The so-called "rebel without a crew," Robert Rodriguez has made a name for himself going beyond just directing credits. He's moved into writing, producing, scoring, editing, shooting and designing many of his films and, as a result, maintaining a distinct and consistent artistic identity for himself. In short, I find him and his films fascinating to discuss.
But there's a bit of a double-edged sword, as his style always seemed a bit niche for my own interests. They seemed to lean towards either Western-inspired b-movies with way too much influence from his BFF Quintin Tarantino or, on the complete flip side, absolutely ridiculous family comedies that seemed to have absolutely no reason to exist beyond some studio good will.
Over the last years, I've started to shift some of my views on that kind of approach. I finally watched 1995's 'Desperado,' a pretty solid action movie even beyond some of the stylistic choices, 'Alita: Battle Angel' wound up being my biggest pleasant surprise of 2019, and I would have never guessed he would have made such a great choice for Season 2 of 'The Mandalorian.'
As for those "ridiculous family comedies" like the 'Spy Kids' franchise and 2005's 'The Adventures of Sharkboy and Lavagirl,' it's pretty obvious that Robert Rodriguez, for all his hyper-violent sensibilities, never takes himself too seriously. Maybe I don't love those movies as much as I did growing up, but, you know what, they weren't made for 24-year-old me, they were made for 10-year-old me. I'm certainly not going to act too jaded to see when a filmmaker is actually having fun making something for a different audience.
That said, even I wasn't expecting a pseudo-sequel to 'Sharkboy and Lavagirl,' with Robert Rodriguez crafting his own kid-friendly superhero universe (and debatably an entire cinematic universe depending on how much you consider his other films canon to each other). But I'm more interested his work now than ever and a sucker for some fun 2000's nostalgia, so I figured there could be something to this, right?
Let's get this out of the way right now: this is not the sequel to 'The Adventures of Sharkboy and Lavagirl' that social media may have painted it to be; they're in it, but they're side players, as are most of the adult actors. 'We Can Be Heroes' is focused solely on the next generation coming into their own and it's a complete mixed bag for me. It's not for me and I have plenty of criticism aimed at it, but I'm also more than willing to acknowledge the craft and sense of tone that I can totally see grabbing a younger audience's attentions.
In a world populated by a group of superheroes known as The Heroics, Missy Moreno (played by YaYa Gosselin) is a relative outcast at school, constantly deflecting comparisons to her superhero father, Marcus Moreno (played by Pedro Pascal). One day, a mysterious alien invasion comes to Earth and, surprisingly, results in the defeat and capture of the heroes, including Miracle Guy (played by Boyd Holbrook), Sharkboy (played by JJ Dashnaw) and Lavagirl (played by Taylor Dooley), as well as her father. In response, Missy is rescued by Ms. Granada (played by Priyanka Chopra Jonas), the leader of the Heroics organization to a safe house along with other children of the superheroes.
Despite having no apparent powers of her own, Missy reluctantly begins to bond with the other children, including Wild Card (played by Nathan Blair), the de facto leader who has every super power without the ability to control them, Wheels (played by Andy Walker), Miracle Guy's son with enhanced strength and intelligence, and Guppy (played by Vivien Blair), the daughter of Sharkboy and Lavagirl who has both shark-level strength and control over water.
When the aliens send a message seemingly indicating the Earth will be destroyed, Missy and the other kids escape the safe house and go on the run. With help from Missy's superhero-training grandmother, Anita (played by Adriana Barraza), the group must make a plan to save their parents and the world, all while determining what the aliens' true intentions are.
On an overall level, this movie infuriates me and not necessarily for the reasons you'd expect. No, it's not the middling, rubbery effects, the story that only gets more and more ridiculous to the end, or even some of the attempts at worldbuilding that are pretty much afterthoughts. What really irks me is that, for a movie that can be legitimately funny at times, it feels like its constantly pulling its punches, never really wanting to go beyond a joke that a 6-year-old might expect.
That's not inherently a bad thing, but it just means that, if you're expecting something a bit more mature, not only will you not get it, but you'll also be teased constantly for it. Only then will I concede to aforementioned parts of the movie that most people would point to as flaws. The visual effects are beyond rubbery and cheap, the adult actors are barely given anything to their talent level, and the whole thing reeks of talking down to kids like it doesn't have anything to give (and it clearly does!).
But I already hear the responses: "it's a Robert Rodriguez family comedy, the kind that you grew up with; how can you possibly get so mad about it." Well here's the thing: maybe it just has to do with how 2020 as year for movies was, but even with the very obvious criticisms I can deal to 'We Can Be Heroes,' I just don't really feel like it.
Most of that has to do with the things I appreciate about it and they're not insignificant either, starting with Robert Rodriguez himself. As I mentioned, I grew up with 'Spy Kids' and 'Sharkboy and Lavagirl' and its kind of interesting comparing the tropes and styles he borrowed in those movies versus this one. Rodriguez is clearly focusing this towards the outburst of sequels/revisits the last few years have brought, leaning into those themes of the next generation learning from the past and making their own way. That may sound a bit cheesy, but to be fair, that next generation does a pretty fun job here.
YaYa Gosselin does a good job of showing Missy's journey to becoming a leader, Nathan Blair as Wild Card has some pretty good chemistry with basically everyone, and then there's Vivien Blair as Guppy, whose power set makes for some scene-stealing moments. The rest of them aren't used quite as effectively as I would have liked, but the film does go through the effort to differentiate all eleven of them, giving them things to do and putting them through interactions that help connect them.
'We Can Be Heroes' is one of those cases where I simply have to separate personal taste from actual craftsmanship. Even if its a mess that I couldn't stand during a fair amount of the runtime, there's also something about it I can't quite ignore. It's the same kind of unexplainable fun appeal that made me beg my parents to go see 'The Adventures of Sharkboy and Lavagirl' when it premiered all those years ago.
I don't see this living on in the popular zeitgeist as some of his other family comedies have, but I'm also kind of happy to see it exist (and evidently getting a sequel). There's a space for non-pretentious, goofy fun like this and, even if I'm a bit out of the target demographic on it (I certainly can't call my thoughts positive), I love that there's a generation of kids who will have fun with this; how can I be too mad at that?
Overall, I give 'We Can Be Heroes' 5/10
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