A great many superheros – too many to count, almost – have graced our screens since The Incredibles burst into cinemas in 2004. Most of the more famous costumed faces we had already seen plenty of times before, and the juggernauts among them (Superman, Batman, Thor etc) popped up multiple times as the CGI-splattered years rolled forward. There have been some fine superhero films, but plenty of sludge as Hollywood rather conspicuously produces them as coat hangers for special effects.
Think of the last superhero movie you saw and ask yourself: what was the point of it? Pushing aside the bedazzling – or possibly benumbing – helpings of spectacle and computer-powered whizbangery, what did the themes of the movie tell you it was about? If your answer is ‘good triumphs over evil,’ go sit in the naughty corner: that moth-eaten message is so hollow and hackneyed it means almost nothing at all.
Even the most intellectually vacuous movies can have the perception of depth if you flex some interpretive muscle. Doctor Strange, for example, is about realising the universe has both spiritual and scientific properties. X-Men is a metaphor (as we have been reminded of, now, in literally 10 movies) for outsiders. And Justice League is, at its core, an emotional cry for help from an actor who really, really, really doesn’t want to play Batman anymore, but who also really, really, really doesn’t want to quit and annoy people who might finance his next movie.
One of the great things about The Incredibles is that no brain straining is necessary: this is a movie that is always very clearly about something. I am usually skeptical of belated sequels, the bile of duds such as Blues Brothers 2000 and The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull lingering forever on our palettes. But I’m excited by the teaser trailer for The Incredibles 2 (set to arrive in cinemas in 2018) which hit the net this week and smashed records, becoming the most-viewed animated trailer debut of all time – collecting a whopping 113 million views.
The original film was directed by Brad Bird (as is the sequel) who recently helmed the underrated Tomorrowland, and the amusingly retrograde Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol. At its core, The Incredibles is about family. The bulky Bob Parr (aka Mr Incredible, voiced by Craig T. Nelson) meets and marries the bendy, Gumby-like Helen (aka Elastigirl, voiced by Holly Hunter). They have three children: Violent (Sarah Vowell), Dash (Spencer Fox) and baby Jack-Jack, the focus of the sequel’s teaser trailer.
The family, joined by Lucius Best (aka Frozone, voice of Samuel L. Jackson), as a surrogate uncle-type figure, works together to defeat super villain Syndrome (Jason Lee). Just as the computer-generated decor evokes 50s-era art design, the script’s underlying messages are also old-fashioned: about family coming and staying together no matter what.
But there’s considerably more to the film than that. Touching on ground explored more extensively in subsequent films The Dark Knight, Watchmen and Superman V Batman, The Incredibles depicts a post-modern, cynical society where citizens have turned against superheroes. Mr Incredible saves a man from suicide, only to be sued by him: this person did not want to be rescued. Livid, Mr Incredible yells, “I saved your life!” The belligerent plaintiff responds: “You didn’t save my life, you ruined my death.”
That is one hell of a line, especially for a massively successful family movie. In this moment The Incredibles reflects a conservative ethos: the longing to return to a time when people acted in predictable ways and instinctive decency was rewarded, before it was tainted by modern political and legal ideology.
Forced into a superhero protection program (which is alone an interesting concept) a now humbled Bob / former Mr Incredible suffers through the daily grind, working a debilitating desk job at an insurance company. Bird makes a point that heroism is subjective and relative, and comes in many forms – small gestures and grand deeds alike – when Bob helps an old lady fight the company by whispering valuable advice to her.
The film also makes a point that doing great things and being a good person and not necessarily the same thing. The villain Syndrome was once a fawning Mr Incredible fanboy, desperate to impress. The superhero treated him rudely, however, acting smug, dismissive and unkind, which caused the kid to plot revenge and transform into a bad guy. This is a logical, non-spiritual view of karma: that doing good or doing bad will trigger a commensurate response from the people affected by your actions.
There is a lot to unpack in The Incredibles; more than the scope of this article allows. Rewatching this fine film provides a welcome reprieve from the generally disappointing superhero parades of recent times. Like Mr Invincible and Elastigirl returning from exile, the sequel will bring the franchise out of retirement – and has a lot to live up to.