Editor’s Note: This article contains full spoilers for Incredibles 2. Read at your own risk.
It’s been 14 years since the The Incredibles, director Brad Bird’s animated film about a family of super-powered heroes, hit theaters. Since then, the Marvel box-office juggernaut has infiltrated and conquered cinema to great effect.
No series is immune to our contemporary superhero mania, and the Incredibles are no exception. Incredibles 2, released last Friday, is both a critique of unoriginal comic-book fandom and an acknowledgement of the importance of heroes. It’s a terse exploration of many ideas, from feminism to Ayn-Randian-style self-determination, with well-directed daring escapades and a boatload of laughs.
Although the film never truly succeeds as a philosophic treatise, with a muddled message and potentially inconsistent musings, it nevertheless elevates the usual superhero fare by juxtaposing family drama with high-stakes action — slowing down at opportune moments to contemplate the right questions.
In Incredibles 2, Bird resumes his story where the original left off.
Helen and Bob Parr, a.k.a. Elastigirl and Mr. Incredible, with kids Violet, Dash and baby Jack-Jack in tow, are exiting a stadium when a giant drill, piloted by the self-proclaimed Underminer, bursts into the parking lot. As the Underminer attempts a bank robbery, the Incredibles give chase. Ultimately, they manage to save a few citizens along the way, but fail to stop the Underminer and prevent great damage to city streets, buildings and trains.
The Incredibles’ problems don’t end there. In this universe, superhero activity has, for over a decade, been deemed illegal. However, a brother-sister team of wealthy tycoons, Winston and Evelyn Deavor, want to change that. They enlist the Incredibles as representatives for superhero goodness, hoping to win the hearts and minds of politicians and the world at large.
At first, Elastigirl is despondent. What kind of example is she setting for her kids by willfully engaging in illegal activity? But Mr. Incredible’s rejoinder changes her attitude: laws that are unjust should not be obeyed, and that, itself, is a superior message to teach their children.
The above discussion is the first taste of the film’s philosophical analysis. Whether there’s a moral obligation to obey the law is a legitimate question, one that has engrossed moral and legal philosophers for centuries. It’s answered here well enough. We spend little time debating the subject, to which the film never returns, but it’s a satisfying sidebar, nonetheless.
Family conflict bubbles to the surface when a jealous Mr. Incredible is left to tend to the kids as Elastigirl, who Winston and Evelyn believe causes less collateral damage, kick-starts the superhero charm offensive. Helen fights bad guys as Bob fights dirty diapers, a moody daughter and Common Core math.
Here, we see a reversal of Helen’s and Bob’s roles from the first film. In The Incredibles, Bob was off fighting bad guys while Helen took care of the kids. The story there smartly employed superheroism as Mr. Incredible’s “other woman.” In Incredibles 2, we see a similar double-meaning to the husband and wife relationship. As Helen becomes the family’s breadwinner, Bob must come to terms with his new job of homemaker.
It’s frustrating to see Mr. Incredible’s insecurity brought forth on screen, where he so clearly resents his wife’s successes — very frustrating. But the role-reversal, and its examination of modern male anxiety, is a poignant mirror held in front of our own, changing society.
Mr. Incredible’s frustration is misplaced, but not uncommon. Unfortunately, Incredibles 2 never fully addresses this fact, mostly playing it for laughs. By the film’s end, Bob doesn’t learn to value his wife’s achievements to the extent he should. Alas, he does eventually find some enjoyment from helping Violet, Dash and Jack-Jack with their domestic problems, but it isn’t enough.
In her adventures, Elastigirl goes head-to-head with the Screenslaver, a supervillain with the technology to hypnotize individuals via screens. Here, we get a taste of what, probably, is the film’s central theme: self-determination.
The Screenslaver monologues on how superheroes make society weak. Under this view, waiting for heroes to save the day makes one a dependent lay-about. This critique works both as an in-universe send-up and a real-world potshot at superhero fandom. Does modern Hollywood’s love affair with superhero flicks, from Iron Man to Captain America to Logan, prevent new ideas from getting their due?
Incredibles 2 seems to answer “yes.” Though it is itself a superhero film, it is not one based on a pre-existing team from another medium. It is not a comic-book movie — and it’s not afraid to examine its own complexities, and failings, either.
The Screenslaver’s hypnotic tech is another example of the aforementioned philosophy. The way this villain uses screens, specifically, to enslave ordinary citizens is a critique of society’s media culture. Perhaps our films, television shows and online videos should delve deeper, and foster more self-reflective thought, than the typical big-budget blockbuster shoot-em-up.
In the end, however, the Screenslaver is merely a fraud, an alter-ego created by Evelyn to subvert her brother’s plans to bring superheroes back into the public’s good graces. She is a true believer, an ideological zealot on a mission to keep humanity free of the supers’ overbearing influence.
The choice of Evelyn/Screenslaver as a primary antagonist seems quite Randian, indeed. When Ayn Rand, the controversial author of such works as The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged, opined that talented folks should be free to eschew the burden of society’s self-created troubles, and thereby pursue their own self-interest instead, she probably didn’t have superheroes in mind. But, as many commentators have concluded, Rand’s philosophy fits nicely into the the Incredibles’ mantra — though not perfectly, as the two films’ derision of soulless profit-makers, like Bob’s former employer, Insuricare, is antithetical to Rand’s view of business as humanity’s most worthwhile endeavor.
Incredibles 2 is a solid film with deep introspections aplenty. It struggles a bit to balance these ideas and is hardly disciplined in presenting a singular, cohesive message. However, where the film truly succeeds, in societal meta-analysis and playful double-meanings, it’s incredibly hard to discount its genius and vision. ■