Movies like Spy Kids and Catch That Kid, which emphasize kids in big blockbuster-style plots, have a tough task. Too much into the kid adventure without adding enough substance, and the film just becomes something adults play in the background. Too much into the adult stuff, however, and the film risks being out of touch with the intended audience.
The directors Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman (whose work together includes Catfish and Paranormal Activity 3 and 4) have managed to make a worthy addition to the kid-friendly film genre. However, the heart of Secret Headquarters remains with its kid heroes and its strong familial bond.
[Ed. note: This review contains minor setup spoilers for Secret Headquarters.]
Jack Kincaid (Owen Wilson) stumbles upon an extraterrestrial energy source that immediately bonds with him ten years later. He protects the earth as a mysterious superhero known as the Guard, but he has become estranged from his family. He only sees his son, Charlie (Walker Scobell), during custody visits, which he often cancels whenever a superhero-related event arises. Charlie, though, wants to invite his friends over to an empty house for a small gathering.
Charlie and his friends, including his bestie Berger (Keith L. Williams), social media-savvy Maya (Momona Tamada) stumble upon the Guards' secret headquarters in Jack's house. At first, it's all fun and games as they mess around with the high-tech gadgets. But soon, they meet the attention of defense magnate Ansel Argon (Michael Pena).
The Guards' greatest flaw is its slick layout, which draws inspiration from the Marvel Cinematic Universe version of Iron Man, from the HUD display as Jack flies through the sky to the center-of-chest arc light and the armor plating. The guards' entire visual aesthetic feels reused, and the majority of the movie conflict seems to fade into one another as the fight transitions to Charlie's middle school on the night of the big school dance. The scenes when the Guard faces off against his opponent in
Secret Headquarters falls into a similar trap as Enola Holmes and the Secret Society of Second-Born Royals: It introduces heavier themes without ever fully addressing them (In those latter two films, it's Oh man, maybe its bad that Parliament is only ruled by wealthy, white, landowners, but were not actually going to do anything, and Oh huh, I guess I shouldn't rally for my country's monarchy to bedissolved, now that I've patched things up with my sister
Argon argues that one person shouldnt be responsible for saving the entire world. However, the film primarily focuses on Jack and Charlie's dismal relationship, which allows the film to be relatable, even if none of the participants have secretly superpowered fathers.
Charlie continues to wrestle with his differing opinions about his father's secret identity while without Jack around, and that's ultimately the film's main focus. Lizzie, in particular, might fall into nasty, popular-girl stereotypes, but ends up being the most enjoyable part of the film.
When Secret Headquarters gets a little bit more involved with superpowered gadgets, it shines. When it comes to Charlie's dad's struggles and the toll that being a masked vigilante can wreak on family life, it stands out from other films in the kid discover superpowers and super-gadgets subgenre.
Secret Headquarters is available on Paramount Plus on August 12th.