Netflix’s new Spy Kids movie bears the burden of a million expectations.
Robert Rodriguez’s 2001 original was iconic. He built a children’s movie around exactly what he knew kids wanted to see: themselves as the heroes of the kinds of exciting genre movies the adults were watching. In Spy Kids, children aren’t tagalongs or mascots — they get to save their parents, play around with fancy spy gadgets, and do all sorts of cool, exciting things. With two direct sequels focused on the same characters, a soft reboot/kinda sequel in 2011, and a short-lived 2018 animated Netflix show, the Spy Kids franchise is already familiar with new additions.
Still, fans of the first Spy Kids might wonder if Netflix’s new reboot film could ever match the highs of the original movie. The answer is simple: If you were a kid when you first watched Spy Kids, of course the new one won’t feel the same. But that’s OK, because Spy Kids: Armageddon recaptures the magic for a new generation. It’s meant first and foremost for viewers discovering this series for the first time.
Rodriguez is still acutely tapped into what makes movies exciting for kids. The elements of the original that were so evocative — the gadgets, the training, the campy special effects — are all back in his revamped movie. While Armageddon’s adult cast isn’t as captivating as Carla Gugino and Antonio Banderas were in the first movie, Rodriguez and his son Racer, who co-wrote the script, deftly expand their focus this time out, giving the latest Spy Kids movie a timely message.
[Ed. note: This post contains slight setup spoilers for Spy Kids: Armageddon, as well as spoilers for the old Spy Kids movies.]
Like the original Spy Kids, Armageddon follows two kids — this time out, Patty (Everly Carganilla) and Tony (Connor Esterson) — who discover that their parents are secret agents. As with the first movie, their parents get kidnapped by a supervillain, and they have to step into the big spy shoes to save the day. This time around, the kids are a little younger and way more tech-savvy, even though their father is super strict about their allocated screen time. Instead of the villain being a beloved children’s TV show personality, he’s a video game creator who the kids look up to. It’s a smart update for a generation more tapped into the gaming world.
At first glance, the movie’s basic outline matches the original Spy Kids almost beat for beat. But for each moment that feels like a direct copy, there’s another with enough of a twist or subversion to keep the plot fresh. Those curveballs also make it obvious that the filmmakers are conscious about their homages. Their clear awareness of Spy Kids history and willingness to step beyond it takes Armageddon past uninspired-remake territory and turns it into a deliberate series of nods to the original movie’s special moments.
The ways Armageddon leans on the original film do make the biggest discrepancy between them more jarring: The adult cast in the new movie is subpar. Zachary Levi and Gina Rodriguez make for decent spy parents to spy kids, but they don’t have nearly as much suave charm as Banderas and Gugino, who, as actors, ooze “We were actually secret spies in another life.” Billy Magnussen can pull off the role of a cocky game developer, but he’s nowhere near as engaging as Alan Cumming’s playfully unhinged villain turned ally Fegan Floop. The supporting cast also never rises to the heights of Danny Trejo, Tony Shalhoub, and Teri Hatcher in the original — they all blend together into a bland background blob.
But the Spy Kids franchise is fundamentally about the kids, not the adults. In that regard, Armageddon does hold its own. The new characters are much younger than Carmen and Juni were in the original, which helps the actors carve out their own direction and dynamics. A lot of Carmen and Juni’s relationship is built on tension, with Carmen outright bullying Juni. But Patty and Tony have a different conflict: Patty’s a rule-follower who would rather be honest and kind than sneaky, while Tony is mischievous and doesn’t mind playing a little dirty. Their different personalities play well into the ways they take to becoming spies.
As for the spy antics, they’re as fun as ever. It’s still exciting to see the kids in high-stakes car chases, messing around with funky gadgets, and entering a video game to save the world. Rodriguez still leans on dynamic set-pieces with funky 2000s vibes. (There’s an excuse for it built into the movie.) The action isn’t as bright and colorful as it is in the older movies, but there’s still a homebrewed charm and big imagination to the villain’s kooky hideout and the family’s safehouse, and it’s all emblematic of Spy Kids Energy and its zany aesthetic.
The biggest difference between this new Spy Kids and the original is the thematic focus. The original was very much about the core family patching up their relationships. Carmen and Juni start off as antagonistic siblings, but as Juni builds confidence and Carmen nurtures her understanding, they form a strong rapport. Meanwhile, the parents learn to trust each other and their kids. Eventually, they come together as a family, culminating in a reunion when Uncle Machete crashes through a window.
In Armageddon, however, the theme shifts outward, with a lesson that’s not just about how one family gets along, but how the secret agents dole out punishments for the big baddies, and how they may be perpetuating the cycle of villainy. Sometimes kid-tailored movies struggle with the implications of more grown-up conflicts, especially when the story’s central villain does actually have a point, but the kid heroes still have to beat them anyway. (The first Enola Holmes and Secret Society of Second-Born Royals come to mind.)
But Rodriguez is an expert at integrating bigger themes into these movies. The original Spy Kids deals with self-esteem, secrets, and trust. Each successive Spy Kids movie has built out the scope of the world and its ideas, and now Armageddon comes in with a big, sweeping message about focusing on rehabilitation instead of punishment and incarceration, in the spirit of encouraging people to do better. Come for the fun gadgets and the kids saving the world, and stay for a message about recovery and kindness, delivered so earnestly that it isn’t saccharine at all.
Spy Kids: Armageddon is now streaming on Netflix.