Sky High's Portrayal of Everyday Superhero Life Was Ahead of Its Time

15 years after its release, we look back at a unique superhero movie that showed us what teenage life in a superpowered world would look like.

by | July 29, 2020 | Comments

Poster for Sky High
(Photo by Buena Vista)

Comic book movies have given us plenty of fun and interesting worlds to visit — the Marvel Cinematic Universe keeps expanding, from the streets of Queens to the vastness of outer space, and the DC Universe has brought to life famed locations like Gotham City and Themyscira — but few of those worlds have portrayed what life would look like if the presence of superpowered beings were normalized. One of the first glimpses we got was in 2000’s James Gunn-penned The Specials, which was really more of a “dysfunctional family” comedy that just happened to take place in a world populated by superheroes.

But in 2005, Disney released a playful, unassuming little movie called Sky High, which addressed not only what a world filled with superheroes would actually look like, but specifically how it might feel for its extra-gifted teenagers. Despite a much lower budget than your average blockbuster, Sky High delivers a lot of heroic action and plenty of nods to the Silver Age of comic books, all wrapped in an intimate story that still manages to have high stakes. For its 15th anniversary, we’re taking the “Hero or Sidekick” test to tell everyone why Sky High is one of the most inventive and overlooked superhero films of its time.


Kurt Russell in Sky High
(Photo by Buena Vista)

What would the world look like if superheroes were commonplace? Prior to 2005, we rarely saw depictions of “normal” life for superheroes — The Specials and, to a lesser extent, Mystery Men and The Incredibles are notable examples — but Sky High hints at a larger world early on. Spoken by the story’s hero, Michael Angarano’s Will Stronghold, the first line of the film literally begins with “In a world full of superheroes…” and runs with that concept, showing what it might look like if nearly everyone (or at least a big chunk of the population) had superpowers. The film introduces the idea that the children of superhuman folks inherit at least one of their parent’s powers, so not only is legacy a big theme in the film, but there are hints at a long history of superhero lineages stretching back across decades.

Of course, if you’ve got superpowered children, it only makes sense to have a school for young would-be heroes; the Sky High campus rather appropriately floats in the clouds, and the only way to reach it is a flying bus. All the courses are related to superheroes and dedicated to teaching how to control one’s powers. Imagine Hogwarts, but instead of Quidditch, kids play “Save the Citizen,” where teams of heroes and villains battle to save a mannequin from a deadly trap — or destroy it. The bullies are naturally super fast or super strong, and the caste system is divided between those who the teachers deem “heroes” and those they deem “sidekicks.”

Nowadays, it’s common for superhero movies to riff on different genres like rom-coms, heist flicks, and road trip movies, but Sky High utilizes the teen comedy setting to demonstrate how to depict a fully fleshed-out world without the benefit of a blockbuster budget or a connected cinematic universe.


Dave Foley in Sky High
(Photo by Buena Vista)

Years before Deadpool made fun of superhero clichés and elaborate plots, Sky High found the right balance of spoof and homage, fully embracing the inherently absurd nature of a world populated by superpowered beings who dress up in ridiculous costumes. The film is a self-aware comedy through and through, featuring a ton of references to comic book tropes, and it trusts its audience enough not the spoil the fun with unnecessary explanations, the way that something like Glass does.

Superhero movies as we know them really began to take over the mainstream during the early 2000s, but for a good portion of the general moviegoing audience, the genre began and ended with Spider-Man, Superman, and particularly Batman, who had just been successfully rebooted in Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins a month before Sky High was released. Naturally, Sky High has plenty of references to that Silver Age classic character, like the Batcave-esque Secret Sanctum of Kurt Russell’s Commander and Kelly Preston’s Jetstream, only accessible via fireman’s pole. At school, Dave Foley’s teacher (and former sidekick) Mr. Boy teaches an “English for Hero Support” class that focuses on different iterations of Robin’s famous catchphrase, “Holy ____, ____Man!” It’s all cheeky stuff, but it reflects an admiration for the campy superhero stories that inspired the film.


Kurt Russell in Sky High
(Photo by Buena Vista)

In the film’s DVD extras, director Mike Mitchell said that he wanted the adults in Sky High to be “all insane” in order to focus on the teenagers figuring things out and saving the day themselves. This inadvertently makes Sky High feel ahead of its time, as it anticipates a wave of superhero stories taking a cynical look at the genre.

