We Can Be Heroes, Netflix's Sharkboy and Lavagirl Sequel, Capitalizes on Gen Z Nostalgia

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<i>We Can Be Heroes</i>, Netflix's <i>Sharkboy and Lavagirl</i> Sequel, Capitalizes on Gen Z Nostalgia

In a year when many of the most anticipated movies have been delayed indefinitely, Santa didn’t disappoint, delivering an overwhelming number of movies to enjoy (most from the comfort of home) on Christmas Day. Between the playful magic of Soul to the adrenaline-pumping Wonder Woman 1984 —not to mention others such as Promising Young Woman and News of the World —you could watch new movies all day and still have more to see.

It’s not surprising, then, that you may have missed the release of We Can Be Heroes—a sequel to, of all things, The Adventures of Sharkboy and Lavagirl in 3-D—which released on Netflix this Christmas. That’s probably a good thing.

If you haven’t already seen Sharkboy and Lavagirl, it should stay that way. Directed by Robert Rodriguez in 2005, the film starred young Taylor Lautner as child superhero Sharkboy long before Lautner would go on to portray teen heartthrob Jacob Black in the Twilight film series. Taylor Dooley, who played Lavagirl, hasn’t done much acting since. A combination of poor writing, annoying child actors and special effects that were awful even compared to other computer animation at the time led to the film underperforming at the box office and being rightly crucified by critics.

I absolutely adored this film when it came out, as did many of my friends. Admitting that fact might strip me of my right to ever review another film again, but—in my defense—I was five years old.

Like any five-year-olds, we had terrible, terrible taste. The DVD version of the movie contained these stupid, themed 3-D glasses which the movie would instruct us to put on and take off at different points, and this one gimmick was enough to make us become obsessed with the movie, watching it over and over and over. When I told my mother they were coming out with a sequel, she immediately got a horrified look on her face, memories of the ear-grating “Dream a Dream” song—literally titled “Dream Dream Dream Dream (Dream Dream)”—likely reverberating in her brain after being played for the millionth time. “I had nearly forgotten that god-awful movie,” she groaned.

If you think that’s an overreaction, listen to this song and then imagine having it play every day for months on end:

I’m sorry, Mom.

So why, for the love of all that’s holy, would Netflix want to create a sequel to this abomination? Because, despite us all being old enough to recognize how terrible it is, there’s now an entire generation of young adults with an ironic nostalgia for the terrible things we loved as kids, and executives are starting to cash in. It’s happened to every generation before us and now it’s come for Gen Z.

I see it all the time. At multiple college parties I’ve been to, I’ve seen 2002’s Treasure Planet or 2005’s Robots on the TV while students of varying levels of intoxication laugh and comment on the movies of our childhoods, no matter how good or bad they actually were. Every generation has their struggles, but Generation Z (now aged around 17 to 23) Americans have witnessed the fallout of 9/11, the Great Recession of 2008 and increasing school shootings. Now (if they’re being responsible), many are forgoing the experiences of their college years while the death count from the COVID-19 pandemic rises to even more unfathomable heights. As the mental health of our generation continues to plummet, many of us have used our nostalgia for the campy, kitschy media of our childhoods to cope, reminding us of simpler times while providing us with something to laugh at.

When Disney+ launched in 2019, I saw more excitement surrounding the ability to easily rewatch old Disney Channel favorites such as High School Musical and Phineas and Ferb than around new shows like The Mandalorian. Those at Disney+ clearly saw the money in catering to that nostalgia, creating reboots and continuations of old favorites such as High School Musical: The Musical: The Series and Phineas and Ferb the Movie: Candace Against the Universe.

Now, with We Can Be Heroes, Netflix appears to be jumping on the bandwagon, and it seems to be a hit. Looking at Netflix’s “Top 10 in the U.S.” list on Dec. 30, the film sat in second place, only behind the new romance obsession Bridgerton. That means it’s being watched more than Netflix’s new comedy special Death to 2020 and their dramatically better film The Midnight Sky, released just two days before We Can Be Heroes.

That’s especially impressive considering how terrible this movie is! Although it’s directed by a returning Rodriguez and Dooley reprises her role as Lavagirl, Lautner couldn’t be asked to don the Shark-suit again as he’s too busy swimming in all the money he made from Twilight. The role instead went to J.J. Dashnaw. But it doesn’t really matter anyway, because the now-adult couple barely appears in the film and contributes absolutely nothing to the story. You could remove their ten minutes from the movie and lose nothing.

Instead, the film follows the next generation of kids after the world’s superheroes get captured by aliens. The quality of the child actors ranges from serviceable to cringe-inducingly bad, and the special effects don’t seem to have improved much from 15 years ago. But the more I think about it, I think being “bad,” or at least campy, was part of what Rodriguez and Netflix may have been going for. Even though the title characters of the original are barely there, We Can Be Heroes, for better or worse, captures the same awful yet strangely comforting qualities of Sharkboy and Lavagirl.

I watched the movie with my 12-year-old sister to see what she thought of it, and even she thought it was awful. And yet, she didn’t want to stop watching it. Throughout the whole film, we riffed on the awful acting, plot holes and ridiculous premise—a grandmother sending a group of children to fight an invading alien army—until the credits rolled. Perhaps I’m giving them too much credit, but I can’t shake the feeling that this was all on purpose—that Rodriguez saw the movement of people remixing “Dream Dream Dream Dream (Dream Dream)” and ironically enjoying Sharkboy and Lavagirl, and decided to make something that could potentially spark a similar ironic appreciation down the line.

Who knows? Perhaps when my sister goes to college, her peers will all gather around a TV to rewatch We Can Be Heroes with the same derision and laughter my peers and I get from Sharkboy and Lavagirl. The generation after Gen Z will face similar and new struggles from our own, but I’m glad that they’ll still have some bad movies to enjoy down the line.

Joseph Stanichar is a freelance writer who specializes in videogames and pop culture. He’s written for publications such as Game Informer, Twinfinite and The Post. He’s on Twitter @JosephStanichar.