The filmography of Robert Rodriguez is more complex than people give it credit for. You have his ‘Grindhouse’ films like Planet Terror and Machete. You have his ‘El Mariachi’ trilogy of contemporary westerns. He’s even now branched into cyberpunk action with Alita: Battle Angel. But out of all his ventures, nothing stands next to his family films. The Spy Kids saga, The Adventures of Sharkboy and Lavagirl, Shorts (Yes, even that fever dream) – no one in Hollywood has since replicated family outings as earnest and unapologetic as these. Though his last go at the genre, 2011’s Spy Kids: All the Time in the World, is widely believed to be one of his lesser films, it’s simply been far too long since cinema has been treated to another signature Rodriguez experience for kids. Thankfully, We Can Be Heroes comes just at the right time.
The past few years have seen a resurgence in the popularity of Rodriguez’s family films. Many of us who grew up with them are now going back and finding out that… things were quite wonky. “MR. ELECTRIC, SEND HIM TO THE PRINCIPLE’S OFFICE AND HAVE HIM EXPELLED!” If it’s not the dialogue, then its glossy CGI or the sheer ‘corniness’ of it all. Many of us who liked it back then are now asking: is this still good? Has time not been kind to these films? The answer is simple. Yes, they are still very good and the fact that we can revisit them today and find just as much entertainment, even more in some cases, is a testament to their timeless qualities. I don’t care how ‘outdated’ it may now look, but everyone remembers the first time Carmez Cortez pointed her bionic arm out into the screen in Spy Kids 3-D. Call it what it is, iconic. These are the intricacies of Rodriguez’s eye for genre, and he puts them back to use in We Can Be Heroes.
Set in a world where superheros play an everyday ‘9 to 5’ job-like role in society, we follow not the heroes themselves, but their super-powered children. The heroes have abilities that range from flight, super-speed, to time manipulation, except for team leader Marcus Moreno (Pedro Pascal), who has taken an oath to his also powerless daughter Missy (YaYa Gosselin) to retire from crime fighting. All is well for a while, the other heroes are strong enough to defend Earth with Moreno helping them from HQ. That is until one day, an all but random alien invasion ensues. The heroes can’t hold them back due to their own folly. Marcus is forced to break his family oath, leading Missy to be put with the kids of all the other heroes for the first time under government protection. The children, more inquisitive for their own good, suspect that something mysterious is afoot and that the only kid without powers may be the one to help uncover it.
The heroes themselves are played by a star cast. Boyd Holbrook (The Predator), Christian Slater (Mr. Robot), and Sung Kang (The Fast & Furious Saga) all have enough time to add their unique charm. All eyes are on the return of Sharkboy and Lavagirl of course. Ever since it was announced that they would be making a comeback, with a young daughter no less, fans united in joy. Only Taylor Dooley reprises her role, leaving a recast Sharkboy silent and grunting for all of his screen time. Disappointing because it’s not like they couldn’t give Taylor Lautner a call, but their inclusion in a new story is seamless nonetheless. Their daughter Guppy (Vivien Lyra Blair) is the true MVP though. Adorable and brought to life with the young actress’ charisma and Rodriguez’s sense of humor. Many might be disappointed that Sharkboy, Lavagirl, and the rest of the heroes (including Pascal) take a back seat in the spotlight, but this isn’t their story.
We Can Be Heroes works on levels that stretch far beyond the borders of a script. The generational gap between the lost heroes and their overwhelming children is at the core of the film. Closing this gap in whatever way possible is a burden often placed on younger people. Learning from the mistakes of before while also setting an example for the future. In return, the generation above can learn from the new and do their part in ensuring unity for tomorrow. This can be very heavy stuff, but it falls in line with how Rodriguez introduces mature themes to younger audiences and why they worked so well for young viewers at that time.
The devised inclusion of Sharkboy and Lavagirl also plays in this favor off screen. Many older fans are going to watch just for them, some with the addition of siblings or friends who didn’t grow up with Rodriguez’s work. We Can Be Heroes is excellent middle ground in this regard, reminding people of why these films stood out so much to them while introducing new material to fresh eyes. A weight that is carried by the film’s young ensemble. Rodriguez puts a spin on each of the children and their powers (the son of a speedster travels so fast that he actually moves in slow-motion for instance) and all the kids have the most fun with it. It’s really hard to knock this film down for anything when everyone is just fully invested with just how tongue-in-cheek it can be.
However, from the crowd rises a star. YaYa Gosselin and her relationship with Pascal are at the heart of We Can Be Heroes. She carries all the traits of a trademark Rodriguez lead and has what it takes to continue this series in the future (Netflix has expressed interest in sequels). Her chemistry with Pascal is endearing and it would be a great shame to never see the duo again. And even if this is a one and done story, the two still stand mighty next to the other Latin families from Rodriguez’s canon. Suffice to say that a lovable (naturally woven) Latin family front and center of a film that is destined to be streamed by millions just hits the right spot for this writer at this time of the year.
We Can Be Heroes will surely have its fair share of naysayers. The CGI can be glossy again, the humor is as unapologetic as ever, and themes/plot can be very much on the nose. These are all well-known ingredients in Rodriguez’s inventory, and he doesn’t hold back, going back to the question raised earlier. If you think his films from before have aged badly, that they were too ‘corny’ or too geared for their time, then I’m not sure what you’re expecting from We Can be Heroes. Rodriguez is deliberate with all of these decisions and he knows what type of film he’s making. You could tell he was longing to return to the genre here. Trying to compare it to Spy Kids and such is also futile. We Can be Heroes may not reach every exact height from those oldies, but it was never going to try to. Give it a shot to be something new and you’re guaranteed extremely wholesome and delightful cinema at the least.