Movies like Spy Kids and Catch That Kid, which put kids at the center of big blockbuster-esque plots, have a difficult task. It’s hard for a movie to simultaneously appeal to kids and to an adult audience — harder than it might appear. Lean too much into the kid adventure without adding enough substance, and the movie just becomes something adults put on in the background. Lean too much into the adult stuff, however, and the movie risks being out of touch with the intended audience. Paramount Plus’ superhero adventure Secret Headquarters is the latest film to fall into this specific category of pleasing both kids and adults.
For the most part, directors Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman (whose work together includes Catfish and Paranormal Activity 3 and 4) manage to create a worthy addition to the kid-friendly movie genre. While the visuals could pop more, and the plot occasionally slows down as the adults face off against each other, the heart of Secret Headquarters remains with its kid heroes and its central family relationship.
[Ed. note: This review contains slight setup spoilers for Secret Headquarters.]
Secret Headquarters kicks off with ordinary dad Jack Kincaid (Owen Wilson) stumbling across an extraterrestrial energy source, which immediately bonds with him. Ten years later, Jack protects the Earth as a mysterious superhero known as the Guard, but Jack has become estranged from his family. He and his wife have divorced, and he only sees his son, Charlie (Walker Scobell), during custody visits — which he frequently cancels when superhero-related business comes up. Charlie, though, is the Guard’s biggest fan. After a “work emergency” calls Jack away for a couple of days, Charlie decides not to call his mom to pick him up, because he wants to invite his friends over to an empty house for a small party, and instead stays at his dad’s place.
While exploring that place, Charlie and his friends — his bestie Berger (Keith L. Williams), social-media-savvy Lizzie (Abby James Witherspoon), and rebellious Maya (Momona Tamada) — accidentally stumble upon the Guard’s secret headquarters (ba-dum tss!) in Jack’s home. At first, it’s all fun and games as they mess around with the high-tech gadgets. But soon, they catch the attention of defense mogul Ansel Argon (Michael Peña), who wants to harness the Guard’s tech for himself.
The movie’s biggest flaw is the bland design. The Guard’s entire visual aesthetic absolutely draws inspiration from the Marvel Cinematic Universe version of Iron Man, from the HUD display as Jack flies through the sky to the center-of-chest arc light and the armor plating. His costume looks pretty cool, but it’s also familiar. The same can be said for the titular secret headquarters, which also feels like a recycled asset. The fact that the bulk of the movie’s conflict takes place in that HQ doesn’t help. Because it’s so dimly lit and cramped, the action scenes blend into one another. Thankfully, they pick up when the fight transitions to Charlie’s middle school on the night of the big school dance. The scenes where the Guard faces off against his adversary in a school gym full of dance decorations are some of the movie’s most memorable, juxtaposing the high-stakes fight with the more familiar backdrop of the school’s hallways.
Secret Headquarters almost ends up falling into a similar trap as Enola Holmes and Secret Society of Second-Born Royals: It introduces heavier themes without ever fully addressing them. (In those latter two movies, it’s “Oh man, maybe it’s bad that Parliament is exclusively ruled by rich, white, landowning men, but we’re not actually gonna do anything” and “Oh huh, I guess I shouldn’t rally for my country’s monarchy to be dissolved, now that I patched things up with my sister!” respectively.)
In Secret Headquarters, Argon points out that one person shouldn’t be in charge of saving the whole world. But it’s made clear early on that he’s mostly saying that to manipulate other people, and his primary concern is making a profit. That hypocrisy is briefly addressed later on, but thankfully, the film primarily centers on the fractured relationship between Jack and Charlie. As the film’s main driver, the family drama keeps the stakes small, yet totally realistic, which allows the movie to be relatable even if none of the people watching have secretly superpowered dads.
Even though Jack is absent for the middle of the film, Charlie continues to grapple with his mixed feelings about his father’s secret identity. Without Jack around, the focus shifts to Charlie and his friends, and that ends up being the movie’s strongest aspect. The kids try out the cool gadgets but use them for juvenile purposes, like passing tests and winning baseball games. The kids all have fairly 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 academically inclined of the main cast and adept at escape rooms. When they use their innovative thinking to evade the bad guys, the movie is similarly fun — but it slogs when the fight focuses more on the adults and sidelines the kids.
When Secret Headquarters indulges the fun of kids with superpowered gadgets, it shines. When it narrows the focus to the conflict between Charlie and his dad, and the toll that being a masked vigilante takes on family life, the movie stands out from other entries in the “kids discover superpowers and/or super-gadgets” subgenre. It could use a little less focus on the serious adult issues of it all, but when Joost and Schulman narrow the plot to smaller stakes and sillier antics, Secret Headquarters proves itself to be a fun, heartwarming romp.
Secret Headquarters is out on Paramount Plus on Aug. 12.