By the Grouch on the Couch
Well, it’s been 14 years and we finally got the thing that Pixar should have known we’d throw money at, a sequel to Brad Bird’s The Incredibles. I can only assume the delay was because Sam Jackson was busy being in 113 movies in the meantime. Guy’s the only actor who out-films porn stars.
If you didn’t see the first one, here’s a quick summary of the premise: It’s the 1950s. Superheroes exist. Lawsuits for personal injuries also exist. Lawsuits beat superheroes. Congress makes laws. Laws beat superheroes. Superheroes are forced to retire. Two of them get married and have three kids who also have powers. Now it’s the early ‘60s. The family ends up fighting against a supervillain whose plan is to… make himself a superhero, then sell off technology that would allow everyone to be equal to superheroes. The family beats him, the free world is saved, and superheroes are… still illegal.
The family is basically a twist on the Fantastic Four. The mom stretches, the dad is super-strong and invulnerable, the daughter can become invisible and create forcefields, and the eldest son is superfast because if he had fire-based powers Disney would have sued. As Disney now owns Fantastic Four, but not their movie rights (yet), I guess that’s a good call. Jack-Jack, in the short that was on the DVD for the film and for a few moments in the movie, is revealed to have a huge number of superhuman abilities (later described as “limitless potential”), much like Mr. Fantastic and the Invisible Woman’s son, Franklin Richards, whose powers are basically only outmatched by the One-Above-All, AKA GOD.
So, the movie picks up shortly after the end of the last film… by like 2 minutes. We immediately see the Parr family trying to resume superheroics and get our quick re-introductions. Bob, AKA Mr. Incredible (Craig T. Nelson), is the father whose life is defined by superheroics more than his family or career, though the last movie taught him how much more his family means to him. Helen, AKA Elastigirl (Holly Hunter), is the mother who is the more active parent and, arguably, the more successful superhero, except from a marketing and name-recognition perspective. In the last movie, she learned… nothing. She’s basically perfect, so she doesn’t really get a character arc. Violet, the daughter (Sarah Vowell), is a social outcast who has just started to become more open and outgoing. Dash, the middle son (Huck Milner), is the troublemaker who has learned to be more disciplined. Jack-Jack, the baby, is a baby. Their only real friend is Lucius Best, AKA Frozone (Samuel L. Motherf*cking Jackson).
Basically, the premise is that a guy wants to make superheroes legal again, so he has Helen put her costume back on and fight crime, while Bob looks after the family. Now, the general premise here is pretty interesting because, remember, this takes place in the early 1960s. Bob genuinely seems shocked when Helen proposes that she get a job, because he’s “the man of the house.” Throughout much of the movie, he’s struggling to deal with being a stay-at-home parent, something that he cannot use any of his natural superhuman abilities to help with. It gets even worse when the baby starts to show off his superpowers, which include a number of abilities that make him problematic to babysit.
Meanwhile, Helen… well, she doesn’t really have any problems being a superhero again. Honestly, that’s one of the things I loved most about the movie, that they didn’t try to portray Helen as having trouble being a working woman again in some attempt to add conflict. Instead, she’s portrayed as strong, intelligent, tactically brilliant, and resourceful as hell. The movie’s supervillain nemesis is a little corny, but still provides enough of a contest for Elastigirl to show off how good she is at what she does.
Without really spoiling anything, at the end of the movie, the family comes together, saves the day, roll credits. If you didn’t see that coming, I have to assume you don’t know how childrens’ movies work.
First off, everything about this movie, from a technical and storytelling standpoint, was amazing. The characters are well-crafted, the dialogue is amazing, the locations are creative, the villain is pretty well done (see below), and the pacing is basically perfect. I almost think it’s better than the original, honestly. The animation is wonderful, but I found it funny that it really highlights exactly how much Pixar’s animation has improved in the past 14 years, because even the explicitly cartoonish and exaggerated characters from the previous film are now given an extraordinary amount of detail. They’re still less realistic than they could be, but the hair movement and muscle movement in some of the scenes is really elaborate. And the message about the power of family is always good. I loved this film the whole way through, right until something started bugging me on the ride home.
