Revisiting 'Up, Up And Away', Disney's Attempt To Build A Superhero Universe Long Before The MCU

(Welcome to Out of the Disney Vault, where we explore the unsung gems and forgotten disasters currently streaming on Disney+.)There's no denying the huge popularity of the superhero genre. What used to be a very niche market now dominates the entertainment industry, from movies to TV shows, and it's in part thanks to the Marvel Cinematic Universe that the genre exploded as it has. Nowadays, it doesn't matter what type of superhero story you like or how old you are, there's something for you, from the bombastic Avengers movies, to clever anime stories like My Hero AcademiaThis is all to say that Up, Up And Away isn't exactly Endgame, but it's a weirdly entertaining kids superhero movie that asks: what if every single superhero property shared a universe and Superman could be friends with the Fantastic Four?

The Pitch

Before Tim Burton's Batman, and then immediately following its success, the type of superhero movies we got were low-budget, campy adventure films with cheesy outfits and less than stellar plots. Kids especially didn't have a lot to pick from, with many of the superhero movies of the time following the dark, gloomy tone of Burton's film.The same could be said about superhero movies centered around people of color. Decades before we first saw Wakanda on the big screen, and before Wesley Snipes started hunting vampires in Blade, black superheroes were few and far between. It wasn't based on a known property, and it didn't spawn a franchise, but Robert Townsend's cult film The Meteor Man nonetheless made history in 1993 when it became the first movie starring a black superhero. The Meteor Man gave audiences a science-fiction adventure that was rooted in real-life problems like gang violence and drug trade in the neighborhood while still being appealing to families.It's no wonder then, that Townsend was tapped by Disney to make an even more family-friendly movie for its then-young series of Disney Channel Original Movies. The result is basically a made-for-TV Sky High about a superhero family and the one kid who feels like an outsider and has to learn to accept himself. 

The Movie

To get the bad things out of the way: yes, this is clearly a Disney Channel Original Movie. The budget isn't particularly big, the costumes look cheap, and the script wasn't exactly Ibsen — unsurprisingly so, since it was written by the screenwriter behind Hannah Montana: The Movie, and Camp Rock 2: The Final Jam (though he also wrote the bonkers and underrated Cinderella III: A Twist in Time). Up, Up And Away follows a family of superheroes. The father (Townsend, who also directs the movie) can fly and goes by Bronze Eagle. The mom (Alex Datcher) is super strong and is known as Warrior Woman. Out of the three kids, the older one (Kasan Butcher) is super fast and controls electricity, and the youngest kid (Arreale Davis) gives Cyclops a run for his money with her heat vision. But the middle kid, Scott (Michael J. Pagan) doesn't have any powers, despite coming from a long line of superpowered heroes. The villain plot is as '90s as they come. The family doesn't deal with supervillains or evil geniuses, but with a group of environmental activists that want to use CD-ROMS to brainwash kids into making kids eat properly and clean up the streets — you know, evil stuff. But one of the activists quickly get other ideas, as Malcolm (Kevin Connolly in his pre-Entourage days) decides to use the program to make junior high kids steal from their parents. If that wasn't all, the big climax of the movie involves a football kick saving the day, of all things.Sure, the film is fun, and the ensemble cast does a great job, but that's not why you should watch Up, Up And Away. The reason for watching the movie becomes clear when grandma Doris (Joan Pringle) and grandpa Ed, aka the Steel Condor (The Jeffersons' Sherman Hemsley), come over for a visit. In the middle of a scene, grandma casually mentions that they had Spider-Man and Mary Jane over for dinner the other day. Indeed, years before Disney acquired Marvel and started a cinematic empire, they made a movie that lived within its own MCU, as they also mention the Fantastic Four and you can briefly see what looks like Invisible Woman and Mr. Fantastic at a birthday party (when is Bronze Eagle meeting the Avengers, Disney?). But that isn't all. Not five minutes later, grandpa starts talking about how it was to be a superhero back in the day, before he began a decades-long feud with "Clark curl-in-the-middle-of-his-forehead Kent." Up, Up And Away, despite having nothing in the credits to note that they cleared the rights to the popular superhero characters, managed to do something that multi-billion-dollar corporations haven't been able to accomplish: bring DC and Marvel together for a cinematic experience like no other.

The Legacy

Though The Meteor Man received a 6-issue limited series produced by Marvel comics, Up, Up And Away never got a follow-up or any spin-off material, despite its incredibly big world full of superhero stories that have sadly gone untold. Of course, the superhero genre was a bit different just a few months later, when the first X-Men came out in theaters.Disney tried this same formula just a few years later with Sky High, which once again told a story of a very famous superhero family whose son sadly doesn't get any powers (and that movie has an insanely talented cast, and a score by Michael Giacchino!). Out of the main cast, Robert Townsend didn't retire from the superhero genre, as the actor/director became a recurring character on Black Lightning, opening the possibility of an even larger universe. Of course, now you can experience the bonkers story of Up, Up And Away for yourself on Disney+ and decide if it's a better crossover than Infinity War or not.