“The Incredibles 2” has two very important things in common with the original. The first is the father apologizing to his children. The movie’s ideology we know from all other animations: The parents are wrong, the children right, the adults are guilty and should be ashamed of themselves, the kids are pure and free.
This is insane, but nobody is revolting against it, so maybe that’s what family movies are now.
The other thing the new movie shows even better than the original is that the Incredibles’ superpowers are symbols for how we live. The story gives us a family structure to understand why we have so much trouble with our families. You can see writer-director Brad Bird’s reasoning: Parents fear for their children, so they are willing to learn about the dangers they will face. That’s why, instead of a children’s movie, you get a story about scientific powers, social conformism thwarting talent, and angry rebellion against a normal life making things even worse.
Mr. Incredible is a kind of Superman. His power and goodness make him a popular hero, but also incline him to think using superior power solves just about any problem. You can see his conflict a mile away: power leads him from good intentions to good deeds without having to consider morally complex problems, like freedom. Now, if we knew Superman is out there to save us, wouldn’t we constantly be jumping off buildings for fun?
He’s a perfect symbol for the all-American dad, who is a protector, but who soon must learn not even his kids will obey him, much less anyone else. He’s sometimes baffled that everyone’s an ingrate. Worse, he now becomes a stay-at-home dad, which overwhelms him, of course, but also proves the world doesn’t really need him. He’s not a real hero after all — it’s more important to destroy paternal authority than to think why men might actually be needed.
So he spends the movie dealing with the kids — learning, in a sense, about his own family as we learn to look at the all-American family. The boy, Dash, is The Flash. He’s fun and a rascal. He gets in trouble and does irresponsible things because he is confined. Like most boys, he often experiences school as a prison and home as a chore. He has energy, but neither purpose nor discipline.
Here, the teaching about heroism is straightforward: It’s the father’s job to teach the son about power and danger, to awe him and to give him worthwhile things to do. (How this is possible if the father has no authority and is always at the office is another problem. You would think the stay-at-home dad could be a father to his boy, but not in this story.)
The mother is bad at dealing with Dash, because she wants to take control of everything, and at the same time wants to be loved for it. She becomes focused on all the things he must not do, because she wants him so badly to succeed in the right, respectable way. The boy ends up feeling all he’s good for is making trouble, because his powers are always the problem and never the solution in this social arrangement. Of course, these days, we’ve solved the problem by drugging boys or expelling them from schools, but the story doesn’t consider these unpleasant facts.
The girl, Violet, is Invisible Woman from the Fantastic Four. She, of course, does not think invisibility is a super-power: What girl does? She wants to be seen, but at the same time is shy — what if people who see you don’t like you? She resents having to take care of her brother, as her mother insists she must. First, if the mother cannot tame the boy, what chance does she stand? Secondly, it’s another way of being ignored — only the boy is worth attention, not her. Being good and mild is no fun.
Violet has one other power. She can cast a force field. Both powers are about being safe from danger. The symbol suggests she needs to learn to do what her mothers asks of her, to keep herself and her brother safe. She is supposed to help take care of the whole family. That makes her, in an important way, responsible and therefore an equal or a partner with her parents. But then this gets all out of hand in the craziest way. The parents are shown to be utterly foolish for all their good intentions and instead the children must save them. I suppose that’s the ultimate in liberation from parental authority.
Then, the baby, Jack-Jack, is a monster, it turns out. At first, the parents fear for his safety, but then he seems to be able to turn into any number of wonderful or fearful things. This is a symbol, again. First, he scares the daylights out of his parents, who do not know how to deal with him, how to keep him safe, or from where danger might come — especially, what the baby might do to bring disaster upon himself. And indeed all parents fear for their babies. But secondly, his monstrous transformations, are all about potential. You know who Dash and Violet are, but Jack-Jack is all potential. This is what parents wonder at. What will this creature become? He seems to know no limits.
Finally, Mrs. Incredible. She’s called Elastigirl (Mr. Fantastic from the Fantastic Four). This was at first an erotic suggestion. In the beginning, her flexibility was juxtaposed to the massive strength of her husband. She flirted, made fun of him, and sometimes outsmarted him. He was mesmerized by the way she moves. This is the special power of women in America — to have fun without risking their safety, to be less predictable than men, and to use their superior wit to advantage.
But then this turns into the domesticity of home. She has to be elastic because every hour of every day means stretching herself in every direction to take care of everything and everyone. Her mastery over the house requires heroic feats of endurance, because she gets no help. She’s the least free of them all and you can see why she now gets to play out her own fantasy of work and celebrity. She thinks she could do at least as well as he does, which is probably true.
Of course, she has no idea, however, in what ways a man’s pride can be humiliated by social rejection or disloyalty at work, but America is the land of the free, so she gets to find out in this sequel. As much as the original movie was about the man’s attempt to find some worthwhile freedom for himself, the sequel is about the woman’s attempt to do likewise.
The secret lesson in “The Incredibles 2,” hiding in plain sight, is that this family structure necessarily leads to a crisis for man and woman because, as parents, they have no authority and therefore cannot even rest in their own home. So while we should be somewhat nostalgic for this nuclear family fantasy from the ’50s, and we should certainly be alarmed about the collapse of family now, we should acknowledge it’s just much harder than the idea of breadwinner husbands and homemaker wives, or any more flexible combination of the two roles. If we put together the symbols of family and the story of the degeneration of individualism, we see that this family structure must be connected to the social crises we’ve undergone since the ’60s, which is when the story is set.
Here, the story stumbles. We get a villain who again wants to use power to destroy heroes, because they’re bad for society. The villain claims heroic powers delude normal people, who thus don’t fear the world enough to protect themselves, because the heroes give them hope. But the villain then turns around to give a strong critique of our dependence on screens and the way we replace the real with the virtual, turning everything digital, ending up hypnotized or mind-controlled. But this isn’t connected with the social problems heroes create, except through the problem of celebrity, which “The Incredibles 2” neglects, unlike the original.
Not only does the movie get its themes confused when it comes to the villain, its plot is an embarrassment. The film is going to make a billion dollars globally or more, so probably nobody cares that the plot makes no sense (the single worst thing about our popular entertainment). I for one am doubtful that getting the right symbols for the time, all about equality between men and women, children and adults, etc. is going to be enough to make stories memorable. The original movie certainly was far more serious about telling a good story.