages with the darker implications of the superhero narrative—even those that work as actual plot points. Warren’s parentage is an easy opportunity for digging into the depths of legacy and the grey that lives between good and evil. Instead, it leads to a single confrontation and more than a few jokes at his expense. Similarly, Gwen’s backstory, Mr. Boy’s relationship with The Commander and especially the logistics of playing “save the citizen” with real citizens are jokingly dismissed concepts that, in a ‘grittier’ version of this movie, might be further explored. This is by no means a knock against the film, just a fact; Sky High is a family movie, made mostly for children.

Looking back on it, there is no need for Sky High to be anything other than what it is. This genre is so saturated with perspectives that we have entire shows dedicated to deconstructing the superhero narrative. Just last year, the premiere of HBO’s Watchmen and Amazon’s The Boys provided more foils to typical hero archetypes highlighted in other popular properties. Though the source material for those stories date back to the 80’s and early 2000’s respectively, they emerged onscreen in 2019 as a natural response to the abundance of superhero movies and shows. But Sky High came before this, before the MCU, DCEU and the countless barrage of sequels, remakes and adaptations. It predates the need for reinvention. Crafted as a love letter to the superhero genre, this film embraces all of the spandex-wearing and supervillain-punching that the premise implies.  

Funnily enough, so much of what Sky High portrays is what so many superhero films have purposely fallen back into. After a failed attempt to reboot the Spider-Man franchise, the studio ultimately decided to make a John Hughes-eque Peter Parker movie with Spiderman: Homecoming (2017): a coming-of-age film that just so happened to include struggling with superhero powers. And after going to the very depths of the dark and broody bucket, even DC saw the need to inject humor into their movies and found success with Aquaman (2018), Shazam (2019) and Birds of Prey (2020)

Despite current delayed film productions and the unknowable future of the movie theater industry, it seems safe to say that superhero movies are not going away anytime soon. Matt Reeves’ The Batman and Marvel’s Black Widow still live on the horizon, with entire catalogs of follow-ups trailing behind. On some level—though reinvention and fresh takes will always be appreciated—it’s hard to imagine a superhero movie that isn’t, at its core, about audience pleasure. Whatever darkness these films tackle and however little they share with the lighthearted tone of Sky High, so long as they retain their buzz of excitement, they’ll always have a place on our screens.

Though many dismiss the blockbuster superhero films and some have even begun to dread their releases, the tickets continue to sell out and the franchises persist. Despite their flaws and stumbles, we still find joy in these films. They’re ridiculous and repetitive, but they’re also just plain fun.

Will, Layla, Warren, The Commander and Jetstream all pose against a blue background.
Image courtesy of Buena Vista Pictures.

Sky High will always work. Not because of the high school narrative, the sense of humor or even Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s utterly magnetic performance, but because every aspect of this movie, every member of cast and crew that touched it, understood exactly what was being made. When we rewatch it now, despite having seen every possible iteration of spandex-clad heroism, not even our excessive consumption of superhero narratives can bog down the simple fact that makes this movie work. Sky High is shameless, effortless, pure unabashed fun—and that kind of joy is timeless. Yes, this movie is probably colored by nostalgia, but shouldn’t they all be? 

Sky High makes for a solid reflection point and a perfect throwback to a particular moment in time. In a few years, maybe the same will be said of Avengers: Endgame (2019).