Say what you will about Robert Rodriguez, but you can’t deny that he commits to the bit. In this case, the bit is the act of making movies with very few resources. Since the beginning, he favors projects that require him to think outside the box as a filmmaker. Not everything he touches turns into gold, but you can always tell that the fingerprints are his own. So when I say that We Can Be Heroes is a cheesy dollar-store version of a superhero movie, know that this is deliberate and by no means an accident. In fact, it’s so deliberate that the mainline heroes – known as the Heroics – have a logo that clearly evokes The Avengers.
Copying the big boys is far from the only place where the movie decides to cut corners. From the first frame to the last, it relies on primitive visual effects to express the characters and their environments. Instead of having photorealistic CGI, it leans into the artifice by making it as shiny as possible. When it does bother with physical locations, they are overlit to the point where it resembles a stage show more than a movie. Also, Rodriguez serves as the film’s writer, director, cinematographer, and editor, so there are fewer people to pay.
Those details indicate a low-budget movie that feels cheap, and no amount of high-profile actors can truly overcome such a feeling. Despite that, it’s kind of charming to see people like Pedro Pascal and Boyd Holbrook have fun with the breezy material. Rodriguez asks the bare essentials from the adult cast, and this leads to performances that are appropriately corny. Holbrook, in particular, goes all-in with his character’s tough exterior thanks to some gruff line deliveries. In another project, these performances would come off as wooden and unenjoyable. Here, their work fits in line with the light tone that an Avengers knockoff deserves.
In that regard, it would be unfair to label We Can Be Heroes as a disaster. After all, a movie that does what it says on the tin at least clears its intended goals. However, this movie has another goal besides being an Avengers clone: being a showcase for Rodriguez’s family-friendly sensibilities. Unfortunately, it’s here where the corner-cutting starts to work against the movie in major ways. It may have intriguing ideas involving a younger generation’s attempt to carry the torch from older heroes. But when it’s full of basic and lazy choices, it’s hard to care about what it has to say.
Early on, We Can Be Heroes makes it clear that the adults are secondary to the overall plot. While we get glimpses of mainline heroes like Marcus Moreno (Pascal) and Miracle Guy (Holbrook), it’s not long before aliens capture them. As a result, the children of the Heroics have to work together to save their parents and the world. There is a catch: the kids have not put their powers to good use before. In fact, one of them has so many powers that the desired one only comes when it feels like it. Furthermore, the one person that does have confidence, Marcus’s daughter Missy (YaYa Gosselin), has no powers of her own.
No part of that premise suggests this as a lost cause, and yet Rodriguez does everything to achieve the opposite. With the exception of Gosselin, none of the child actors make a strong impression outside of being bratty. In some instances, it seems like Rodriguez didn’t bother to tell them to convey an expression. There’s a scene where the kids are watching aliens take their parents one-by-one, and they mostly react by sitting still and saying “oh no”. A broad-strokes movie like this should warrant big expressions, and yet this one holds back for no apparent reason.
Even if it did have impressive child acting, there’s no getting around how one-note the characters are. To say that their powers take up their entire identity is nothing new for a superhero story. However, the attempts to make them feel like kids further emphasize the stale writing. Far too often, he is content with just making them say and do things that are “adorable”. And by “adorable”, I mean the kind with such a winking attitude that it’s annoying. While a few of them are somewhat tolerable, that’s only because they outgrew the ability to be precocious. In the case of the shark-powered Guppy (Vivien Blair), we have a character that exists to be cutesy and nothing else. When an action scene comes, you can practically hear Rodriguez scream “isn’t it so precious when she takes down people five times her size?”.
But if you really want to witness the movie at its most insufferable, take a look at the character of A Capella (Lotus Blossom). As the name implies, singing is her superpower, and this enables the film to have really cliched song-related gags. Why yes, it does stop at one point to let A Capella quote the most obvious song that a movie called We Can Be Heroes could possibly quote. And in one scene where a character runs in slow motion, you can absolutely rely on her to harmonize the iconic melody from Chariots of Fire. Of course, these moments are here to get the attention of the adults watching, and given my own response, Rodriguez certainly got mine. But when the rest of the movie aims to please the little ones, any time spent on catering to adults comes off as desperate.
Perhaps this would be easier to stomach had the narrative kept things simple. Besides, what’s so complicated about a younger generation making a name for themselves as superheroes of the future? But even here, the movie conveys the idea of “kids rule” in the busiest way it can. Instead of letting the characters speak for themselves, it keeps dropping reveals as if no one would get it otherwise. And as unapologetically silly as the movie is, it still struggles under the weight of its ridiculous finale. While most superhero endings suffer as more effects take up the screen, this one left me wanting more of that cartoony CGI. At least then, there would be something to cover up the cloying sentiment.
To the target audience of We Can Be Heroes, I’m sure that the various superpowers will be enough to win them over. And if nothing else, Rodriguez made a family film that’s far less inane than The Adventures of Sharkboy and Lavagirl. However, that leaves us with something that cuts many corners out of laziness and not out of ingenuity. After watching this, I still admire Rodriguez for taking on projects that don’t appeal to a wide audience. I just wish he realized why most toy commercials are quick bites and not full-course meals. – Mark Tan
We Can Be Heroes is streaming on Netflix.
The film stars YaYa Gosselin, Pedro Pascal, Priyanka Chopra, Christian Slater, Boyd Holbrook, Taylor Dooley, and Sung Kang.