The past several years have seen a reexamination of the role of superheroes in modern society in various films and TV series, ranging from Captain America: Civil War and Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice to The Boys and Watchmen. These projects explore the idea of superheroes as virtual deities who are perhaps out of touch with the common world they supposedly fight to protect and oblivious to the danger they pose to it.

In Sky High, a life of being worshipped as a hero has made The Commander so detached and egocentric that he can’t even remember the name of the sidekick who once saved his life. He’s so dismissive of sidekicks, in fact, that when Will confesses that he’s been placed in the sidekick curriculum, The Commander destroys a phone in a fit of anger and opens up a kitchen drawer to reveal a half dozen more of them, indicating this isn’t an isolated incident. At school, Bruce Campbell’s gym teacher Coach Boomer is something of a verbal abuser who encourages the “heroes” to bully and ostracize their presumably lesser classmates, despite acknowledging that sidekicks have become villains in the past. It’s all played for laughs, of course, but it hints at the sort of abuse of power that has become the central conflict for so many of today’s superhero stories.


Michael Angarano in Sky High
(Photo by Buena Vista)

By nature, superhero movies usually feature a few big action set pieces and massive fights. Sure, it’s exciting to see the heroes use their powers in a battle, but Sky High takes a different and more intimate approach. Take, for example, the first time Will fights his apparent nemesis, school outcast Warren Peace (Steven Strait), or the “Save the Citizen” sequence. These scenes focus on emotional development rather than spectacle; the former sees Will realize and use his powers for the first time, while the latter illustrates how Will’s confidence begins to warp his self image. Even the film’s climactic battle uses action to highlight the theme of acceptance and overcoming social and familial expectations to find yourself and your tribe. They’re fun scenes in and of themselves, but they also serve to illustrate deeper ideas at the core of the film, and that’s arguably more meaningful than watching the good guys beat up on another generic horde of nameless baddies.

In the 15 years since the release of Sky High, the superhero genre has ebbed and flowed between gritty realism and popcorn fantasy, but few films have dealt with the ins and outs of superpowered life quite as playfully. It wasn’t the first superhero film to treat its subject matter with a healthy dose of cheeky meta humor, but it offered a unique perspective on some familiar themes that would find an echo in the later X-Men films, Shazam!Spider-Man: Into the Spider-VerseThe Umbrella Academy, and even the popular Japanese manga/anime series My Hero Academia, which shares a lot of the same DNA. Turns out, being a teenager is never easy, even when you’re blessed with extraordinary powers.

Where You Can Watch It Now

FandangoNOW (rent/own), Vudu (rent/own), Amazon (rent/own), Google (rent/own), HBO Max (subscription), iTunes (rent/own)

Sky High was released on July 29, 2005.


Sky High (2005)

Adjusted Score: 77.029%
Critics Consensus: This highly derivative superhero coming-of-age flick is moderately entertaining, family-friendly fluff.
Synopsis: An ordinary teenager finds out he's not so ordinary after all in this comedy-adventure. Will Stronghold (Michael Angarano) has his... [More]
Directed By: Mike Mitchell