Alright, so, a lot of people had issues with the message of the first movie, since the main family is naturally gifted with superpowers, while the villains are all people who use technology to even the playing field (Bomb Voyage, The Underminer, Syndrome). It gives sort of a “the special are genetically special and trying to change that is evil.” Some people called it reminiscent of Ayn Rand, but those people apparently never read Ayn Rand. While it’s true that Rand believed that society should support the superior people (i.e. the wealthy) at the expense of the lesser peoples (i.e. the working class), the concept of a superhero would have offended her sensibilities, since she claimed altruism was the worst thing in the world in her essay collection The Virtue of Selfishness. Yes, that’s actually its title. Even if Mr. Incredible does enjoy superheroics because of the fame it brings him, he still risks his life constantly to save other people for no reward. When he is stuck at a desk job, he still is trying to help people within the insurance company, to the point that his boss threatens to fire him for it. So, no, not Rand, never Rand. If you’re going to criticize something, read the thing you’re criticizing first (*cough* Everyone on the internet *cough*).
Still, the idea that people born with gifts are heroes and people who use their minds are villains isn’t stopped during this movie. As far as I can recall, there is no Batman equivalent in this. There is no tech-based superhero like Iron Man. There doesn’t even appear to be someone like the Hulk or the Flash, who has artificially-granted superpowers, although the movie doesn’t really explore this much. My point is, they definitely didn’t shy away from that criticism. And, let’s be honest, when you go into “some people are born genetically superior” territory, you really open up a lot of issues that tend to rhyme with “Race-based Bin-o-slide.” But, the movie does try to at least portray that there are superheroes in every country, from every genetic background, which I think is them trying to equate superheroes not to race or ethnicity, but to people born with natural aptitudes. If you look at it from that lens, the movie’s message is “use your natural talents to the benefit of everyone,” and it’s only people who choose to use them for selfish reasons or out of spite, that are bad. After all, all the villains are naturally superhumanly intelligent in order to make their devices, but they could easily just do what Syndrome suggests in the first movie: Sell all of their gadgets and make everyone super. It’s meant to be villainous in the way that Syndrome is suggesting it, but, seriously, how is that a bad idea?
Well, in this movie, we’re actually given hints that some other people have done exactly that. While the movie still takes place in 1963 (based on The Outer Limits airing in one scene and the fact that the last movie took place over several months), we see some technology which is far ahead of its time, like digital video files and a commercial mag-lev train. So, maybe, there are some people who are using their talents for the betterment of mankind. Granted, you’d think that Syndrome’s patents alone would have moved us forward 50 years, but maybe he just kept most of his stuff secret. Still, the movie series does have a tone of “super-strong = good, super-smart=bad,” which, to be honest, is a common thing in superhero comics (Superman v. Lex Luthor). Without a Batman or a Mr. Terrific or a Tony Stark to counter it, though, it does just stay at “strong good, smart bad.” And I’m not a fan of that message, even if not deliberate.
But, all of that aside, I’d like to address another message that really comes up more in this film. The premise of the film is a debate about whether or not we should have superheroes. It’s pretty similar in some ways to the debate in Captain America: Civil War, only in this one every country has a ton of supers, as opposed to Civil War, where there really are only a hundred or so on Earth until the Inhuman spread happens… and even then, it still seems like there are less than a few thousand (I’m not caught up on Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.). And that debate is something I’m gonna address more in the future, but for now, let me state how I see both sides, at present.
