Every movie studio wants a piece of the shared worlds of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. “Scoob!” was the first move towards a connected series of films in the Hanna-Barbera stable of animated characters. DC and Universal took their shots at doing the same thing — DC with its own superheroes and Universal trying to tie its line of classic monsters together — and ended up with a couple of really bad Justice League movies and the misbegotten Tom Cruise version of “The Mummy.” What they learned is that they’re better off making good standalone films like “Shazam!,” “Wonder Woman” and “The Invisible Man.”
Not for nothing, but for almost 20 years, Austin-based filmmaker Robert Rodriguez has had better luck establishing his own brand of Latino-flavored, sugar-high family-friendly kids’ adventures, starting with “Spy Kids” (four films and an animated Netflix series), “Shorts” and “The Adventures of Sharkboy and Lava Girl”; that one was so kid-friendly that Rodriguez wrote the script with his son Racer.
A sequel to “The Adventures of Sharkboy and Lava Girl,” “We Can Be Heroes” (Netflix-Double R Productions, 100 mins., 2020) is a clever twist on the “Spy Kids” formula: in a world of superheroes — dubbed “Heroics” here — aliens invade Earth and kidnap all the adults in capes and cowls, leaving the fate of the entire world in the hands of the heroes’ kids, who have their own powers and family issues.
The main character is Missy Moreno (YaYa Gosselin), a kid with no powers to speak of, and a dad superguy (Pedro Pascal) who retired from the Heroics Program. Missy is at school when the aliens attack, and all the super kids are rounded up by Ms. Granada (Priyanka Chopra Jonas) and confined at Heroics Headquarters.
There’s a kid named Wheels (Andy Walken) whose powers are super-intelligence but should really be powers of expositional dialogue; he tells Missy (and us) all about the other kids’ abilities. There’s Noodles (Lyon Daniels), a boy who can stretch his limbs like, well, noodles, and Ojo (Hala Finley), a mute girl whose cartoons predict future events, a pair of twins who can reverse and fast-forward time, and so on…
The result is a very entertaining movie for everyone that doesn’t miss a single comic book trope — the ticking clock, the training montage, internecine squabbling — and Rodriguez’s goofy sense of humor that doesn’t miss an opportunity to skewer those same tropes. I also have to give it up to Rodriguez’s imaginative plotting here, because while I was able to predict a twist or two, there are more surprises that I didn’t expect or anticipate. And for a guy who’s seen so many movies, when one gets over on me, I respect that. Rodriguez doesn’t dumb everything down “for kids.” There’s a neat political satirical aspect to the story that appeals in the wake of Trump’s “presidency.”
And the adult supers are having a lot of fun bickering among themselves. Adriana Barraza is a sweet discovery as Missy’s protective grandma, who ends up as the Professor X to this band of powered children. Taylor Dooley reprises her role as Lavagirl, but Taylor Lautner was unavailable, so the adult Sharkboy is played by JJ Dashnaw in a cowl that obscures most of his face. There are also fun turns from Boyd Holbrook (“Logan”), Christian Slater (“Heathers”) and the always reliable character actor Christopher McDonald as President Neil Anami.
The only thing in “We Could Be Heroes” that didn’t work for me is the lame kiddie-pop version of David Bowie’s “Heroes,” the song that inspired the picture. Everything else is just dandy. “We Could Be Heroes” would make for a great rainy-day double bill with “The Incredibles” or your favorite “X-Men” movie, or even better, that other great superhero school kid movie, “Sky High” (2005).