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‘We Can Be Heroes’ and the Perils of Superkids

'We Can Be Heroes' means well. Or does it?

fatherly logo Opinion

Not every movie we show our kids must be teachable cinema. Not all of them need to score high in “positive messages” on Common Sense or similar family-recommendation sites. Everything can’t be Pixar; someone has to make Shark Tale. But still, even in a year of pandemic devastation and besieged government, it’s pretty clear that the real scourge America faces is Hollywood’s cresting tsunami of pre-teen supreme beings. The latest case in point: the tween superhero epic, We Can Be Heroes. “This movie isn’t bad, but it does hew to a disquieting trend: kids with an instant, unearned dominance over all of space, time, and matter.”

The plot is standard for the sub-genre. Galactically powerful aliens are massing to destroy life on Earth. Our combined military is helpless. Our superheroes are neutralized. Who can save us from interplanetary genocide? Why, a handful of plucky, 65-pound 9-year-olds with awesome hair, that’s who! One of those films. We Can Be Heroes was written and directed by the estimable Robert (El Mariachi, Spy Kids) Rodriguez, and takes its title from Berlin-era David Bowie. Rodriguez is even talking about relaunching the Spy Kids franchise completely, perhaps to explore the espionage tradecraft of toddlers.

Early into We Can Be Heroes, I still needed a bathroom sabbatical once the chips were down and the gang of superhero offspring assembled, and the familiar gears began turning. The crew of middle schoolers with superhuman powers hear the call, get over their hang-ups, learn the value of teamwork, and, you know, end-up kicking ass.  It all streams along painlessly enough, a series of too-bright, too-shiny, cheaply CGI-ed scenes of derring-do that answer the question “What if Sharkboy and Lava Girl had kids?” if not my own “Who the hell are Sharkboy and Lava Girl?” It also offers two lukewarm renditions of a title song with misread lyrics that has already exhausted itself by numerous reappropriations.

All of this is more tired than pernicious, but it speaks to a darker change in the reality film companies manufacture for kid movies. American movie violence was once marked by what Nabokov called the “ox-stunning fisticuffs” of brawlers in bars. In the subset of super-kid action films, the violence is against verisimilitude and it looks like a platoon of weapons-bristling, ‘roided-out orcs getting blasted apart by an Olympian lightning ball hurled with one talk-to-the-hand gesture by a half-interested fourth grader. How did this happen?

One theory: a cadre of producers noticed a whole generation that has been left, literally, to its own devices: playing, socializing, and now learning remotely through superpowers-imputing screens. (Some of those boulder-splitting hand gestures do look a lot like strokes on a touchscreen.) Another theory: decades of market research and focus groups discerned and fed the grade-schooler demo’s hunger for stories about grade schoolers whose only barrier to saving the world is detention, and who, instead of struggling through long division or spending hours on their jump shot, need only believe in themselves, feel the love, or do whatever that female troll did to restore color and summon Justin Timberlake in Trolls and split the atom.

If there’s a primitive origin to this species it’s probably Macauley Culkin’s Kevin in Home Alone, one of the half-dozen films I was supposed to have seen when I was young but watched for the first time with a kid the protagonist’s age—and was left with questions about the target audience. I simply wasn’t sure how to take the sight of a kid ditched by his parents in a suburban Chicago house, presumably some doors down from the one Steve Martin pines for throughout Planes Trains and Automobiles (and the one where teen Tom Cruise briefs-dances in Risky Business), who quickly graduates from buying groceries for himself to repelling a home invasion by two would-be burglars and enraging them so much with some DIY boobytraps that they upgrade to would-be killers. So that we’re yucking it up for one act and a whole sequel as Joe Pesci stalks a prepubescent boy he wants to kill, his efforts foiled by the smarts, verve, and sideways-ballcap “attitude” of an 8-year-old kid.
I’m not nuts enough to call out Home Alone, but I’m getting leery of the dozen-odd films we’ve seen in which his coevals show a little bravery and less effort to defeat legions of intergalactic, alpha-predator linebackers by simply standing before a wind machine and telekinetically slamming them into the boards. I suspect that there’s a long, winding chain of American pathology that begins somewhere near Drew Barrymore’s pouting doomsday princess in Firestarter and continues through the decades to wind up in normal suburban parents called to battle by conspiracy theories, because, certain people have granted them access to truth and power because they, unlike the rest of us sheep, have those awesome powers, an independent mind, and an internet connection. Too far? Well, it’s not the intent of these movies, but you can kind of see the result.

We Can Be Heroes wraps up the empowering adventures with a message that grown-ups don’t know best and kids must find their own way: Don’t trust anyone over 12! So I wasn’t all that surprised to learn that the aforementioned Sharkboy and Lavagirl were created by Rodriguez’s then-seven-year-old son Racer Max, who also produced We Can Be Heroes, and that the character’s attributes and the film’s creature and set designs and musical score are also by Rodriguez kids.  Late in the film, one of its wee supreme beings makes a discovery about the alien invaders’ giant spaceship: It “wasn’t designed for children,” she says. “It was designed by children.” You don’t say.

Shortly after streaming this film my kid and I caught part of SYFY’s New Year’s Twilight Zone marathon, where we found a much better entry in the preteen supreme-being pantheon: Anthony Fremont, in the super-famous episode “It’s A Good Life.” A few years before becoming Will Robinson in the original Lost in Space, Bill Mumy plays 6-year-boy Anthony with an ass-kicking bowl-cut and awesome evil stare, a kid who can alter reality with his thoughts, knows the thoughts of others and has enslaved the residents of his small town who live in constant, self-censoring terror. “This is the monster,” Rod Serling says in the intro V/O. “He’s six years old.” One of the things Anthony does is make the grown-ups assemble each week before his parents’ TV and watch the stupid, violent, plotless TV shows he creates and airs himself. I wonder if Rod Serling saw some sliver of the future when he wrote this teleplay. In any case, my kid sure did like it.

We Can Be Heroes is streaming now on Netflix.