Tag Cloud

ratings Apple TV Plus San Diego Comic-Con discovery Netflix Christmas movies television cancelled television Sci-Fi FX on Hulu GLAAD Rock serial killer Mystery Awards Tour war screenings concert Mudbound SDCC toy story docudrama adventure TV renewals OneApp X-Men TNT comics transformers spanish language Comedy Central Black Mirror travel WGN golden globes Pixar space Nickelodeon what to watch stop motion twilight Best and Worst Hear Us Out breaking bad emmy awards SundanceTV superhero YA Family movies Interview medical drama Super Bowl Television Critics Association mockumentary aliens 20th Century Fox Set visit Cannes cancelled Drama Christmas American Society of Cinematographers Epix book Watching Series satire Star Trek Pet Sematary Tubi Turner Classic Movies rotten movies we love universal monsters 2020 Disney streaming service Martial Arts cancelled TV shows robots Video Games LGBTQ name the review Ellie Kemper composers Vudu NYCC 2015 facebook Hallmark Christmas movies award winner Film GoT spain Lucasfilm Comedy Baby Yoda zombies Crunchyroll Pride Month theme song Mary Poppins Returns spy thriller El Rey Crackle President rotten video Polls and Games Lionsgate quibi Horror werewolf Cosplay Nominations Spike mutant ABC dogs sequels anthology WarnerMedia Film Festival YouTube Premium Premiere Dates HBO First Reviews Walt Disney Pictures Starz child's play The Purge Box Office FX Amazon Studios witnail game of thrones sports ESPN Reality RT History Marathons psycho independent richard e. Grant 2017 DC Comics chucky Country spinoff miniseries Disney Plus TCA 2017 a nightmare on elm street Emmy Nominations social media Sundance Valentine's Day Certified Fresh nbcuniversal streaming CBS All Access classics TV crime thriller YouTube Red See It Skip It Grammys Masterpiece Mary poppins psychological thriller sequel political drama Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt CMT batman Arrowverse Election Ghostbusters Musical free movies talk show 2016 jamie lee curtis Britbox Fantasy stand-up comedy Shudder versus stoner Action Marvel E3 Esquire Hallmark asian-american screen actors guild teaser politics joker parents romance 71st Emmy Awards Dark Horse Comics VOD APB Amazon Prime Video die hard tv talk harry potter Adult Swim kids The CW boxoffice Warner Bros. dc Pop TV unscripted Black History Month PlayStation Pop Emmys singing competition crossover Travel Channel Captain marvel Trivia Disney Food Network reboot Winter TV Sundance TV BBC America USA slashers ITV Nat Geo TBS hollywood Holidays cats doctor who Syfy LGBT dramedy Bravo Spring TV Funimation 2019 TCA Winter 2020 Sundance Now romantic comedy Apple based on movie Summer The Walking Dead Comic Book justice league true crime Biopics Mary Tyler Moore Star Wars Paramount TIFF Rocketman cartoon crime drama VH1 Academy Awards Rocky mission: impossible zombie Mindy Kaling diversity Oscars History zero dark thirty MSNBC Marvel Studios 2018 Discovery Channel Schedule Lifetime Christmas movies 21st Century Fox Tumblr Freeform casting cooking 45 Pirates dceu strong female leads comedies green book Cartoon Network Fox News Ovation Amazon Comics on TV Amazon Prime anime ghosts worst 007 Acorn TV BAFTA Extras National Geographic animated Countdown First Look Brie Larson dark cops video on demand Thanksgiving Turner New York Comic Con foreign Binge Guide Avengers Teen E! sag awards TLC FXX criterion canceled USA Network thriller films vampires south america finale scary movies Spectrum Originals Writers Guild of America DC Universe IFC Films TCA Awards Disney+ Disney Plus TruTV Stephen King disaster Women's History Month Trophy Talk halloween hist The Arrangement technology Trailer SXSW obituary comic IFC cars fast and furious Columbia Pictures renewed TV shows latino Lifetime science fiction canceled TV shows 72 Emmy Awards Fall TV indie Podcast Peacock HBO Go Musicals Superheroes Heroines blaxploitation cancelled TV series Netflix critics best 24 frames A24 all-time Opinion Endgame biography Awards YouTube documentaries VICE binge Apple TV+ Western 4/20 Tarantino Chernobyl comiccon documentary Sony Pictures Creative Arts Emmys natural history sitcom DirecTV elevated horror dragons Red Carpet NBC HBO Max franchise OWN reviews CNN Quiz festivals DC streaming service Tomatazos Anna Paquin Showtime AMC Shondaland TCA historical drama Logo RT21 The Witch Chilling Adventures of Sabrina indiana jones A&E blockbuster Rom-Com directors Marvel Television period drama Reality Competition Classic Film CBS christmas movies Song of Ice and Fire Calendar MTV cults Kids & Family Elton John Holiday crime Paramount Network Television Academy movie DGA Photos GIFs Disney Channel Sneak Peek children's TV adaptation Universal spider-man Superheroe PaleyFest BBC One PBS series supernatural cinemax Year in Review ABC Family nature Winners BBC laika Animation BET Hulu CW Seed Music MCU TV Land hispanic BET Awards Infographic FOX news revenge Toys Character Guide TCM game show police drama