Incredibles 2: The Parr family confronts the daunting task of following the first Incredibles movie.
I loved the first Incredibles movie. I especially loved the ending. Journey back with me to 2004, and mind the fourteen-year-old spoilers along the way. The super-powered Parr family has triumphed: in stopping the killer robot and the evil mastermind behind it, Dad has been allowed to do the work that gives him a sense of fulfillment. He is once again champion and protector. By rising up and rescuing her husband when he was in peril, Mom has recovered her own sense of self-worth. She is once again familial linchpin and cherished helpmate. (Yes, the roles are super-traditional. But they are the roles that they both regret losing, and so their recovery is more of a personal victory than a political statement.) And the kids? Called upon and encouraged by her loving family, teenage daughter Violet overcomes her self-obscuring self-doubt (Ah-ha, her power is invisibility, but also more than that!) and scores a date with the boy she admires. And speedster Dash, having found a proper outlet for his gifts, stops abusing them. And hey, baby Jack-Jack has powers!
A Pixar computer cartoon about a married-with-children team of superheroes in enforced retirement under the Superhero Relocation Program. The tweaking of superheroes has long since progressed beyond a mere trend into a full-blown state of cultural decadence, but there's no particular reason to hold it against this little tag-along. The topography of the volcanic island that serves as the archvillain's lair is well rendered, and the imitation-007 musical score hits a high number of right notes. With the voices of Craig T. Nelson, Holly Hunter, Samuel L. Jackson, and Jason Lee; written and directed by Brad Bird.
But in the midst of this triumph, a new threat arises, literally: The Underminer bursts from below the surface of the earth, trumpeting that while he is beneath you, nothing is beneath him, and declaring war on peace and happiness. Confronted by this foe, the Parrs smile a virtuous smile. That is, they have the look of those who know what must be done, and know that they are the ones to do it. What an exquisite pleasure. Dad opens his button-down shirt to reveal the costume beneath, and I thrill every time. For me, it was a perfect completion: what was broken had been restored. But my children thought it begged for a sequel. What happens next? Well, youth will be served, so here we are.
Why spend so much time going over The Incredibles in a review of Incredibles 2? Partly because the sequel picks up very nearly where the original left off: with the arrival of The Underminer. I was happy to play along, in part because it was such a great idea for a villain, especially when you’ve got heroes who have just managed to recover their mojo. An Underminer — like the one portrayed in the 2006 book by Mike Albo and Virginia Heffernan, who manages to undercut you at every turn —could be an ideal enemy for such people. No wonder he says he is declaring war on peace and happiness.
Except it turns out he isn’t. He’s just out to rob a bank. And when the Parrs make a hash of their attempt to stop him, they wind up right back where they were in the first film: mistrusted by the public and banned by the government. As the pencil pushers remind them: there are systems in place to deal with catastrophes like subterranean bank robbers. Better to forget the costly heroics and live an ordinary life. It isn’t the Underminer who does the undermining: it’s the normies like us.
Okay, fine. Writer-director Brad Bird has more than earned the right to make the movie he wants to make, and if he’s not interested in The Underminer, so be it. What does he have in mind instead? The same thing he had in mind last time: the struggle between normies and supers. The Incredibles’ baddie Syndrome was bitter because being smart wasn’t enough to make him super, and he expressed his bitterness with murderous malice. This installment gives us The Screenslaver, a villain who is bitter about the effect that supers have on the normie populace. You know: the ones watching the supers on their TVs. Us.
