Secret Headquarters Review: Owen Wilson is a superhero with family troubles

movies like spy kids and catch this kid, who put children at the center of big blockbuster-like plots have a difficult task. It’s hard for a film to appeal to children and adult audiences at the same time – harder than it appears. Lean too much into the children’s adventure without adding enough substance and the movie just becomes something for adults to play in the background. Lean too much into the adult stuff, however, and the film runs the risk of falling out of touch with its intended audience. The Paramount Plus Superhero Adventure Secret headquarters is the latest film to fall into this special category that appeals to both children and adults.

For the most part, directors are Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman (whose collaborative work includes catfish and Paranormal Activity 3 and 4) manage to create a worthy addition to the kid-friendly film genre. While the graphics could do with more pop and the storyline occasionally slows down as the adults battle it out, the heart of Secret headquarters stays with his childhood heroes and his central family relationship.

[Ed. note: This review contains slight setup spoilers for Secret Headquarters.]

berger, charlie, lizzie and maya tinker with alien technology

Photo Credit: Hopper Stone/Paramount Pictures

Secret headquarters begins with ordinary father Jack Kincaid (Owen Wilson) stumbling upon an alien energy source that instantly connects to him. Ten years later, Jack protects the earth as the mysterious superhero known as the Guardian, but Jack has become estranged from his family. He and his wife are divorced, and he only sees his son Charlie (Walker Scobell) on custody visits – which he often cancels when it comes to superhero stories. However, Charlie is the Guard’s biggest fan. After a “work emergency” calls Jack away for a few days, Charlie decides Not calling his mother to pick him up because he wants to invite his friends to a small party in an empty house and stay with his father instead.

While exploring this place, Charlie and his friends – his best friend Berger (Keith L. Williams), social media savvy Lizzie (Abby James Witherspoon) and rebellious Maya (Momona Tamada) – accidentally stumble across the secret headquarters of the Guard ( badum tss!) at Jack’s house. It’s all fun and games at first as they play around with the high-tech gadgets. But they soon catch the attention of defense mogul Ansel Argon (Michael Peña), who wants to take advantage of the guard’s technology.

The biggest flaw of the film is the boring design. The Guardian’s overall visual aesthetic is absolutely inspired by the Marvel Cinematic Universe version of Iron Man, from the HUD display as Jack flies through the sky, to the arc light in the center of the chest and armor. His costume looks pretty cool, but it’s also familiar. Ditto for the secret headquarters, which also feels like a recycled asset. The fact that most of the film’s conflict takes place at this headquarters doesn’t help. Because it’s so dimly lit and cramped, the action scenes flow into one another. Luckily, they start when the fight moves to Charlie’s middle school on the night of the big prom. The scenes in which the Warden takes on his opponent in a school gym filled with dance decorations are some of the most memorable in the film, juxtaposing the high-stakes fight with the more familiar setting of the school hallways.

Owen Wilson in iron man-like armor comforting a blond child

Photo Credit: Hopper Stone/Paramount Pictures

Secret headquarters almost falls into a similar trap as Enola Holmes and Secret society of second-born royals: It introduces heavier subjects without ever fully addressing them. (In the last two films, it’s like, “Oh man, maybe it’s a bad thing that Parliament is ruled entirely by wealthy white landowners, but we’re not actually going to do anything” and “Oh huh, I guess I shouldn’t gather that my country’s monarchy will be dissolved after I put things right with my sister!”

in the Secret headquarters, Argon points out that one person should not be responsible for saving the entire world. But it’s clear early on that he’s mostly saying this to manipulate other people, and his primary concern is to make a profit. This hypocrisy is briefly touched upon later, but thankfully the film focuses mostly on Jack and Charlie’s fractured relationship. As the film’s main drive, the family drama keeps the stakes small but thoroughly realistic, making the film relatable even when none of the viewers secretly have super-powered fathers.

Charlie, a blond kid, leads a group of kids down a dark hallway

Photo Credit: Hopper Stone/Paramount Pictures

Though Jack is absent midway through the film, Charlie continues to wrestle with his mixed feelings about his father’s secret identity. Without Jack, the focus shifts to Charlie and his friends, and that’s the strongest aspect of the film. The kids try out the cool gadgets but use them for teen purposes like passing tests and winning baseball games. The kids all have pretty fun, well-rounded personalities that work well together. Lizzie, in particular, could easily fall into mean, popular girl tropes, but ends up being the most academic of the leads and adept at escape rooms. When they use their innovative thinking to evade the villains, the film is similarly fun – but it drags along when the combat is more adult-focused and kids are marginalized.

When Secret headquarters Spoils children’s fun with super powerful gadgets, it shines. Narrowing the focus to the conflict between Charlie and his father and the toll that life as a masked vigilante takes on family life sets the film apart from other entries in the Kids Discover Superpowers and/or SuperGadgets subgenre. It could use a little less focus on the serious adult themes, but when Joost and Schulman narrow the plot down to smaller plots and sillier antics, Secret headquarters turns out to be a fun, heartwarming romp.

Secret headquarters will be released August 12th on Paramount Plus. Secret Headquarters Review: Owen Wilson is a superhero with family troubles

Charles Jones

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