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Robert Rodriguez famously made his first feature, “El Mariachi” (1993), for $7,000, and in the years since he’s made a point, rather charmingly, of staying in touch with that DIY side of himself. This first became apparent in the early 2000s, when he churned out three “Spy Kids” films in a row, working out of a home studio where he wrote, directed, edited, and shot these cheeky Bondian kiddie flicks with a gizmoid invention as airy and frictionless as the films’ homegrown FX — but in a way it all played as a sly poke at Hollywood becoming a big-budget toy factory. The joke still had a tinge of resonance in “The Adventures of Sharkboy and Lavagirl 3-D” (2005), a superhero lark that had the benefit of coming out three years before “Iron Man” — that is, before the culture became so inundated with comic-book mythology that it began to wink at its own top-heavy escapism.
“We Can Be Heroes,” the first home-grown kiddie flick Rodriguez has made in close to a decade, is a next-generation sequel to “Sharkboy and Lavagirl,” though in tone it’s more like an “Avengers” film recast as a Colorforms TV pilot aimed at 9-year-olds. It’s about a team of boy and girl superheroes, the sons and daughters of the characters from “Sharkboy and Lavagirl,” who find themselves aboard an alien mothership during an attack on Earth. The floor that lines the ship’s corridors looks like purple linoleum that’s been scrawled on by Jonathan Adler going wild with a white crayon. The rest of the set makes it look like we’re in a version of “Fantastic Voyage” where the heroes have been implanted in the body of Barney the dinosaur.
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The “Spy Kids” movies kept throwing things at you, but in “We Can Be Heroes” Rodriguez has gone a bit threadbare on the visual flimflam. The aliens look human but sprout slithery purple tentacles, and our heroes are given one small-scale trick apiece: Noodles (Lyon Daniels) has limbs that stretch like spaghetti, Guppy (Vivien Blaie) can shape water into anything, Slo-Mo (Dylan Henry Lau) runs slower than time, A Capella (Lotus Blossom) moves objects with her singing, and Fast-Forward (Akira Akbar) and Rewind (Isaiah Russell-Bailey), who are sister and brother, can impose both those actions on reality. It’s supposed to be one of the film’s big messages that these two, who bicker a lot, learn to work together, but frankly I never did get how their powers would do anything but undercut each other. Then again, maybe the movie is making a statement by having its heroine, Missy Moreno (the charismatic YaYa Gosselin), who’s the daughter of Pedro Pascal’s Marcus Moreno, not even have any superpowers.
“We Can Be Heroes” would like to be cheeky and fresh, but characters like the Avengers have already spent more than enough time mocking themselves, and that goes triple for a lark like “Shazam!” Yet I admit it feels churlish to complain about a movie that wears its not-quite-a-superhero-flick-but-an-incredible-handmade-simulation-of-one eagerness on its sleeve. “We Can Be Heroes” has been conceived as a franchise, though in this movie, unlike the “Spy Kids” films, you really feel it. Rodriguez doesn’t just write, direct, edit, and shoot. He’s his own micromanaging super-conventional-minded producer too.
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