From the $7,000 “El Mariachi” to last year’s almost $200 million “Alita: Battle Angel,” Robert Rodriguez movies are infused with the energy of someone messing around with a camera in their backyard. The best (e.g. “The Faculty”) make that fun infectious and the worst (“Sin City: A Dame to Kill For”) suffer from taking themselves just a bit too seriously, but all of them retain the kind of giddy and un-precious love of the game that Hollywood tends to snuff out of people as soon as they get there. It’s probably no coincidence that the Austin-based Rodriguez has always made Hollywood come to him instead — a dynamic he solidified by reincorporating his Troublemaker Studios in 2000 — and the stuff he’s produced there ever since has doubled down on that DIY sensibility in a way that feels admirable even when the movies themselves don’t work out.
A zany, imaginative, and extremely kid-oriented “Avengers” riff that combines major stars with Snapchat-level special effects in order to lend a live-action Saturday morning cartoon vibe to a story about seizing your own destiny, “We Can Be Heroes” is the ultimate Troublemaker movie (a feeling enhanced by the fact that it’s also a self-contained sequel to the 2005 flop “The Adventures of Sharkboy and Lavagirl,” itself a tonal spin-off of the “Spy Kids” franchise that made Rodriguez’ studio into a legitimate force). It boasts more visual wit than any superhero movie this side of the Spider-Verse, a handful of spirited performances that only make sense as personal favors, the only iota of Justice that Han Lue was able to get this year, and a five-year-old girl named Guppy whose adorable Hulk-like freak-outs inspire one panicked character to utter the year’s single finest line of dialogue: “Look out, she’s got shark strength!” This is the kind of thing that Rodriguez was born to make, and while it’s unabashedly aimed at an audience who’s more familiar with Peppa Pig than Pepper Potts, their parents will be happy to find that the director of “From Dusk ‘till Dawn” is still a kid at heart.
“We Can Be Heroes” starts the way that every movie should: With Christian Slater strapped to a jetpack and hovering in front of the most obvious green screen imaginable as he huffs on an inhaler and warns his universe’s Superman equivalent (a very unexpected Boyd Holbrook as “Miracle Guy”) that Earth is about to be attacked by an armada of purple squid aliens. It’s called cinema: look it up. Those aliens soon prove to be the most daunting foes the Heroics have ever faced, and our planet’s mightiest warriors are so overmatched that even their widowed former leader Marcus Moreno (dad mode Pedro Pascal, radiating enough credibility to offset the chintzy special effects around him) breaks the promise he made to his daughter that he’d never go into the field again.
But he gets captured too, so it’s up to the Avengers’ super-powered kids — and Marcus’ seemingly powerless offspring Missy (YaYa Gosselin) — to save the day. But first, they’ll have to escape from detention! The transparently evil CEO of Vought Enterprises Jr or whatever it’s called (Priyanka Chopra delivering some hammy Cruella de Vil ’90s realness as a girl boss gone bad) has locked Earth’s last hopes inside a classroom at headquarters, and all but dared them to work together and break out. The government certainly isn’t going to step in and solve things: Christopher McDonald plays the obviously Trumpian President of the United States with enough brain worms to insist that every generation has to save themselves.
The “Sky Junior High” scenes are where the movie skews youngest, but also where it has the most fun. The kids’ abilities are so much weirder and more playful than a Marvel movie could ever get away with, and Rodriguez leans into that fact with a recess-like abandon. Missy is naturally the brains behind the operation, but she often takes a backseat to the insecure Wild Card (Nathan Blair), who has every superpower in the world but no ability to control them — at one point he turns into a toaster, complete with fresh bread.
We’ve also got Rewind (Isaiah Russell-Bailey) and his sister Fast-Forward (Akira Akbar), time-altering twins who are always fighting over the present. We’ve got a girl with a telekinetic singing voice (she doubles as a walking soundtrack), a brilliant wheelchair-bound kid whose muscles are too strong for his legs to support them, and a gothy silent girl who draws the future on her iPad like some kind of Surf Ninja. And let’s not forget about the stretchy boy who comes in handy, the five-year-old who makes paper airplanes out of water, and — my personal favorite — the constantly smiling guy who’s stuck in perpetual slow-motion; if Jim is worried about disappointing his super-speedy father (Sung Kang), you wouldn’t know it. Littlest but not least of all is Guppy (Vivien Lyra Blair), a super-cute little girl who’s part Baby Groot and part Jaws.
Rodriguez never misses a chance to combine these strange characters in charmingly ridiculous ways, all of them in service to a more pointed message about teamwork than any of the “Avengers” movies ever managed to convey. By the time the kids have busted out of Heroics HQ and set a course for the alien spaceship where their parents have been imprisoned, we’ve already been treated to an elaborate human staircase, a “Tenet”’s worth of time-twisting action, and even a training montage set to a Kidz Bop-esque cover version of the Bowie song that lends “We Can Be Heroes” its title (supervised by a game Adrianna Barraza, that sequence feels like it’s been edited together from b-roll footage of a five-year-old’s birthday party).
This thing doesn’t just feel like it was made for kids, but also like it was made by kids, and it doesn’t take long for the “fridge art” visuals to become part of the film’s charm. Rodriguez still thinks like a kid himself, and his script has the ramshackle appeal of a story he might’ve improvised with his friends at the playground back in the day: Ridiculous, hyper, and exhausting. Its only identifiably adult dimension — the obligatory “Chariots of Fire” joke that’s made about our best bud Jim, notwithstanding — is the intense moralizing that brings everything together at the end.
After 90 minutes of using superhero tropes to suggest that every generation of kids is more evolved than their parents, Rodriguez brings things home with a reveal that could hardly be any more explicit about the message it imparts: Adults are inciting young people to fight amongst themselves instead of working together against the real enemy, and America’s future depends on its children finding a way to harness their diversity and self-belief into a weapon strong enough to defeat Republicans. Sorry, shape-shifting purple squid aliens. Most kids might be too young to connect the dots, but it’s never too early to start making a little trouble.
“We Can Be Heroes” is now available to stream on Netflix.