Superhero movies like to talk a big game when it comes to big ideas, and so they should: They’re ripe territory for explorations of ethics, morality, politics, justice, and humanity. What does it mean to be a person? Who deserves to live or die? Is vigilante justice ethical? Those sorts of questions crop up in superhero movies a lot.
But far too often, it’s a fake-out, presumably designed to make you feel like there’s something more going on beneath the hood of the film. At least since the end of the Dark Knight trilogy, and arguably Iron Man, those movies have rarely landed more than a glancing blow on anything like a thesis. They act like they have big ideas, but they’re actually more interested in fan service and big action scenes, and more power to them.
That’s partly why it seems so weird to say: While writer-director Brad Bird’s Incredibles 2 is undeniably a good time at the movies for the whole family, it’s the rare superhero movie that may have too many ideas knocking around in its noggin, none of which seem terribly coherent. And that, in the end, makes the film less than it clearly wants to be.
Incredibles 2 picks up right where The Incredibles ended
To call the Incredibles films “superhero movies” might seem slightly off-base — they’re not derived from any comic books and have no prior mythology to fulfill. But they’re not not superhero movies: Both films are very interested in what it might be like to live with superpowers and to feel both a sense of responsibility and an awareness of one’s own fundamental inability to live within the real world.
As in many other superhero movies, the characters in the Incredibles movies have to hide their powers from a world full of normals that isn’t sure whether they should be allowed to live with everyone else, at least if they’re going to exercise their full capacities. And that’s exactly the setup for the new film.
Incredibles 2 picks up right where The Incredibles ended, catching up with Bob “Mr. Incredible” and Helen “Elastigirl” Parr (Craig T. Nelson and Holly Hunter); their children Violet (Sarah Vowell), Dash (Huck Milner), and baby Jack-Jack; and their old pal Lucius “Frozone” Best (Samuel L. Jackson). They’re in a mad rush to save the city from the Underminer, the villain introduced at the end of the prior film. The family doesn’t yet know about Jack-Jack’s incredible superpowers (though we of course do, since we’ve all seen the 2005 short Jack-Jack Attack by now).
But though they pull off the save, news coverage and politicians blame them for the destruction they wrought, and the superhero program is being shut down. The family has been living in a motel since the destruction of their suburban home in the last film, but now they need money and a permanent place to live. How that all takes care of itself launches the rest of the story, and, as with most Pixar films, a great deal of the fun of the movie comes from its world-building, which I don’t want to spoil with specifics.
Incredibles 2 lacks some of the tight plotting, well-choreographed action, and emotional moments of its predecessor, but it’s still a boatload of fun. While the movies’ aesthetic is undoubtedly a pastiche, they continue to purposely employ a midcentury modernist aesthetic (it’s more or less set sometime around 1962), with design (and some story) elements that seem borrowed from early James Bond and Mad Men. And there’s some very funny slapstick, hilarious new characters, and a handful of sequences that match any great Pixar film.
Incredibles 2 pursues so many lines of inquiry that it gets tangled
Of course, the big difference between The Incredibles and Incredibles 2 is that in the intervening 14 years, the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe has successfully colonized multiplexes and the summer blockbuster season. (The Incredibles came out in 2004; Iron Man hit theaters four years later.) At times, it seems like The Incredibles’ portrayal of its villain, Syndrome, as basically what gets called a “toxic fan” these days was pretty prescient; disappointed by his hero Mr. Incredible, Syndrome conspires to pretty much destroy the notion of superheroes altogether.
Pixar and Marvel share a parent company in Disney. So I was ready for Incredibles 2, with characteristic Pixar humor, to take some jabs at the Marvel universe, maybe keep on moving in the same vein.
But Incredibles 2 seems to have mostly stayed in its own lane. The first film was about parenting, and so is this one. It was also (in ways that a number of critics deemed Randian, though some disagree) about knowing you’re special and being frustrated at the ways society keeps you from exercising your heightened abilities. That’s here too.
However, Incredibles 2 throws a bunch of other things into the mix. There’s a media critique that feels like Neil Postman with whiffs of Marshall McLuhan, by way of Mr. Robot, which helps also explain why there’s so much talk about the “system.” There’s an ongoing debate about whether you can really pursue justice if you follow laws that don’t lead to the most just outcome. There’s a thread about the challenges facing men who are accustomed to being breadwinners when they’re tasked with caregiving instead. There are jokes about “new math” that I presume are subtle jabs about the Common Core, and a line about how most people trust a monkey throwing darts more than they trust Congress. The idea that politicians don’t understand the concept of selfless good pops up more than once, and the movie pointedly calls superheroes “illegals.”
All of this happens so fast that it doesn’t sustain anything like a coherent argument or philosophy. If Incredibles 2 has a point of view about anything, it’s that politicians and laws are at best very imperfect, and even when they’re trying to do the right thing, they’ll probably mess it up. Sometimes, it’s just going to fall to the “supers” to fix things — no thanks to politicians. And if people’s perceptions about supers can be changed, then they’ll go along with it too.
I’m frankly not entirely sure what Brad Bird is getting at here. On the one hand, this new installment seems to explicitly code “supers” as the unfairly maligned “other” — not just the relatively white-bread Parrs, but also foreigners and those who don’t quite conform to the majority culture’s constraints. (One scene also appears to add perceptions of queerness and gender fluidity into that mix as well.) As with other superhero movies in the past (particularly the X-Men series) and hosts of children’s movies before it, Incredibles 2 suggests that the ways you are different from everyone else are what makes you special.
On the other hand, it does feel in 2018 like those in power think they are, well, superheroes. (Consider Scott Pruitt’s very strange delusions of grandeur.) Possibly too many people are convinced of their own awesomeness and certain that it’s their inherent greatness that qualifies them to lead, even outside the constraints of the law.
I’d say that rooting the film more or less in the early 1960s helps it sidestep this a little bit. But does it? Incredibles 2 hinges on a critique of media that sounds eerily familiar, of a piece with the rise of media studies beginning around that period. Theorists and sociologists of the time feared that a passive medium such as television, which can prize style over substance and sound bite over intelligence, could lull people into a complacency that would give space for dishonest or authoritarian leaders who present themselves charismatically. That’s obviously on this movie’s mind, and it complicates its idea of power, politics, and justice substantially.
In the end, I’m not sure Incredibles 2, or Bird himself, really has any opinion on these things. (Especially since another character’s support for superheroes comes from what you might call his own extreme and possibly dangerous fanning over superheroes — something that may, in fact, need some good old-fashioned curbing before it gets out of hand.) At one point I scribbled in my notes, Everyone seems to be making very good points! And maybe for an animated cartoon film, it seems silly to insist on deep insights.
But the result, oddly enough, is like what happens in many other blockbuster superhero films: Incredibles 2 tries to say lots of things and winds up saying nothing at all. That doesn’t take away much from the pleasure of watching it. But it does seem, at least a little, like it’s been sucked into a jet engine by the size and ambition of its own cape.
Incredibles 2 opens in theaters on June 14. It is preceded by the short film Bao, which is an adorable little story about mothers and sons and, thankfully, nothing like Olaf’s Frozen Adventure.