Zoom: Academy for Superheroes (DVD)

Kids today, heroes forever.

Jason Lethcoe’s comic book Zoom’s Academy for the Super Gifted is about a young girl named Summer who learns she has amazing powers. Joined by her recently-divorced dad, Summer attends a high-tech school for superheroes, where she has many adventures. The film version, Zoom: Academy for Superheroes, also has a girl named Summer and the basic “school for superheroes” concept, but the similarities end there.

As tempting as it might be, I’ll try to avoid writing non-stop comparisons between the movie and the comic—though I should warn you that there will be a few. As a stand-alone work, Zoom promises a handful of well-known comic talents and some up-and-coming kid actors all wrapped up in a comic book-ish adventure. The question now is: Does it fly, or does it crash and burn?

Years ago, Captain Zoom (Tim Allen, The Santa Clause) led the Zenith Force, an elite group of superheroes sponsored by the government. In order to improve performance, the government doses one of the heroes, Concussion (Kevin Zegers, Transamerica), with high levels of radiation. This has an unfortunate side effect, though. Concussion not only turns more powerful, but evil as well. Zoom battled Concussion, with the hero-turned-villain banished into another dimension.

Cut to the present, where Zoom now just goes by his civilian identity, Jack, working a day job. Two of his former employers, Dr. Grant (Chevy Chase, Fletch) and General Larraby (Rip Torn, Men In Black), along with naïve scientist Marsha (Courtney Cox, Scream), show up to recruit Zoom to be an teacher for a new generation of heroes. There’s Dylan (Michael Cassidy, The O.C.), who can turn invisible and who may or may not be psychic; Summer (Kate Mara, We Are Marshall), who is telekinetic and who also may or may not be psychic; Tucker (Spencer Breslin, Raising Helen), who can blow himself up like a balloon; and young Cindy (Ryan Newman, Monster House), who has unbelievable strength. Zoom reluctantly takes on the task of training the four kids. Meanwhile, somewhere out in the desert, a storm is imminent. Concussion is about to make his return.

I was really looking forward to Zoom. Sure the “school for superheroes” concept has been done more than a few times in the past, but there’s no reason to think the creators here couldn’t still have some fun with it. The ads would have us believe this movie is about some kids with powers who have adventures. But this is really about a former hero brought out of retirement to discover he can still fight the good fight. The movie is all about Tim Allen’s character. He’s the focal point; the kids are mere supporting characters. In my mind, the story arc here should have the kids as a bunch of misfits at first, but then they learn to work together and save the day. Instead, the arc is that Zoom is lonely and depressed about his past, he’s recruited to teach some kids, he gradually gains his self-respect back, and then he saves the day.

So the plot is really more Bad News Bears than it is X-Men. And the intent here is really to create a starring vehicle for Tim Allen. I’m actually okay with all that. What I’m not okay with is how Allen’s mugging for the camera distracts from the overall story instead of adding to it. Yes, he has some good one-liners and a few funny slapsticky bits, but overall, there’s little sense of how much he’s changed and whether he’s made any real connection with the kids. When he decides to stand up for them and help them out during the movie’s final third, it doesn’t feel like he’s had a big epiphany and is striving to be a better person. Instead, it just feels like the writers need an excuse to move the story along.

The whole movie is an exercise in such missed opportunities. What are the kids learning at this “academy,” exactly? We see them practicing using their powers here and there, as well as being studied by scientists, but that’s about it. Lethcoe’s comics make a point about how it’s not the powers that make a hero, but who the hero is at heart. The movie, meanwhile, seems to be just about the powers. Sure, Zoom and Dylan have a nice heart-to-heart about doing the right thing, but that scene’s really more about Zoom coming out of his shell than it is about Dylan. Even Dylan’s development of ESP abilities in order to become the team’s leader comes off hollow, since it was established right from the start that Summer already had similar ESP powers. Because Concussion spends most of the movie in another dimension, the real antagonist of the story is the general played by Rip Torn. He’s out to dose the kids with radiation if they don’t perform to standards, and Zoom eventually comes around to fighting against that. Only this conflict isn’t played out as intensely as it should; instead, it’s pushed aside to make room for more comedy silliness. Spencer Breslin really gets the short end here, because his character gets the least amount of screen time, and is the butt of several fat jokes.

