TALKING PICTURES: SUPER TANKER

If superheroes were real, would they ever read comic books, or would they, rather, avoid them like a Universal nuclear holocaust? On the same note, would an actual superhero ever allow himself or herself to become a fan of big, splashy superhero movies? Might, for example, Superman—safely incognito as Clark Kent, of course—ever be seen buying a ticket for Batman Begins or Fantastic Four?
Or Sky High?
“Absolutely! Sure we might, and we do, the same way that cops might watch ‘NYPD Blue’ or something,” affirms the New York-based writer-agent-superhero known as Doctor Metropolis (aka Barry Neville, author of the recent tongue-in-cheek guidebook How to Be a Superhero: Your Complete Guide to Finding a Secret Headquarters, Hiring a Sidekick, Thwarting the Forces of Evil, and Much More!), “but we basically just go to those kinds of movies to laugh at all the stupid mistakes. We’re particularly amused at how, in the movies, superheroes’ hair always stays so perfect during high speed flight or during a battle, ‘cause believe me, superheroes get their hair messed up just like anyone else.”
Now that I know the truth, I have invited Dr. Metropolis/Neville (whose superpower is stated as “the power to help other superheroes reach their full potential”) to see the recent Walt Disney superhero adventure, Sky High, starring Kurt Russell and Kelly Preston as The Commander and Jetstream, a pair of married superheroes who send their geeky super-son to the top secret high school where educators like Coach Boomer (Bruce Campbell) and Principal Powers (Linda Carter) train the next generation of superhuman champions. The so-so movie has been tanking at the box office, despite a reasonably clever script that uses superhero culture, especially the heartless caste system that divides students into heroes and sidekicks, to satirize high school cliques and other nefarious social structures.
Dr. Metropolis, apparently able to see through wooden acting and cheesy special effects, was favorably impressed by Sky High, and predicts that—should a miracle happen and anyone besides us actually see the movie—Sky High could end up repairing a lot of the public bad will toward Superheroes that has been created by movies like Elektra and Daredevil.
“I think this movie should be used for recruiting,” he says. “If properly marketed and taken advantage of by the superhero community, this movie could be used encourage a lot of our nation’s young people to look into a superhero career of their own.”
“Um, I didn’t realize that just anyone could become a superhero,” I interject. “Don’t you have to have special powers? As Sky High makes pretty clear, without extraordinary powers, aren’t you in terrible danger of becoming a mere sidekick?”
“Wow! David, let’s be clear about this, Sky High is hardly a documentary,” Metropolis patiently points out. “The one thing I take issue with in this movie is the way it says you have to have these incredible superpowers to be a superhero, and how the lack of any remarkable powers will put you on the sidekick path. To be blunt, that’s just not accurate. It’s mildly racist, to say the least, and it’s not how the superhero community operates. There are a number of fantastic and very productive superheroes who don’t have superpowers—Batman, the Punisher, Iron Man, Hawkeye, the Green Arrow—and to sort of sweep them off the table like this would be a real mistake. While there is much to enjoy about this movie, I’d have to say that, beneath its pleasant, technicolored Disney facade, Sky High has a dark, dark heart.”
In defense of the film—Wait! Am I actually defending Sky High?—I do point out that the movie takes the position that such hero-sidekick class distinctions are a big mistake, going so far as to show the sidekicks teaming up to save the day after the good guys are all ambushed by the evil supervillain.
“The message seems to be,” I state, “that sidekicks are superpeople too.”
“True,” says Metropolis, “but it still tarnishes our image as superheroes to imply that any of us would view the world that way, We love our sidekicks. Couldn’t do our job without them. They work very hard and they deserve our respect.”
Sensing that a change of subject is called for, I do so.
“So, jow long did it take you to guess who the supervillain was?” I ask.
“Well, I figured it out the pretty quickly,” Metropolis says, matter-of-factly. “I’m usually pretty good at that sort of thing.”
“I imagine it’s important for a superhero to be able to identify the supervillains,” I suggest,
“It’s true, and I’m glad you brought that up,” he says. “I was a little shocked that none of these superhero characters figured out who the supervillain’s evil high school sidekicks were. How could that happen? These kids are seniors, they’ve been through four years at Sky High, with all the aptitude testing they must have gone through—and nobody figured out that these were fledgling bad guys just aching to join forces with a major supervillain waiting to launch an evil plot against the school and all the superheroes of the world? I find that hard to believe. Was this school even properly accredited? Makes you wonder about the administration.”
