Secret Headquarters Movie Review: Superhero Film Falls Flat

(from Left) Walker Scobell as Charlie and Momona Tamada as Maya in Secret Headquarters.

(from Left) Walker Scobell as Charlie and Momona Tamada as Maya in Secret Headquarters.
Photo: Paramount Pictures

In Secret Headquartersa listless young-adult adventure that aims to blend modern-day superhero mania with Spielbergian charm and goonies-era nostalgia, the central hero tasked to save the world is simply known as “The Guard.” That lack of specificity is your first clue about what’s sadly at the core of co-directors Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman’s family-friendly escapade, one that doesn’t bother with what have become essential storytelling devices like world-building, emotional climaxes, or equally basic character development.

That’s too bad, because the story commences promisingly enough with Jack (Owen Wilson) and his buddy Captain Sean Irons (Jesse Williams) getting confronted by the presence of a UAP (formerly known as a UFO) in the wilderness. Before we know it, a flying orb shines golden rays of light from its hexagon-clustered surface. Sean tries to seize it, but like Aladdin’s magic lamp in search of a diamond in the rough, the sphere chooses Jack, transforming him into The Guard. A newscast montage catalogs The Guard’s world-saving actions, from good deeds during a Japanese tsunami to a thing that apparently went down in the Empire State Building. Audiences don’t see him do any of these things in any plausible fashion, but screenwriters Christopher Yost and Josh Koenigsberg (joined by Joost and Schulman) expect them to take their word for Jack’s greatness anyway.

The real story picks up 10 years later in a world where crime is down and peace is dominant thanks to The Guard, now an enigmatic presence with a secret identity. Obsessed with him is young Charlie Kincaid (the lovable Walker Scobell of The Adam Project, blessed with the vintage, wide-eyed magnetism the film is after), who delivers class presentations on the source of The Guard’s electric energy and powers to the protests of his teachers and schoolmates. Charlie’s home life isn’t easy, either, but how could it be when his perennially absent father is unable to keep any of his parental promises—because he’s secretly busy as The Guard?

In fairness, the classical conflict at the heart of this tale is an ever-winsome one: What child doesn’t want to discover that their dad is a lot cooler than meets the eye? but Secret Headquarters squanders this potential due to a puzzling inability to tell a full-fledged story around red-meat notions like family and friendship. In due course, Charlie and four of his closest friends discover Jack’s identity thanks to a parentless night at Charlie’s house and an accidental elevator ride down to the depths of Jack’s superhero chamber—his sci-fi man cave, as one character calls it. But what’s curiously absent in this youthful quest is a sense of adventure, mischief, or danger.

Thinly drawn characters don’t help matters, either. Charlie’s friends never make an impression: the mystical Maya (Momona Tamada), who Charlie nurses a longtime crush on, cool joker Lizzie (Abby James Witherspoon), Charlie’s best friend Berger (Good Boys‘ wonderful Keith Williams), and Berger’s older brother Big Mac (Kezii Curtis) all deserve better than a script that refuses to engage with them on any meaningful level. All they get are some forgettable zingers and shallow romantic entanglements.

Secret Headquarters | Official Trailer | Paramount+

Further bewildering is a team of stock “bad guys” whose evil objectives are never all that clear. Led by Michael Peña’s Ansel Argon, who’s supposed to be a formidable global arms dealer of some sort, these crooks pursue the powerful orb for their malicious designs, the details of which are anyone’s guess. In the aftermath, it’s hard to care when the stakes of the story are never clearly defined and the superhero of the hour disappears from the action for long stretches of time. Worsening the pacing issues are a frantic sense of editing (with at least one major continuity mishap), a trite set of jokes (a long-running one about Owen Wilson’s superhero fanny pack pays off especially poorly), and lethargic set pieces, the most climactic of which includes a boring fight between Ansel and Jack in the hallways of Charlie’s school.

Between all the cool gadgets—a vintage VW from serving as The Guard’s G-Mobile being the best of them—a devoted cast and a well-meaning spirit, you desperately want Secret Headquarters to be a fun and swift adventure like the one Joost and Schulman clearly conceived on paper. But that imaginary film is unfortunately trapped somewhere inside this clumsy wreck, waiting for its superpowers to be restored.


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