Incredibles 2 *
Writer-director Brad Bird picks up right where he left off 14 years ago in terms of both narrative and theme. Narrative: the arrival of The Underminer to ruin the peace and happiness of the Parrs, a family of superheroes that has finally gained those things after years of unhealthy repression. Except not really: it turns out The Underminer just wants to rob a bank. And that brings us to theme: the real underminer, then as now, is us normies, the bean-counters who made superheroes illegal in the first place. Even the big-time villains are just bitter regular folks: in the first, you had Syndrome, a wannabe super who devoted his life to the notion of “If you can’t join ‘em, beat ‘em.” In the second, you have The Screenslaver, who hates supers because they make the rest of us passive and weak — damsels in distress awaiting salvation from our betters instead of taking matters into our own hands. It’s especially bad when we sit around on our lazy backsides and watch them on TV. Which, it turns out, is exactly the supers’ plan for gaining legitimacy: a change in public perception through good televised PR. The obvious counter to the Screenslaver’s argument is the notion of inspiration: that we can strength from the example of the Incredibles and become super in our own lives. Instead, Bird gives us a superhero movie that rebukes its audience for showing up to watch it. On top of that, it’s talky, chunky, and clunky, and relies heavily on the slapstick deployment of super-baby Jack-Jack’s rainbow of powers to distract from all that. Only the story of teen super Violet’s frustrated romantic yearnings achieves the blend of action, wit, and intelligence that the original so expertly managed.
A brief summation of what feels like an awful lot of exposition and history before the main story gets going: the Parrs (and their super-friend Frozone) are facing a life lived in denial of their super selves when they are approached by a media mogul with a tech-savvy sister. Their plan: get people to change the law that makes supers illegal by giving supers better PR, and give them better PR by putting their exploits on TV via in-suit cameras. These days, they argue, it’s not enough to do good; you have to be seen to be doing good.
But The Screenslaver is having none of it, arguing that this method of salvation for supers amounts to the damnation of everyone else: by slavishly watching the supers solve our problems, we become ever more passive, ever more unable to help ourselves. Inspiration isn’t an option here; the film provides little argument against The Screenslaver’s claim, to the point where Incredibles 2 feels like a rebuke of the audience that came to gawk at a superhero movie — and worse, that had the nerve to identify with its superior protagonists. Yes, it’s great that Mr. Incredible has to learn to pay closer attention to his duties as a father. And it’s great that Mrs. Incredible gets a chance to shine in the professional realm. Supers: they're just like us! But let’s never make the mistake of thinking we have any business buying Mr. Incredible’s car. How unforgivably douchey.
This is a lot of idea-talk. But then, so is the movie. We get a lengthy debate about whether it’s better to set a good example for kids by obeying an unjust law, or to break it in the hopes of effecting change for the future. We get a fatally flawed bit of monologuing from the villain. And we get a weirdly on-the-nose consideration from Mrs. Incredible about whether it’s more important to be the salesman who gets people go line up for your product, or the designer who makes her mark and shakes up the status quo. (She doesn’t give an answer, and neither does Bird.) The Incredibles was big on ideas, too, but they felt much more of a piece with the action onscreen. And the action this time? Sub-Parr (like that joke). Nothing as inventive as Mrs. Incredible negotiating the sliding doors in Syndrome’s lair, or as joyous as Dash discovering that he’s fast enough to run on water, or as moving as Violet’s when-the-time-is-right force bubble. And not much Mr. Incredible at all.
Trailer for Incredibles 2
Set against all this sturm und drang is the emotional drama of frustrated teen Violet and the comic relief of super-baby Jack-Jack. (Poor Dash does a lot of fumbling with remotes and not much else.) The Violet storyline works beautifully; she’s got powers, but mostly, she just wants to be liked, and being super makes that difficult in unexpected ways. The Jack-Jack stuff? He’s a super-powered baby; there’s a lot of easy delight to be had there, and Bird is no dummy. But it’s telling that his biggest scene, the one where his various powers get introduced, comes via his confrontation with a psychotic raccoon. I say “psychotic” because the varmint behaves much like Ice Age’s Scrat when he’s chasing his precious acorn: no threat, no matter how terrifying or lethal, is enough to make him quit. It’s funny enough, but it doesn’t really fit. It even feels desperate: a bit of Looney Tunes madcappery to distract from the surrounding stasis.