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Netflix’s We Can Be Heroes Review

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There have been plenty of movies released this year that feel eerily topical, from the zombie movie #Alive to the legal drama The Trial of the Chicago 7. Robert Rodriguez’s new superhero movie, We Can Be Heroes, doesn’t feel like it’s (unintentionally) about 2020, but rather the future as his film declares that those who will truly be able to save the world are the kids — and everyone else should just shut up and let them work. Despite this being a colorful superhero spectacle, We Can Be Heroes nevertheless feels like Rodriguez’s most personal project in years.We Can Be Heroes takes place in a world full of superheroes, who work together under the banner “The Heroics.” But when an army of aliens kidnaps all the superheroes on Earth, it is up to their superpowered children to do something about it. The film has been heavily marketed as the return of Rodriguez’s previous superhero duo, Sharkboy and Lavagirl, but this is not their movie. Sure, they show up — and there’s even a joke about Sharkboy liking to sing, probably in reference to the pop classic “Sharkboy’s Lullaby” — but original Sharkboy actor Taylor Lautner has been replaced by stunt actor JJ Dashnaw and that dynamic duo is not the focus of this film.

Instead, we follow Missy Moreno (Yaya Gosselin), the daughter of the Heroics’ leader, Marcus (Pedro Pascal). Though she has no superpowers, and is generally a shy girl who spends her morning deciding which outfit is more likely to get other kids to leave her alone, she alone can get a group of 11 mismatched superkids to work together. Though the script mostly follows the same story beats you’d expect, Rodriguez executes those beats to a T, crafting a kid-friendly response to The Avengers that nevertheless feels like its own thing.

One of the ways the film does that is by showcasing inventive superpowers we don’t often see in such films. Though the adults are your typical superhero team that includes a Superman stand-in (Boyd Holbrook), a guy with superspeed (Sung Kang), and a Cyborg-like tech guy (Christian Slater), the tweens’ powers are lesser versions of what their parents can do. The son of the movie’s answer to Flash only runs in slow-motion, the son of the tech guy who can do everything has every power in the book, but can never control them. A pair of twins have total control of time but only when they work together, otherwise they can only fast-forward or rewind a couple of minutes. The pseudo-Superman’s son is a wheelchair-user whose “legs are too strong to be supported by his bones.” Through them, the film conveys its main theme of kids actually being more powerful and capable of saving the world than their parents. It’s just that they’re conditioned to think otherwise.Rodriguez’s family-friendly output has always dealt with kids saving the day while rescuing their parents, but We Can Be Heroes feels like the first time he is actually saying something with these movies. It’s not just that the adults are too self-absorbed and would rather argue and fight among themselves than get things done, but that the younger generations should be trusted to fix the many problems their parents left them. With We Can Be Heroes, Rodriguez is confronting the world he is leaving behind for his kids, and making sure he encourages them to do better than his generation did.

It’s no coincidence then that We Can Be Heroes is not presented as a Troublemaker Studios film, but a Double R Production, referring to the production company Rodriguez formed with his sons Racer and Rebel. Indeed, the Rebel Without a Crew author is renowned for taking on multiple roles in his films and employing most of his family to help make them. While Rodriguez directed, wrote, produced, shot, and edited this film, his son Racer co-produced it, Rebel composed the score, and major elements of the film’s production design were made by Rogue and Rhiannon Rodriguez.

We Can Be Heroes has a unique aesthetic that feels like the logical step forward from Spy Kids and The Adventures of Sharkboy and Lavagirl in 3-D. It’s still very colorful and cartoonish, especially the set designs introduced in the third act, but now they don’t just feel like they’re aimed at youths, but rather are made by youths. This movie is the closest thing we’ve got to the spirit of classic Nickelodeon from the late ’80s and early ’90s.

At a time when superhero movies dominate both the box office and the pop culture conversation, there are surprisingly few of them aimed squarely at kids, the main intended audience that comic books were originally created for. Robert Rodriguez’s We Can Be Heroes aspires to fill that void with a cheerful, optimistic story for children that inspires them to be better than their parents and save the world, while still offering all the thrills you’d expect from mainstream superhero films that adults also enjoy.

Netflix Spotlight: December 2020

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