We Can Be Heroes is a sequel to the 2005 cult kids movie The Adventures of Sharkboy and Lavagirl in 3-D, but it has more in common with family-focused action-packed narrative of Robert Rodriguez’s first all-ages adventure, Spy Kids.
Sharkboy and Lavagirl are back, but the premise, about kids taking over their parents’ legacy and stepping up to save them, reaches the emotional highs of when the Cortez family banded together to fight off thumb-shaped minions. Instead of a tight focus on one family, though, Rodriguez pulls together a big ensemble cast reminiscent of superhero team-ups like the Avengers, and an emotional message that evolves the sentiments of Spy Kids for the current generation.
[Ed. note: This review contains some spoilers for We Can Be Heroes]
Missy Moreno (YaYa Gosselin), daughter of superhero Marcus Moreno (Pedro Pascal), is a bit jaded with the crime-fighting life. Her father promised not to do any more heroics after her mother’s death, but when aliens arrived on Earth, he stepped in to help — and ultimately got kidnapped along with the other members of his Heroics team. So when the Heroics’ administrator Ms. Granada (Priyanka Chopra) corrals all the super-children in a secure government location, Missy embarks on a rescue mission for their parents. She doesn’t have any powers, but she manages to step up to lead the kids.
With 11 children wielding 11 different superpowers (well, 10 since Missy doesn’t actually have powers), as well as all the parents, We Can Be Heroes juggles a huge cast. But Rodriguez cracks his own “Avengers assemble” moment in one of the most seamless superhero introduction sequences imaginable. Missy enters the classroom of superpowered kids and meets each kid and their powers — immediately after, the kids all watch their parents fight the alien invasion on television. Each time a parent gets captured, Rodriguez shows us their kid reacting, reminding us of who is who and also giving a small reminder of what their powers are. We get a good sense of their personality, of their relationship to their parents, and the end of that scene immediately catapults the plot into action as the kids plot to break out and save their parents. It introduces and solidifies the characters, but continues to push the plot along. The movie rarely stagnates and Rodriguez effectively uses every moment to build up to the climax.
The kids’ superpowers are also brightly imaginative and fun. The most traditional one is Noodles, a kid with elasticity powers, but Rodriguez dreams up kids who can fast forward and rewind time, sing so low as to be able to move objects, and manipulate water while also possessing shark strength. (The guy loves shark powers.) A tricky part of kids-with-superpowers movies relies on balancing the cast and their powers, especially when some are overwhelmingly more useful than others. We Can Be Heroes elevates each kid, giving them distinct personalities, which is all the more impressive considering its expansive cast. All of the kids get a special moment to shine in the final battle, which takes place in an alien spaceship that looks like something out of a children’s coloring book.
Like Rodriguez’s other kids movies, We Can Be Heroes is a visual delight. It’s bright, bold, and visually feels more like a comic book than any modern superhero movie. The Heroics HQ has a big ol’ “H” blazing on it and their agents’ badges come with similarly styled letters. All the adult superheroes wear garish, bright costumes (something lampshaded by the kids, who remark that the colorful costumes made them easy targets for the aliens). The alien spaceship glows bright purple and channels the same fun, yet sinister vibes of Floop’s castle in Spy Kids years ago. The action sequences take full advantage of the kids’ funky powers — as well as the many tentacled aliens and eventually some pencil-drawn creatures come to life. In that regard, they take after Sharkboy and Lavagirl’s zany punches. It’s fun and dynamic to watch.
And true to Rodriguez’s past movies, the heart of We Can Be Heroes comes from parent-child relationships. The large cast leaves little space in which to build up specific connections between the kids and between their parents, but the main thread between Missy and her father is strong enough to carry the movie through. The other parent-kid pairs buttress that emotional crux, even if they are a bit one-dimensional themselves. And a beautiful twist ending packs a heartwarming punch.
We Can Be Heroes is a rarity: A kids movie actually made for kids, bringing what was special about Spy Kids to a new generation, and a complete delight on its own. Rodriguez taps into more specific themes of childhood and parenthood, while creating a movie where the young cast gets to do as cool of stuff as the famous adults. It’s also a reminder that, while being a kid is fun, it’s also important.
We Can Be Heroes is out on Netflix today.