When “The Incredibles” premiered, it was to a markedly different film market in 2004. The top three highest grossing films at the time were “Titanic,” “Jurassic Park” and “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King.” Today, only one of these is still in the top 25 (“Titanic” sitting comfortably at #2). The current top 20 is overrun with predominantly animated films, sequels or superhero movies. “Incredibles 2” is, of course, all three of these things, except premiering at a time when its uniqueness is less niche and more familiar. It’s hard to remember, for example, that the story of the Parr family predated the commercial Marvel vs DC superhero standoff that has marked the last five years or so of blockbusters. Significantly, too, 2004 was a year when Pixar Animation Studios had not yet fully emphasised its domination over its competitors.
“Incredibles 2” both emphasises and ignores the time between the original film and its sequel. This film picks up moments after the events of the first. Superheroes are still illegal and even the defeat of Syndrome at the end of the previous film has not won them a reprieve in the court of public opinion. Faced with the possibility of having to adhere completely to their secret-identities, the superhero trio of Bob Parr (Mr Incredible), Helen Parr (Elastigirl), and Lucius Best (Frozone) are approached by a slightly sycophantic tech guru, who harbours a childhood fascination with heroes that he has inherited from his father. He wants to use his excellent selling skills to revitalise and rebrand the lore around superheroes, and the best way to do this is to use the most public-friendly superhero–Elastigirl. So, in a direct reversal from the first film, Elastigirl heads out to fight crime, leaving Mr Incredible to settle into the role of the stay-at-home dad. The thrust of the central plot is, I admit, quite basic. I have even read arguments that it is unnecessarily retrogressive in the space of more interesting gender dynamics seen in films of the last decade. And yet, I found the focus on Bob and Helen’s marriage dynamic and the larger dynamics of the Parr family, including how they commented both on the world then and now, to be central most compelling and effective part of “Incredibles 2.”
Even as superhero films generally tend to argue that their heroes are rebels and outliers, the films themselves often struggle with representation of the central heroes as being the “chosen” ones. It’s why my favourite films in the genre (the Sam Raimi Spider-Man, the animated Batman) tend to lean into the ways that the hero status becomes destructive. As a superhero film, though, “Incredibles 2,” even more than the original one, is all the more rewarding for how it deliberately avoids this trope. Bob and Helen Parr and their super children are not marked by their specialness but by their relationship to each other as partners. The strongest moments of the film’s climax depend on director Brad Bird emphasising how one or even two superhero powers working together cannot certify success. In “Incredibles 2,” it takes a whole village.
The gender dynamics at play may be a part of its era (the film is set sometime in the sixties, although the setting sometimes seems more peripheral than functional). However, in the first Elastigirl set-piece–an excellent motorbike vs train sequence that’s an effective action-sequence–I kept thinking how Elastigirl’s ability to stretch to accommodate anything is such an obvious, if rarely commented on, reference to the way that women are forced to stretch to do the same, in ways that are oftentimes not fair. Holly Hunter’s voicing of Helen remains shrewd and nuanced. And, although the film’s ultimate point that her children and her hero qualities are symbiotic might be simple, it feels refreshingly necessary at a time like this.
This has been an exhausting week in the news cycle. Internationally, it’s been dominated by the Trump administration’s inhumane separation of thousands of immigrant children from their parents, many of whom are seeking asylum in the United States. Locally, we have been inundated with episode after episode of domestic violence horrors against women. Both events seem symptomatic of a first-half of 2018 that has been marked by despondency and an overwhelming lack of empathy and community. Popular culture and politics always intersect, even when we pretend to ignore it. The art we make, and the art we consume, oftentimes shine a light on the worlds we live in.
Pixar films have always utilised metaphor. “Incredibles 2” is no different but seems to hunker down on this. It’s a plot heavy film, with the central villain’s plan offering an argument for the laziness the media, technology and superheroes instil in us by solving our problems. In the film’s most culturally thoughtful sequence, two women debate the merits of being the seller against being the buyer. It’s a moment that, in a way, feels lifted from a more adult movie. And there are more than a few moments in “Incredibles 2” where adult emotions threaten to destabilise the film’s image of being “basic family fun.” These moments made me appreciate it even more.
More than any Pixar film, the focus on completely human actions make the two Incredibles films different from the magical realism that marks most other Pixar films. Beyond the fact that they are super heroes, this is a real world of the real people who pay taxes, who have jobs and who have mundane lives. Animals do not talk here (although they do fight with babies, as in the film’s funniest action sequence). But, that focus on humans means the metaphors of “Incredibles 2” is even more direct than we would anticipate. It means that the film is more structurally and narratively looser than most animated films. The youngest Parr child, Jack-Jack, has more than a dozen powers that manifest when you least expect it. It’s a mark of the unpredictability of life, and something “Incredibles 2” uses to good effect. The unformed nature of “Incredibles 2” thus becomes, for me, a representation of the unpredictability of family and the unreliability of technology, which are two themes the film takes great pains to point out. There’s no solution at the end of it all when the villain is caught and carried away. Further the film’s final sequence instead of emphasising ends only signals more beginnings. The battle rages on, it seems to say, and that message feels evocative right now. The battle ahead seems less troublesome, though, when you’re not facing it alone.
(Email your questions, or comments, to Andrew at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
“Incredibles 2” is currently showing at Caribbean Cinemas and Princess Movie Theatres.