The first “Incredibles” was simultaneously one of the best family films and one of the best superhero films of all time. It is perhaps too much to expect that a sequel 14 years later could recapture the magic. It does not, but it still manages to be a worthy sequel and a solid film.
The movie picks up right where the original left off: with the Parr family fighting the Underminer. The battle goes sideways, which destroys the public goodwill the family earned defeating Syndrome in the first film. As a result, the Parrs find themselves out of work, living in a motel, and without legal protection for any future superheroics.
As Bob and Helen try to decide what to do next for their family, they receive a tempting offer: a pair of billionaire siblings, Winston and Evelyn Deavor, want to hire Elastigirl to become the new public face of superheroes to gin up public support for re-legalization. This requires Helen to leave Bob in charge of the household for a few days while she does covert heroics, reversing the dynamic of the first film. Meanwhile, a mysterious new villain called “the Screenslaver” challenges the heroes.
The first “Incredibles” movie’s themes and story were as perfectly fitted as the heroes’ skintight costumes. It’s different in the sequel. Many character developments and plot threads lack satisfactory conclusions, and Mr. Incredible is particularly ill served by the story.
Yet this new film still has Brad Bird behind it, meaning it’s not just smartly written and entertaining, but also tackles some interesting ideas, especially for today. From what superficially appears to be a standard SJW storyline of female empowerment and male incompetence, the film diverges into a much more interesting, universal, and realistic set of conclusions.
Describing these will require spoilers, so I recommend you see the film before reading further. Quite apart from the characters and ideas, it’s worth the price of admission for the intensely creative superhero action scenes alone (my favorites being a backyard brawl between baby Jack-Jack and a thieving raccoon and a one-on-one fight between Violet and a new Super named Voyd).
Are We Responsible for Our Successes and Failures?
The first film dealt with the idea of superiority and responsibility: the desire to use one’s talents for good versus the desire to tear down those who make us feel inferior. This one tackles the idea of circumstance versus character: to what extent the conditions we find ourselves in can be said to determine how we behave. Like the first film, it reaches a rather unexpected conclusion.
The film displays a recurring pattern of the characters seemingly being controlled by forces outside their power. Society forces the Supers to keep their powers a secret and not intervene in emergencies. Police flat-out tell the Parr family they should have “done nothing” when the Underminer attacked.
Bob is forced by circumstances into a role he’s unfamiliar with and ill equipped to excel in. Violet finds out that her crush, Tony Rydinger, had his memories of her removed as part of the superhero cover-up program. Dash is forced to learn math through a trendy new process that only confuses him, as Bob complains “Why would they change math?” and so on.
The Screenslaver controls people through their environment via hypnosis, fitting her thesis that modern life conditions people to be mindless drones. Superheroes, she believes, are part of this conditioning process that leaves people incapable of dealing with their own problems.
When it is revealed that the Screenslaver is actually Evelyn Deavor, this ideology is explicitly linked with her apparent feminism. She repeatedly suggests to Elastigirl that she’s ill-served by being paired with Mr. Incredible and would do much better on her own. This appears to be a projection of Deavor’s partnership with her brother, in which she develops technology that he sells and generally gets the credit for.
In a conversation with Helen, Evelyn semi-seriously alludes to “a man’s world.” In another scene, she attempts to psychologically deconstruct her brother’s genuine love of superheroes by dismissing him as a “child” who simply associates the idea of heroism with a happier time in their lives, echoing the condescending tone so many feminists have when talking about men.
In other words, Evelyn as the Screenslaver argues for a conditioned view of reality: that “the system” or circumstance is what determines what a person does and is, and therefore if anyone wishes to improve he must start by changing the system.
The Super Family Doesn’t Take the Bait
In contrast, Elastigirl, even with her “Leave the saving of the world to the men? I don’t think so!” quip doesn’t rise to the bait. She points out to Evelyn that the siblings contribute in ways that suit their personalities and abilities. They complement rather than compete with each other. This mirrors Elastigirl being chosen to be the “public relations hero,” not because she’s “better” than Mr. Incredible, but because her less destructive powers are better suited to this particular goal. Helen also reminds Evelyn that her brother handles a very important side of the business, one that supports rather than overshadows her own.
Elastigirl scoffs at the idea that she’s ever been “overshadowed” by anyone, least of all her husband. “Man’s world” or not, she says nothing really stops anyone from achieving whatever she likes, if only she’s passionate enough about it. Elastigirl, therefore, argues that principles and behavior, not circumstance, determine the outcome.
The rest of the film backs up this idea. When the characters rant and rail against the world’s unfairness, they fail. Mr. Incredible’s angry bluster at the lawyers and the new math book achieves nothing, Violet’s furious attempt to renounce superpowers by symbolically destroying her suit is checked by the sheer durability of E’s handiwork.
When they stop complaining and just “roll with the punches,” as Bob says, they begin to make progress. Bob sits up all night studying the stupid math book until he’s able to understand it well enough to help his son. Violet, after several embarrassing episodes, realizes the only thing to do is re-introduce herself to Tony and start the relationship over again. Elastigirl’s whole campaign is based on the idea of not just opposing the law, but working to change it.
Meanwhile there’s the hilarious subplot of baby Jack-Jack’s combo-platter powers. Again, the pattern plays out of seemingly unfair circumstances, of unpredictable new superpowers on top of taking care of the baby, being solved by accepting the situation and taking appropriate action. In this case, Bob takes Jack-Jack to Edna Mode, who outfits him with a supersuit designed to help the family deal with his powers in turn. Again, accepting the situation as it is and taking action, rather than simply lamenting it as unfair, leads to a solution.
The Villain Believes She’s a Victim
By contrast, Screenslaver relies upon controlling her environment rather than on her own abilities. In the final battle she weaponizes the environment against Elastigirl by depressurizing a plane cabin. This gives her tremendous power in the short term, but leaves her vulnerable to the unexpected. She has no way to adequately deal with people making choices she didn’t expect or factors she didn’t plan for.
Perhaps most satisfyingly, her plan is partially derailed when the man she dismissed as a “child” proves unexpectedly more mature than she. Far from making him dependent, the climax shows that Winston Deavor’s love of superheroes has inspired him to emulate them. Once again, we have a character defying his environment and conditions, choosing to act despite opposition, and arriving at a solution.
The thesis of the film is thus that sometimes bad things happen. You find yourself in unfair circumstances, or faced with a hostile environment, and that’s just part of life. But these things don’t determine whether you succeed or fail: your own actions and principles do.
If you choose to rely on the world around for success or safety, then sooner or later you will fail, while if you seek to do good simply because it is good, roll with the punches, and act in spite of opposition, you will eventually succeed. Whether you can change “the system” or not, you can always act to improve your circumstances. This is what makes the difference between a hero and a villain.