On the one side, the supers, who want the freedom to do good works and help people without the government getting in the way. On the other, the government, who see supers as a giant problem since they’re basically destructive vigilantes who are not held accountable for most of their actions. Since the focus of the movie is on the supers, who do you think seems more reasonable in the narrative? Hell, at one point, a government agent says that politicians don’t like altruism, because they don’t understand it. That’s mostly true, if a cheap generalization that reflects poorly upon the American people, but that’s not why you wouldn’t want superheroes fighting in your cities. You don’t want supers because they cause a ton of collateral damage. The movie even acknowledges this when they state that A) when Mr. Incredible tries to thwart crime, he causes a huge amount of the city to be destroyed and B) when it’s revealed that his cost/benefit analysis to the city is not good. That’s actually why they choose his wife, who can avoid collateral damage and casualties, to be the face of superheroics. And that’s where we kind of run into an issue.
See, no one should have a problem with Elastigirl being a superhero. She’s well-trained, she prioritizes minimizing casualties and collateral damage, and she tries to avoid conflict when possible. In an age of Man of Steel, this is a reminder of the right way to do things. But what about Mr. Incredible? He’s done nothing to earn being a superhero besides being born super-strong and deciding to help people. His attempts to stop one of the villains takes out several buildings. In the first film, failing to effectively dispose of a bomb (like, by throwing it upwards?) results in him having to stop an elevated train, causing massive injuries onboard. While a good Samaritan law would probably protect him when he saves a suicidal jumper, this one is probably a lot more ambiguous and might actually have cost him his immunity from liability, since he’s saving them from what could be considered his own reckless actions.
And what about all the public works? The movie actually points out that it’s easier to just let some of the villains get away with insured funds than to risk destroying significantly greater amounts in property by fighting them. It actually reminded me of an episode of The Powerpuff Girls, where the girls blow up a multi-million dollar bridge to stop robbers from stealing a few hundred dollars. It’s pretty reasonable for this to piss off city managers. Since supers have been illegal for like 12 years at this point, clearly the authorities actually have ways of dealing with supervillains that’s worked pretty well. It’s not like supers are shown to have a positive effect on crime rates, the world seems more peaceful in the present, if anything.
Look, if you can do good, you should, but doing good recklessly can often result in a net bad. And “good” is so nebulous in the real world that it can be a troublesome to even determine it in the first place unless you have both a strong moral compass and a keen mind to direct it. So, is the government in the right? Well, no. In both Civil War and here, the responses to superheroes are too extreme (and moreso in the Marvel Comics “Civil War”). Some superheroes like Elastigirl and Captain America are a net positive that are only slowed down by government control. Superheroes like Tony “I create all of my own villains” Stark, the Hulk, and Mr. Incredib-ly Destructive are not, unless they’re in a situation where the alternative to their involvement is mass devastation. The key here is that your solution doesn’t have to be either “all supers are relatively free from consequences” or “no supers can exist.” There are a ton of fictional worlds that figure out a reasonable middle ground. While they don’t elaborate, hopefully, the movie has found one in the new superhero laws.
Then there’s the villain’s monologue justification for why they hate supers. Basically, it’s that relying on supers prevents people from being able to grow and take care of themselves. This basically suggests that humanity should be more Darwinian, with the weak dying off so that the strong can continue, and only those who become strong deserve to. This doesn’t get a ton of screen time, but the movie does make a point that relying solely on help from others does cause issues. Just like with the other issue above, this one is presented as a bit of a binary, with the good guys saying “you can count on others.” Again, the truth is, you can’t always, but most of the time you can. However, since we seem to have an outbreak of mistrust in our fellow man running throughout the world, I do support a movie saying that you can count on other people to help you.
So, basically, the messages in the movie might not always be the clearest, but I think overall it’s not that bad. It’s a kids’ movie, after all, and it hints at some debates about the balance between government regulation and personal liberty that have been going on since the dawn of time. That’s pretty ambitious. Overall, the general message of the movie is “just be a good person and do good things for others,” so I really can’t get down on it too much, and it’s such a great film in general that it’s hard to criticize it. Just see it for yourself.
Just see the movie, guys.
If you want to check out some more by the Joker on the Sofa, check out the 100 Greatest TV Episodes of All Time or the Joker on the Sofa Reviews. If you want more from the Grouch on the Couch, check out his rants here, and wait a few weeks for another big entry.
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