“Is there some sort of test, then, to determine a person’s inclination toward super-villainy?” I need to know. “I didn’t realize that. How does it work? Is ultra-Evil a gene, or what? What is it that turns someone into a an evil genius?”
“Ah, the old nature or nurture argument,” Metropolis murmurs. “Oftentimes it’s a chunk of radioactive material that makes you a villain, or a malevolent ray of some sort. That typically is the culprit, but sometime you’re just born that way, nasty and evil. There are aptitude tests you can use to screen people for super-villainous tendencies, and there is work being done on special X-ray machines that will expose a super-villain when they walk through them.
“But,” he adds, “any real superhero shouldn’t need anything like that. A superhero should be able to recognize Evil when it walks through the door.”
Speaking of recognizability, Sky High has a lot of fun with the all-important issue of superhero costuming, trotting out a number of eye-catching outfits worn by the movie’s various superheroes. It’s a subject Metropolis devotes a whole chapter to in ‘How to Be a Superhero.’ In Sky High, especially fetching are the colorful, body-clinging one-pieces worn by The Commander and Jetstream.
“There’s nothing wrong there, no massive faux pas or anything,” says Metropolis, tactfully. “There was certainly nothing that would get them booed at when they get together at the conventions, but I have to say I thought they were a little unimaginative, especially the red-white-and-blue motif that the Commander had going. Red-white-and-blue is so retro, and not in a good way. And Jetstream’s bustier-armor was a little odd, very severe and cleavage exposing in a painful looking way. It would be bad for flying, if you think about bugs and soot particulates and all the other stuff that would get wedged down there every time she flew. That outfit didn’t look comfortable for any kind of activity. It was kind of weird.”
“You know what else I thought was weird?” I remark. “I thought it was a little strange that the Commander, in his Inner Sanctum or whatever his secret hideout it was called, had all those bits and pieces from giant robots and monsters that he’d conquered. Do superheroes really keep trophies of their conquests?”
“Not that many do, but the ones that do make such a big deal out of it, it’s become part of Superhero culture,” Metropolis laughs. “Probably the best known is Batman. At this point, at least half of his Batcave is given over all these trophies—a stuffed tyrannosaurus Rex, a big blue robot, this gigantic penny, and tons of joker paraphernalia. He’s got a lot of stuff. Whenever you go over there for a cocktail party or something, you can’t help but think, ‘Okay, enough, We got it. You’re Batman. Enough.’
“But back to the sidekick thing,” he says, “and I think it’s important to get this in, just in case any impressionable kids read this article. In the movie, it makes it seem like being a sidekick is a fallback position, and that once you’re a sidekick, you are relegated to some sidekick ghetto and you’re stuck there forever. In reality, signing on for the sidekick program is a respectable career strategy. Unless you have incredible Superman-like powers and you go right to the head of the class, very few of us go straight to being a superhero. Becoming a sidekick first can be very valuable, a lot like starting out as an intern in a hospital or something, You get a lot of experience in the field, you get to assist your superhero in battling supervillains—which is great because then you get to see how the bad guys work without being their main target—and you get a lot of practical exposure to all the equipment. This will prove invaluable when you go on to become a hero. The guys who become heroes right away have a much steeper learning curve, and they have to do it while operating at the top of their game. So becoming a sidekick first is a really good idea, and I’d recommend it to anyone interested in taking the superhero career path.”
As a final thought, I tell Dr. Metropolis of Walt Disney’s recently disclosed plans to film a live-action movie version of the cartoon classic Underdog, and ask if he thinks Superheroes will be lining up to see it when it’s released.
“I can’t speak for the other Superheroes, but personally, I think Sky High is probably about as low as I’m willing to go,” he states, slowly and carefully. “I can only take so much superhero parody. I’ve had friends who’ve died doing this, and seeing a dog put on a costume, pardon me if I’m taking this too seriously, but a superhero needs to know when to draw the line, and I think I have to draw the line there.”

David Templeton takes interesting people to interesting movies in his ongoing quest for the ultimate post-film conversation. This is not a review; rather, it’s a freewheeling, tangential discussion of life, alternative ideas, and popular culture.




Posted on August 31, 2005 in Features by
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