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Sky High, secret identities and sidekicks

I got around to seeing Sky High on DVD on the weekend, and thoroughly enjoyed it. I’d heard nice things about it, but you can never tell until you see it for yourself. It is not a groundbreaking film in anyway – it is a coming-of-age story, formulated exactly to scriptwriting rules of acts and story beats, only with superheroes – but it is the sort of ‘light but entertaining’ film that should be made more often, rather than the dross that is produced by the bucket load and dumped on a gullible public.

It is a very straightforward tale, where you know exactly what is going to happen and when, but is enjoyable nonetheless, made with a lightness of touch and humour that the flat Fantastic Four film could only imagine. The son of the two most famous superheroes – The Commander (Kurt Russell) and Jetstream (Kelly Preston) – has yet to develop his own powers, yet is starting high school for kids with superpowers. There are familiar ideas and story beats: Will, the son, has a female friend who loves him but who he ignores for the foxy female (Gwen Grayson – what a lovely bit of comic book in-jokery there) until he realises the truth about her; he is initially friends with the sidekicks (a nice touch on the jock/nerd split is the hero/sidekick filter that is based on your power – a funny scene with Bruce Campbell as Coach Boomer separates them at the start of school) but becomes a hero when his powers kick in, at the dramatically necessary moment, leaving his friends behind when he becomes popular, only to realise who his friends are; the lame powers of the sidekicks all come into play to save the day when the supervillain makes their move and Will has come to his senses; as well as superpower-based versions of isolation, coming out to your parents, bullying, friendship, living up to your parents’ dreams, among others.

Mix this in with a gentle mocking of superhero standards, such as sidekicks themselves, with Dave Foley as a teacher in the school who was formerly All-American Boy, The Commander’s sidekick, or the science villain with the large head (Kevin McDonald as Mr. Medulla), a nice cameo from Lynda Carter as the principal, and some nice one-liners (‘You know how my mom can talk to animals? Yeah, well, apparently they don’t like being eaten.’ Or Boomer persuading Medulla to come on a double-date, ‘Did I mention she’s not just a twin, but an evil twin?’) and you have the formula for a fun movie that leaves you smiling. I can’t believe it’s from the director who gave us Deuce Bigalow: Male Gigolo.

It also got me thinking about some aspects of comic book trappings used in the film. The casual use of the secret identity is one. They have The Commander and Jetstream as realtors, and apparently successful ones at that.

Ever since Superman (or Zorro, if we go back further), we’ve had the concept of the secret identity. It apparently played a big part in Identity Crisis (I’m guessing, based on the name; I certainly haven’t read it) and will play a big part in Marvel’s Civil War, so it is something that is very much a part of the foundations of superheroes. However, I’ve never had much use for the idea.

Perhaps because I came into comics via 2000AD and The Uncanny X-Men, the concept feels like deadweight to me. I don’t read Spider-Man, perhaps because of the continuing angst about the secret identity putting loved ones in trouble. I never cared for the Clark–Lois–Superman triangle, a convention that is kept by tradition more than for interesting stories. Superman should be about more than whether Lois can love the human pretense. It just rings of cheap melodrama, which is not what I want to read about in comics.

I read superheroes for the awe-inspiring ideas and interesting characters, not their alter egos. Looking back through my collection, I’ve enjoyed superhero comics that got rid of the notion: the X-Men, obviously; the Walt Simonson Thor run, where the whole Donald Blake identity was removed; the fusing of Bruce Banner and the Hulk in the Peter David run; James Robinson’s Starman, where he doesn’t even bother with it; the Fantastic Four, with no need for it at all; Mark Waid’s Flash run, where Wally is Flash, and vice versa; Priest’s Black Panther; even something like The Authority, if I’m to stretch my point. I’m not saying that all comics with the idea in it are bad – that would discount a lot of great comics, such as Watchmen, which would be stupid – but I will need a lot more proof to dissuade me.

Another comic book tradition used in Sky High, more for comedic results, is the sidekick. I can understand that the whole idea is for the kids, representing their dreams of being pals with their superhero idol, but I just think it is stupid. Not for the reasons of Wertham homophobia or fears of child abuse, but from a conceptual point of view. A young sidekick is an inherently unfeasible idea, from a physical standpoint (how does a teenager defeat a strong, vicious, unstable adult?) and psychologically as well (how mentally unbalanced is someone who thinks that they can be the sidekick of superhero? Isn’t that what The Incredibles taught us?).

It didn’t help that I saw the tail end of the utterly execrable Batman & Robin the other day, which brings into sharp focus the dynamic. Batman works as a concept because he is psychotically driven to do what he does, and has spent years training his body to the peak of physical perfection, as well as having tons of money and a keen deductive brain. There is no way that he would say to teenager with some gymnastic skills, ‘Here, dress up in this nipple costume and fight insanely violent individuals, especially as you have no martial art training, weapons or legal validity.’ Also, with Alicia Silverstone, ‘Young girl, niece of my butler, you have no vital skill set in becoming an urban vigilante, nor a reason to fight crime; please put on this form-fitting costume and put your life at risk because girls need a role model too.’

Even if you allow for the possibility of superpowers, it is an unpleasant notion to completely alter a young person’s existence to the extent that being a superhero would. Sky High recognises the fact that it is an inherently silly idea by having Dave Foley play a former sidekick, now old and grey and moustached, who still dresses up in his silly costume. An alternative opening to the film showed the first meeting between The Commander and Jetstream, where The Commander and All-American Boy are captured by Royal Pain. Dave Foley is ‘younged-up’ to play the role, and it looks slightly disturbing, seeing him next to the more buff (and more believable) Kurt Russell, as well as being slightly creepy. Correctly, they got rid of this original beginning, cute as it was, because it gives too much away about later plot developments, allows us to come to the story at the appropriate moment, and means that the first time we see Foley, it is for comedy, seeing a former sidekick trying to relive his glory days, despite the fact that The Commander doesn’t even mention him.

Wow, that was a long ramble over a Disney film. In summary: Sky High – good; secret identities and sidekicks – mostly bad.

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