‘Secret Headquarters’ Review: A Subpar Superhero Series-Starter


The archetypal portrayal of heroic fathers is one of good, upstanding men teaching the sons who look up to them fundamental life lessons. But writer-directors Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman (“Catfish”) expand on this conceit in “Secret Headquarters,” their family-friendly feature for the Paramount+ streaming service. Centered on a teen who discovers his aloof, neglectful father is the world’s most formidable superhero, this action-adventure delivers a modicum of skill and smarts, though it ultimately winds up as forgettable as its generic title.

Fourteen-year-old Charlie (Walker Scobell) is used to his dad Jack (Owen Wilson) abandoning their plans for work. From baseball games to big school achievements, his father has missed out on every important event. Only Charlie doesn’t know his put-upon pop is busy saving the world, one disaster at a time. A decade prior, Jack unwittingly became a part of something extraordinary when a glowing space orb crash landed on Earth, bestowing him with visions of prophesied mass destruction and the otherworldly power to save the planet. Yet, in those precious years since, he’s failed to create a healthy work-life balance, getting divorced from Charlie’s caring mom Lily (Jessie Mueller) and fracturing their family unit.

Things don’t change for the pair until dad abandons Charlie on a mission. Soon the lonely teen, his quick-witted bestie Berger (Keith L. Williams), his street-savvy crush Maya (Momona Tamada) and her candid social media influencer pal Lizzie (Abby James Witherspoon) stumble upon Jack’s super-secret headquarters in the family’s cabin in the woods. This gives them the chance to play with a cornucopia of alien technology, but also summons war monger/profit Ansel Argon (Michael Peña), who is hunting for the orb with his bitter head of security Captain Irons (Jesse Williams) and a fleet of henchmen. As the baddies search the compound, the teens are called upon to defend the turf until Jack figures out his greater mission is at home.

They don’t call this “Secret Headquarters” for nothing: These characters spend an inordinate amount of time in the basement lair. The film’s elongated second act is set in this singular space, showing the teens hiding, fighting and occasionally outsmarting the adult mercenaries. The filmmakers incorporate some production design elements into the combat and conflict as a nifty way to make full use of the location. However, with its dark, bland aesthetic and the action’s repetitive use of the otherworldly tech, these sequences zap the film of energetic momentum — at least until it’s time to break out to the climactic third-act set-piece at the school dance.

Our suspension of disbelief is tested frequently, not so much in terms of the genre, but in the context of human relationships. It strains credulity that Irons, given his intellect and military background, doesn’t realize his boss is evil. It’s certainly no surprise to us. The final scene leaves us with more questions than answers, specifically surrounding the fix of this formerly fractured family. The filmmakers want us to believe these are real people overcoming real issues — and divorce and parental abandonment are certainly troubling. Yet here they’re treated as “reel issues,” movie problems with hand-waved quick fixes simply to get to a happy ending. As a result, the story bypasses any sense of earned emotional gratification.

Not only is this missing genuine, heartfelt father-son and mom-dad make-up moments (one talk in a car and one post-fight chat do not sincere apologies make), it also lacks tangible journeys for both father and son protagonists. There’s little growth exhibited by either when it comes to mending their relationship woes. Their arcs lack clear definition beyond both experiencing an inevitable softening of their hearts. Their key compromises less the impact of the resolution, leading to many larger, long-lasting concerns. Plus, the space orb is less a gift than a curse, yet it’s bafflingly showcased as the former.

Blessedly, this isn’t totally an exercise in frustrating creative choices. Screenwriters Christopher Yost, Josh Koenigsberg, Joost and Schulman (working from a story by Yost) do a great job of world-building, even if they borrow a bit too heavily from the “Iron Man” franchise. They construct their kiddie characters as three-dimensional beings who, when failing or being underestimated, learn from mistakes and rise above — more so than the adults featured. For the teens, heartrending sentiments on teamwork, friendship and forgiveness are given sufficient time to land and reverberate.

Each cast member is given a big movie moment to shine, from Peña’s breathless break at a water fountain (showcasing his gift for comedic vamping) to Witherspoon fully leaning into a whiny teen girl act as a distraction technique (demonstrating she inherited the same comedic instincts as her Aunt Reese). Scobell, as previously spotlit this summer in “The Adam Project,” adeptly holds his own as the underdog hero against Wilson. He also nimbly fits into the ensemble, especially in scenes that show off his chemistry with Williams, the film’s hilarious standout, and Tamada, whose droll delivery works perfectly for her character and the comedic undertones.

With a solid cast, healthy sense of humor and polished visual effects, the film rises above so many of the sub-cinematic slogs littering the streaming fray. Expecting it to be memorable proves to be a big ask from the filmmakers, despite their hunger for a Marvel-style, Amblin-esque franchise starter. Still, the ease with which we forget its blights might just be the project’s real superpower.

Leave a Comment