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‘Secret Headquarters’ reveals a too-familiar teen twist on the superhero formula

<i>Hopper Stone/Paramount Pictures</i><br/>Walker Scobell in 'Secret Headquarters
Hopper Stone/Paramount Pictures
Hopper Stone/Paramount Pictures
Walker Scobell in 'Secret Headquarters

Review by Brian Lowry, CNN

The occasional head-scratching over why movies get sent directly to streaming isn’t an issue with “Secret Headquarters,” a spin on superheroes that tilts a lot closer to Disney Channel territory than Marvel. The real surprise is that the film was ever earmarked for a theatrical release before cooler heads prevailed, prompting it to land, unspectacularly, on Paramount+.

The explanation for that initial distribution trajectory might be as simple as the fact that the film was produced by Jerry Bruckheimer, who has a long legacy of blockbusters. But everything else about the movie has a teen vibe and feels scaled toward a more modest venue and expectations.

The story easily boils down to a quick description that reflects the generic nature of the exercise: Teenage Charlie (Walker Scobell, recently featured in another so-so streaming sci-fi/comedy, “The Adam Project”) is irritated by his absentee dad (Owen Wilson), who has split from his mom and never seems to be around.

When dad takes off for “work” while Charlie’s visiting, the kid and a trio of his friends discover dad’s secret lair, the haven for a superhero known as the Guard, who regularly saves the world using an Iron Man-like suit that consists of alien technology.

The quartet first revels in playing with their new and very high-tech toys, before their snooping alerts a villain (Michael Peña, deserving better) who is after the Guard’s gadgetry to their location, setting off an extended skirmish over acquiring it. Almost all of that unfolds within the headquarters, giving the entire movie a claustrophobic feel, while the various teen crushes — including Charlie’s toward Maya (“The Baby-Sitter’s Club’s” Momona Tamada) — play out along the way.

Directed by Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman (“Project Power”), who share script credit with Christopher Yost and Josh Koenigsberg, “Secret Headquarters” possesses obvious parallels to Marvel’s recent teen-superhero series “Ms. Marvel.” That said, the concept borrows liberally from the genre, including elements of “Jumanji” (the remake, not the original) and “Shazam!”

Granted, nobody has a monopoly on the durable fantasy of kids getting to save the world, but that template has been used often enough to warrant trying to at least bend the mold, even in a PG-rated live-action package, if not necessarily reinvent it.

Some of the elements in “Secret Headquarters” are mildly pleasant, but the film seems too content to color completely within the lines. The resulting picture might be enough of a diversion for younger kids, but even they won’t be missing much if what’s in the movie stays secret.

“Secret Headquarters” premieres Aug. 12 on Paramount+. It’s rated PG.

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