Everyone wants to make the next superhero franchise, and it’s gotten to the point where studios are heading back to the older strategy of creating their own IP for those means. A new hero, if successful, could mean a lot to those that want to build their own super cinematic universe to compete with Marvel Studios. It’s that mindset that answers the question of why a movie like Ariel Schulman and Henry Joost's Secret Headquarters would even exist. Not even Owen Wilson’s easygoing charm can convince that this movie deserves to take up space on a streaming server.
Centering around Charlie Kincaid (Walker Scobell), Secret Headquarters builds itself on a trope we’ve seen quite a bit in cinema. Thanks to his dad (Owen Wilson) moonlighting as a superhero known as The Guard, Charlie's parents are divorced and he feels neglected. Which, of course, leads to the obligatory moment where Charlie and some of his friends discover his father’s secret headquarters. It all leads to a showdown with an obsessed villain (Michael Peña) who wants to take the power of The Guard for himself.
Secret Headquarters is a simple enough story that, with the right approach, could have been fashioned into something worth watching. Directors Ariel Schulman and Henry Joost actually achieved that feat previously in the streaming world with their inventive narrative in Netflix’s Project Power. That same sort of excitement and adrenaline isn’t present this time out, however, as Charlie Kincaid’s story makes a massive mistake that cascades throughout the entire production: it tries too hard to appeal to the entire family, and misses the mark entirely.
Secret Headquarters tries to have its cake and eat it too, unsuccessfully riding the line between edgy humor and family friendly thrills.
The Amblin-esque formula of The Goonies or even Stranger Things is a nostalgia-driven approach that has sunk many a movie before Secret Headquarters. Correctly applied, a young cast can seem wise beyond their years, yet also likable enough that you want them to survive when danger kicks in. The writing team of Christopher L. Yost and Josh Koenigsberg, as well as Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman, don’t even come close to a decent effort at trying to tackle that energy.
Secret Headquarters isn't primed to be enjoyed by youngest audiences as it skews heavily towards the teenager demographic. Charlie and his friends deal with high school dances, unrequited crushes, and joy riding in a super van – all things that tween/teen audiences are more equipped to identify with. Those are the ingredients of a PG-13 movie, which are ultimately squandered wholesale by this very PG-aiming product. In a movie that sees adult villains kill each other and make grave threats towards children with guns, Secret Headquarters is so toothless that it won’t even allow an adult character to say “hell.”
As for older teenagers and adults, this is a joyless slog that takes no chances. There isn't enough edge to Secret Headquarters to really grab anyone over the age of 10, and it almost feels like that result is by design. The story is told in such a way that it misses both audiences that it’s trying to unite. Failing to inject any sense of wonder in discovering that one’s parent is a superhero is arguably the kiss of death for this flick, as all the gadgets in the world don’t even amount to a spark of whimsy.
Not even the cast’s bantering skills make a dent in how messy Secret Headquarters is.
A talented cast of performers across all age groups was been assembled to try and make Secret Headquarters work. You couldn’t possibly get any more ambitious than casting MCU vets Owen Wilson and Michael Peña as your heroic and villainous leads. Not to mention having Walker Scobell present with his Ryan Reynolds-esque schtick that made him a delight to watch in The Adam Project is another sign that there was an attempt made to pull together an ensemble that could try and elevate this script. An admirable effort was made, but it is still vastly unsuccessful.
There are small moments in Secret Headquarters that work, especially with Peña’s baddie Ansel Argon. He is a disgruntled weapons manufacturer, and The Guard’s heroics have started to tank his company’s fortunes, which makes him want to locate and secure the hero's powers. Through this role, Michael Peña has the misfortune of playing the off-brand Justin Hammer to Owen Wilson’s Iron Man/Green Lantern hybrid. The actor's skills manage to create bright spots, but the script everyone is saddled with is so strong in its mediocrity that it’s practically a black hole.
Again, this complaint circles back to the point that Secret Headquarters doesn’t trust its audience, or its cast, with anything more mature than a Nickelodeon original movie. There’s great potential in the young actors, and that promise is dragged down hard by the inability to play more with the edges that are clearly acknowledged in the dialogue. I’m surprised that Owen Wilson’s throw away line, “I invented fingerblasting” even survived what must have been an editing session that was hell bent on making a movie you could watch with “the whole family.”
If people thought the Marvel Cinematic Universe was playing it safe, Secret Headquarters is about to ask them to hold its beer.
Secret Headquarters isn’t a complete train wreck, but it fails its task in such a frustrating way that it’s aggravating. So many clues of a slightly more mature, and potentially far funnier movie are left sitting on the table, as if they were extra pieces in a jigsaw puzzle. There’s an inescapable air of playing it safe that settles around the film, robbing both those who made it and those who try to watch it.
You can see where this comic-inspired caper is going from frame one, which isn’t automatically something that qualifies this project for failure. It’s the choice to ignore anything even slightly novel or boundary pushing in Secret Headquarters’ narrative that seals its inevitable doom. For all of the criticisms that the Marvel Cinematic Universe has gotten for the uniformity of its canon’s approach to story, Secret Headquarters is going to make Marvel’s most staunchest critics feel as if they owe Kevin Feige an apology.
At least with the MCU, you’ve got movies like Thor: Love and Thunder that mix in edgier jokes (and minor Chris Hemsworth nudity) with a product that you know parents will still take their kids to see. It’s giving the adults something to be entertained with, while also granting children a slight thrill in “getting away” with seeing such things. Both of those components are absent in Secret Headquarters, leaving this four-quadrant wannabe devoid of any ink to truly color with.
CinemaBlend's James Bond (expert). Also versed in Large Scale Aggressors, time travel, and Guillermo del Toro. He fights for The User.
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