Sky High is a Disney television movie that came out all the way back in 2005, and it’s one of the few live-action direct to DVD movies by Disney that I actually like. The story is about Will Stronghold and his exploits at Sky High, an airborne high school for the children of superheroes. Unlike his parents, who are both famous superheroes, Will doesn’t have any powers and can never be a hero until he develops them.
As a superhero family comedy movie, Sky High is amazing. It’s also one of those movies that very easily could have launched its own TV show—because let’s face it, a teen drama superhero television series would be all kinds of awesome—and it’s a shame that that never happened. Sky High is fun to watch, and despite its lighthearted tone and obvious self-awareness, it still manages to impart some important lessons to its audience.
Our story opens with Will starting his first day of high school with his best friend Layla. In typical ridiculous Disney fashion, Sky High is built on a floating island that can only be reached by school buses that turn into rockets. It’s incredible. Once at the school, Will and all the other freshmen learn about the class system—the high school divides everyone up into two divisions, heroes and sidekicks (though the term “hero support” is preferred) based on individual powers. Heroes are praised and held to higher standards than sidekicks, and the school’s class system ends up being a breeding ground for bullies.
Will, not having any powers, is shoved in with the sidekicks and becomes part of their marginalized group. He even learns through interactions with his teacher that his own parents are not as heroic as they seem. They, especially his father, seem to resent sidekicks. Will’s father at one point tells him that there’s nothing wrong with being a sidekick, but his attitude drastically changes after learning that Will is one of them.
Eventually, Will does develop powers. He inherits his dad’s super strength and his mother’s ability to fly, which automatically promotes him to the hero classes—where his newfound privilege gets to his head. As the story comes to a close and the main villain is revealed, Will regains his respect for his old sidekick friends, and the day is saved only by all of them managing to work together.
This class division between heroes and sidekicks is one of the many reasons why I think Sky High could have easily spawned its own television series. There’s a lot about this world that can still be explored—we hear about numerous characters that are important to this world’s history that we don’t get to meet, and there’s clearly a lot more going on with some of the background characters that the movie doesn’t have time to get into. But also, just because Will and his parents learn to respect sidekicks and stop marginalizing them doesn’t mean that the class system is completely uprooted.
I found it surprising that a story as goofy and ridiculous as Sky High manages to talk about such a serious issue and do it well. Sky High is all sorts of enjoyable because it finds a way to balance the seriousness with humor. It plays on a lot of tropes to achieve its lighthearted tone. The story is the generic “young cishet white boy coming of age” narrative, where the titular character manages to prove himself, save the day with his friends, and gets the girl of his dreams—his best friend Layla—for his troubles. He also has an arch rival at school, who’s the son of both a super villain and a superhero. His name is literally Warren Peace. Every opportunity Sky High has to poke fun of overused superhero tropes and laugh at itself in the process it takes, and that’s what makes this movie so fun.
Unfortunately, even though Sky High is incredibly self-aware, because it has to follow such a structured narrative it could stand to handle some of its content a bit better. I said earlier that Sky High’s world utilizes a class system, and even though the movie does a really good job handling that and showing how it’s wrong to marginalize people, most of the characters are white and cishet. I feel as though that message would have been more powerful and meaningful had the majority of the sidekicks we get to meet been minority characters. Sky High doesn’t do a horrible job with the characters it does have, but it definitely missed out on a great opportunity for representation here.
Also, because this is such a structured story based on common superhero tropes, it unfortunately uses a couple horrible stereotypes with its female characters. This is most apparent with the main villain Gwen Grayson. Gwen is a fellow student who takes advantage of Will by using his crush for her against him, effectively turning her into an evil seductress. And being a generic superhero movie, she also has a rather clichéd motive—she wants revenge from a slight she suffered years ago thanks to the class system. The movie isn’t all bad when it comes to female representation though. Layla, for instance, might be the main love interest who hooks up with Will in the end, but Sky High doesn’t treat her like a prize or downplay her character. Layla is also one of the more outspoken characters who never fails to stand up for what she believes in—despite having hero abilities, she chooses to be a sidekick because that’s her way of protesting the class system. At no point does she become a damsel in distress, and it’s only through her help that Will and the other sidekicks save the day.
It doesn’t surprise me that Sky High has these problems, since by the very nature of the movie, which was designed to follow the same structure as other superhero films, it has to be overly male, white, and heterosexist. Though this unfortunately means the movie falls prey to some of the same tropes it’s trying to make fun of, it does the best it can. I find it sad that the movie didn’t become more popular, because it’s definitely something worth checking out if you’re into superheroes.