Every week this summer, we'll be taking an historical tour of the Hollywood blockbuster by examining an older film that is in some way a spiritual precursor to one of the weekend's wide releases. This week: in addition to being the best DC superhero team movie ever released to theaters, Teen Titans Go! To the Movies is the first time in ages that a comic book movie has remembered that the medium's target audience used to be 10-year-olds. Let us return to halcyon days before superhero movies were big business, when this kind of simplicity was easier to find.

Ask me in 2005, and I'd have said without a minute's hesitation that Sky High looked like pablum: Disney-produced junk for the most very indiscriminate of audiences, trying to cynically cash-in on the burgeoning supehero genre by connecting it to the same audience of bored parents and idiot kids that had been a cash cow for that studio for generations. To be fair, I might say mostly the same thing in 2018, with the proviso that there have been an awful lot of superhero movies made in the intervening 13 years, and they've put such a shiny polish on the genre that a movie like this one has, through no fault of its own, managed to acquire an appealing aura of simplicity. It's a goofy lark with foam-rubber costumes and a healthy sense of irrelevance; it exists pretty much solely to poke some good-natured fun at the whole genre while also telling pretty much exactly the same "first year at high school" story as every other movie about somebody's first year at high school, filtering all the usual tropes through a superhero comic framework.

This turns out to have been good for the tropes, and good for the superheroes. We'll get to why in a moment, but I'll lay all my cards on the table: Sky High surprised me in the most delightful way, proving to be a snappy, knowing genre experiment in place of a production that had every single reason in the world to be utter crap. Certainly, the hook couldn't possibly sound less inspired in 2005, when the Harry Potter books and movies were reigning supreme over all the world: see, there's a school for superheroes. It's called "Sky High", because it hovers in the sky. And in case "school for X" wasn't an immediate tip-off, Sky High also devotes many minutes to its version of the Sorting Hat scene. Which, since its version of the Sorting Hat is a surly gym teacher played by Bruce Campbell, Sky High very much wins in that particular head-to-head competition.

So the plot is completely self-explanatory: in a world where superheroes are commonplace (the film does absolutely nothing with this little fact that it drops almost as its very first narrative beat), Will Stronghold (Michael Angarano) is the son of two of the most beloved superheroes of them all, Steve "The Commander" Stronghold (Kurt Russell), who has superstrength, and Josie "Jetstream" Stronghold (Kelly Preston), who can fly at supersonic speeds. The couple, living in disguise as a team of married real estate agents (the film does much less with this fact than it could), are two of Sky High's most notable alums, and they - especially Dad - are besides themselves with Pride at Will's impending freshman year. What they don't know is that Will so far hasn't manifested his superpowers, and so instead of shooting right the head of Superhero class, he ends up one of the unwanted misfits on the Sidekick track, headed up by the paunchy, grown-up All-American Boy (Dave Foley), who used to be The Commander's sidekick (the film almost thinks about doing something with this fact, but it proves to be a fake-out).

Shake off the genre trappings, and it's hideous boilerplate: the former star football player's son ends up with the geeks and stoners and goths, learning along the way to be his own person, rather than a carbon copy of his dad. But then, the genre trappings are what make it all fun. Also, they change the theme a bit, since obviously Will is going to develop those late-appearing powers just in time to save the day when an embittered former student and supervillain rival of The Commander crops back up to sabotage homecoming. But the point being, there's something fetching about seeing all the usual high school clichΓ©s made weird and unfamiliar by marrying them to a summer popcorn movie, complete with pretty fair visual effects work.

We don't even really need to go very far down that rabbit hole, though: Sky High works in part just because it's fun. It's blessed with an unnecessarily good ensemble: Angarano, whose career never quite picked up the way it seemed like it might for a couple of years, is perfectly cast as a 14-year-old who could just as easily end up going the cool jock route as the put-upon nerd route, and the film lucked its way into getting in on the ground floor with Mary Elizabeth Winstead as the friendly upperclassman Gwen Grayson, who captures and then breaks Will's heart. And there are a decent number of other solid performances among the teenage cast (Sky High manages to mostly cast actual high school-age actors as its high schoolers; Winstead is the oldest of the principal teens, and she was 19 when production started). That said, the film really shines with its adults, most of whom are obviously having a fun time slumming around and hamming it up: Lynda Carter, playing the school principal, is particularly bright and lively (even when she's stuck with the inevitable inside joke about Wonder Woman), but Foley does the put-upon routine well, and of course it's always a treat to see Campbell preening around as a self-absorbed dick (at one point, a freshman demonstrates his powers of shape-shifting by morphing into Campbell's character; this allows us the rare pleasure of a scene in which Campbell gets to approvingly slap himself on the ass). And nobody is having a better time than Russell, a tiny bit of stunt-casting in his own right: a generation earlier, he was the one starring in goofball Disney fantasies about school life, in the likes of The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes from 1969, and The Strongest Man in the World from 1975. He's a delight in the overbearing father role, radiating warmth and barely holding back immature glee, and generally raising the mood of the movie every time he wanders onscreen.

One other person obviously having a good time: director Mike Mitchell, whose seven films to date (Sky High was the third) present a really ludicrous range of quality and tone, but never has exactly suggested that he might be a great artist. You know what he is, though, is a huge comic book fan, and Sky High is more clearly the work of a loving fanboy than any other movie this side of Spider-Man 2. Throughout the film, Mitchell and director of photography Shelly Johnson indulge themselves in striking canted angles of people in dramatic close-up, with blocking that makes absolutely no sense if we're assuming that these characters are all occupying the same physical space, but makes perfect sense if we think about the pose-based orientation of characters within comic panels. This isn't as persistent as it might be, and to be fair, much of the film is just kind of "there", visually; but even then, Johnson overlights just enough to let all the bold colors pop. It's not quite the four-color fantasia of the Sam Raimi Spider-Man films, but it definitely reads as comic-booky in a way that damn few movies have in all the subsequent years, and that adds considerably to the sense of celebratory, cheesy fun that dominates the proceedings. No question that it's just a kids' film, and even then a fairly insubstantial one, but it's a kids' film that was made by people who clearly wanted to make it, on both sides of the camera, and that adds a whole lot of heart even the the most empty-headed of movies.