Poor Chevy Chase. This is a funny, funny guy, and his talents are wasted here. In the bonus features, everyone talks about their admiration for Chase and his physical comedy skills. This apparently led to a scene in which the kids play some jokes on Chase’s character, dousing him with water, dumping fake snow on him, and worse. The attitude here seems to be “Let’s put Chevy in front of the camera and let him be funny. He’s a comedy legend, so this’ll be hilarious.” But it isn’t. It’s the filmmaker’s job to give the comedian good material so the comedian can make it better. But in this case, they’re not giving Chase a lot to work with, and it shows. Instead of laughing hysterically at Chase’s manic comedy, which I’ve done in the past, I found myself just feeling bad for the guy, hoping he can make a big comeback someday.

Is there anything I liked about the movie? The special effects are nice for the most part. Sure, they do look cartoony at times, but this is a cartoony comedy, so that’s forgivable. While many of the gags were a little too obvious or too juvenile, I’ll admit I did laugh here and there. And the potential exists to improve on what’s here in a sequel, taking these characters on to bigger and, more importantly, better adventures.

It’s time to play “Intentional or Coincidence,” in which we look at similarities between Zoom and other media and try to determine if the reference is a coincidence or an intentional shout-out (or, dare I say it, a rip off):

• In this movie, Tim Allen’s character is named Jack Shepard, which is also the name of the character played by Matthew Fox on the TV megahit Lost. Intentional or coincidence?

• During the movie’s opening animated sequence, characters jump and fall through comic book panels just like they used to in the classic Sega game Comix Zone. Intentional or coincidence?

• Zoom’s youngest and cutest member is a girl with amazing physical strength who wishes her codename was “Princess.” In Marvel Comics’ excellent Runaways, the youngest and cutest member of that team is a girl with amazing physical strength who wishes her name was “Princess Powerful.” Intentional or coincidence?

• Similarly, Marvel introduced its own character named Concussion way back in the first X-Factor annual in the mid-’80s. That one was a member of a group of Russian mutants in hiding, but he did have similar powers to the Concussion seen in Zoom. Intentional or coincidence? (Okay, this one’s probably a coincidence.)

Moving on, there are no complaints about the audio and video quality on this DVD, considering it’s a recently-made CGI-rich Hollywood flick. The “making of” documentary is a good one, covering various aspects of the film, including casting, costumes, sets, effects, and all the work that went into creating the heroes’ robot sidekick. (Oh, yeah, I forget to tell you—there’s a robot sidekick in the movie.) The other extra is a series of fake and incredibly bizarre PSA shorts in which two loser superheroes try to give advice to some kids, only to have Cindy show up with the real advice. I have no idea where these came from or what audience they’re intended for, but they’re worth checking out just for how nuts they are. The lack of other extras is disappointing. With all the ad-libbing Allen and Chase did on the set, you know there are some outrageous deleted scenes out there somewhere.

Side story

So, my lingerie model girlfriend and I took off to have lunch at Wendy’s the other day, looking forward to the delicious food there, in huge portions and generously low prices. During lunch, I looked up from my scrumptious, juicy bacon cheeseburger and asked her what she thinks of product placement in movies. She paused in between bites from her Garden Sensations salad—made fresh daily—and said she said she doesn’t mind, as long as it doesn’t distract from the action on screen.

“Movies are expensive,” she said, while also enjoying the occasional spoonful of Wendy’s chili, which, by the way is low fat and high in fiber. “If product placement helps the movie get made, then why not?”

“You have a point there,” I said after a sip from my soda, which I was able to Biggie-size for very little extra. “But if the product placement becomes too in-your-face, suddenly it distracts from the narrative. For example, the makers of the movie Zoom: Academy for Superheroes decided to have a big special effects scene take place at a Wendy’s, what with its spacious dining area and low, low prices. Didn’t that entire scene come across as nothing more than one big commercial?”

“That’s true,” she said. “When product placement is too blatant, suddenly it becomes an embarrassment to the film. Say, would you like to share a rich, thick Frosty frozen drink for dessert? They are, after all, affordable and so very, very tasty.”

End side story

“For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the powers, against the world forces of this darkness, against the spiritual forces of wickedness…”
—Ephesians 6:12

This quote begins the second issue of Lethcoe’s Zoom’s Academy comic, and it sets some lofty goals for the fictional heroes. Similarly, the film Zoom: Academy for Superheroes sets lofty goals for itself, promising a combination of big laughs and explosive superhero action. Unfortunately, it fails to live up to these promises, and all it does is leave the viewer wanting more.

The Verdict

For not achieving its potential, guilty.

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