(Welcome to Out of the Disney Vault, where we explore the unsung gems and forgotten disasters currently streaming on Disney+.)
For over a decade now, Disney has dominated the superhero film market thanks to the colossal success of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. But in the early 2000s, the thought of audiences getting not one, but multiple superhero movies each year was unthinkable, and a superhero movie that connected to a larger world of other heroes was but a mere wishful thought.
Except Disney did all that years before the Avengers first assembled, with an unassuming, family-friendly superhero movie that poked fun at expanded universes, superhero legacies, and every trope in the book. With the film having celebrated its 15th anniversary earlier this year and finally becoming available on Disney+, it’s time to take the “hero or sidekick” test and revisit Sky High.
The concept for Sky High — a high school for superpowered kids — had reportedly been around since the ’90s when Paul Hernandez pitched it as a TV series. But it wasn’t until Disney found success with their animated show Kim Possible and show co-creators Bob Schooley and Mark McCorkle began writing a script for a live-action adaptation that Disney decided to mix both concepts and bring Schooley and McCorkle on board to make Sky High feel more contemporary and teen-friendly.
Sky High came out at a time when superhero movies were experiencing a boom. Between the Spider-Man and X-Men, superhero films were taking a more grounded approach to comics, movies without the more “comicbook-y” elements like spandex suits or Lazarus Pits. The success of Nolan’s groundbreaking Batman Begins a month earlier showed audiences were craving this new style of dark, brooding, and grounded superhero film, and Sky High went the exact opposite direction.
In an interview with Inverse, writer Mark McCorkle credited director Mike Mitchell with wanting to honor the more colorful spirit of superhero comicbooks. “Mike had a vision of bright colors and it being friendly and upbeat,” McCorkle said, and that was certainly a bit of a difficult thing to ask audiences to get on board with, at least at the time. Though obviously not a blockbuster film like Spider-Man, Sky High fully embraced the camp and cheerfulness of comic books.
For the cast, Disney hired up-and-coming actors for the main teen roles, like Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Danielle Panabaker and Michael Angarano. For the supporting cast, the studio looked for a mix of both comedians and genre legends like Kevin McDonald, Dave Foley, Kurt Russell, Bruce Campbell, and even Lynda Carter, with the former Wonder Woman playing the school principal.
The first thing Sky High does differently, and does well, is hinting at a more expansive world than what we see on screen. Literally, the first line in the film is “in a world full of superheroes…” and the film lives up to that concept. Even if it doesn’t have the budget to show other locations, or have sequels that expand the story, the characters feel like part of a larger world full of dozens of different heroes. Likewise, this expansive world has been around for long enough that there are elite superhero lineages stretching back across decades, and a big focus of the film is how this legacy creates impossible expectations for super children.
In part due to budget limitations and focus on being a coming-of-age story, Sky High hones in on the day-to-day life of superheroes in a way that few movies do. Sure, Mystery Men and The Incredibles touch on this, but it’s mostly a plot point rather than the entire concept. And in retrospect, seeing a film that takes the time to show where a Captain America/Superman-type superhero hangs his cape and how he interacts with his family feels fresh at a time where superhero movies only get bigger and bigger.
Another way that this film evokes newer trends in superhero movies is its tongue-in-cheek humor that pokes fun at the entire concept of superheroes. Where M. Night Shyamalan’s Unbreakable had to introduce comic book tropes and concepts to audiences, Sky High assumes its audience is familiar not with the comic books, but at least with the popular adaptations. There are jokes at the expense of the Batman TV show from the ’60s, and broader concepts like sidekicks or acquiring powers via radioactive insect bite.
Watching this movie in 2020, it’s amazing to see the kind of talent the film managed to gather in one place. While its supporting cast was already more than well-known by 2005, its young core cast was not, and two of them ended up returning to the superhero genre — Mary Elizabeth Winstead playing Huntress in Birds of Prey, and Danielle Panabaker portraying Killer Frost in The Flash.
Though he had already worked with Disney and the superhero genre with the Incredibles, Sky High composer Michael Giacchino’s career has grown exponentially since working on this film, scoring everything from Doctor Strange and Jurassic World, to both Star Trek and Star Wars.
There have been talks about a possible sequel to Sky High for years, with director Mike Mitchell telling io9 that they’ve already written material for a sequel titled Save U — for “Save University.” Though it didn’t happen at the time, having Sky High available on Disney Plus will surely bring the film to a whole new audience that’s craving for new superhero content while waiting for the next Marvel movie. And wouldn’t be cool to see Kurt Russell play a superhero again?
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