Reel Talk

Incredibles 2 and the Manipulation of the Masses

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After fourteen long years, it’s finally time to talk about the sequel to one of my absolute favorite films of all time. I’ve talked about it briefly before, back in the extremely early period of this blog, but the Incredibles is not only my favorite Pixar movie, not only one of my favorite superhero films, but one of my favorite films in general. It’s a fascinating work of art, examining the superhero genre, mid-life crises, family, and teamwork. It’s also saturated with some strange Objectivist leanings which is really the only thing that holds the film back for me, even though it is surprisingly difficult to parse what exactly Brad Bird was meaning to say with all of that. But, it’s one of the reason that I love it, warts and all. Which is to say, the sequel had some big shoes to fill. Although, it did seem like that would never be a problem, because the film just never seemed like it was coming. Bird continued to say that when he had a good story he’d get the band back together. And yet, more than a decade progressed, and it seemed like we’d never be getting the follow up. Bird appeared to be transfixed with paying his dues so that he could make his passion project, Tomorrowland. And then when that film became a general misstep, he started working on Incredibles 2. Which, was a tad worrisome. I was concerned that the film would become a cash-grab sequel, just something tossed off to get him back some credibility while continuing Pixar’s latest trend of churning out sequel after sequel. Which would have been such a massive disappointment. Luckily though, that isn’t the case. The film will probably need to percolate in my mind for a while to compare it with the original, but it’s certainly a successful sequel.

Incredibles 2 picks up directly where the first film left off, with the Parr family getting ready to stop a supervillain named the Underminer after their triumph over the evil Syndrome. The family spring into action, and start fighting with the Underminer, attempting to stop his massive assault on their town. Unfortunately, even though they did succeed in stopping one supervillain, they aren’t exactly a cohesive unity yet. They don’t capture the Underminer, he gets away with tons of stolen money, and a lot of property gets damaged. Which doesn’t do much to bolster the public’s negative connotation with superheroes. In fact, it ends up officially ending the government’s secret support for the Parr family, officially putting them out on their own with no home, no jobs, and no idea how to be a normal family. However, they do get a surprising bit of help. The Parr family and their friend Frozone are approached by a man named Winston Deaver, the CEO of a massive company who has a strong affinity towards superheroes. His father had been the Super’s biggest supporter, and ended up dying shortly after they were outlawed. So, Winston and his sister Evelyn decide they want to fix things. They’ve come up with an idea to help the public perception of superheroes, hoping that that will convince the world that it’s okay to let superheroes come back. They just need to pick the perfect superhero to represent this new idea of stable, destruction-free heroes. And, of course, they pick Elastigirl to be their trial run. They set the Parr’s up with a massive new home, get Elastigirl a new costume and new gadgets, and help her get set up as a new superhero. Leaving Mr. Incredible to take care of the kids at home.

Which doesn’t go well at first. Bob has to deal with Violet’s crumbling love life, Dash’s problems at school, and most importantly Jack Jack’s burgeoning powers. Bob has no idea how to deal with Jack Jack’s seemingly random powers, and ends up getting help from Edna Mode, hoping that she can come up with a special costume that will contain his numerous and destructive abilities, which she does accomplish. And, while Bob is getting into the swing of being a competent parent, Helen is dealing with a strange series of crimes that are being committed by a mysterious villain named Screenslaver who is able to hypnotize people who look at screens. Helen continues to examine the mystery of the Screenslaver, all while the average citizen is able to follow along thanks to small cameras on her costume that Evelyn Deavor invented, and it’s doing a good job to convince people Super’s are okay. It even reaches the point where the Deavor’s start getting together a whole new group of fledgling superheroes for when they’re inevitably made legal again. And, to cap off this PR coup, Elastigirl is able to find the Screenslaver, and bring him to justice, earning the official recommendation that the nations of the world make superheroes legal. Unfortunately, Helen isn’t satisfied with the Screenslaver’s identity, and keeps poking around until she finds the true mastermind. Evelyn Deavor. She’s invented the hypnotism technology and is planning on having the superheroes commit an act of terror to permanently stop them from operating, because she viewed her father’s reliance on them a weakness. She’s then able to hypnotize Helen, draw in Bob to hypnotize him, and manages to capture Frozone to hypnotize him as well before planning her attack. Because it just so happens that her brother has gotten several world leaders to agree to sign a proclamation aboard his boat, which she plans on forcing the supers to attack and destroy. But, Violet, Jack Jack, and Dash are able to get aboard the ship, and save the day. They get their parents un-hypnotized and help defeat the other hypnotized heroes, and are able to stop Evelyn’s plan before getting her arrested. But, despite Evelyn’s best efforts, the plan worked and Super’s are made legal once more.

 

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There was certainly a part of me that was incredibly worried when I went to see this film. I had been building it up in my mind for over a decade, and the frustrating failure of Tomorrowland had me concerned that this film was just going to be Bird paying his dues to free himself from director’s jail. And yet, I was pleasantly surprised. At the moment I’m not sure how exactly it stands up against its predecessor, and that’ll probably take a few more viewings, but I still think that this film was an excellent sequel. The effects are spectacular, as can always be expected from Pixar, and it’s staggering to see how inventive they were with the action involved. The things they do with Elastigirl’s powers alone were enough to get my jaw to drop, while lamenting the fact that no one seems to be able to apply these ideas of a live-action Mr. Fantastic. And that’s all bolstered by another stellar set of performances from the voice cast. You can occasionally tell that some of the voices have certainly aged 14 years from the first film, but it’s clear that every one of these actors loves their characters, and they bring everything they can to them, helping keep them grounded and relatable. We’re certainly more used to superhero films than we were in 2004, what with all of our movies revolving around space gods and talking raccoons, but it’s always important to have understandable and likable characters to ground everything, giving us something familiar to build all of the outlandish superheroics off of. The idea of making the first film primarily built upon a story about a mid-life crisis and families in general was brilliant, and this film took a similar path, really examining ideas about parenthood, and the idea that when you give your self-identity over to being a parent you lose the part of you that makes you you.

However, while that nugget certainly fascinated me, I feel like it’s also something that I just don’t know anything about, yet. I don’t have kids, so while I can see what this film is doing with both Helen and Bob’s arcs, it still has to be held at a distance for me at the moment. The first Incredibles continues to evolve for me, opening up new avenues of meaning as I age and become closer to Bob and Helen. And I’m sure that this film will play a similar role. But, for now that aspect of the film didn’t end up being the most interesting one for me.

No, instead I found myself fascinated by the Screenslaver, and what in the world Brad Bird is trying to say. Now, if you’re at all familiar with Brad Bird’s work you’ll probably know that his politics seem to take a huge role in his work, while remaining kind of confusing. At a glance you could believe that Bird is an Objectivist, one of those Ayn Rand fans who believe that exceptional people should be allowed to do whatever they want, because they’re better than everyone else. It’s a pretty repellent idea, and as time goes on I legitimately can’t tell if Bird agrees with it or not. He puts Objectivist ideas into the mouths of his characters, but often villains and people who end up learning that it’s wrong. Mr. Incredible spends the first film thinking that it’s a crime that he isn’t allowed to do whatever he wants, damn the consequences, and he eventually learns that things other than him are important. Which feels like a refutation of Randian ideals. However, this film starts banging the same drum, reminding us that it’s unfair that we keep special people from living up to their full potential, while giving us a villain who specifically seems to hate these exceptional people, because they can’t be trusted. And yet, she’s the villain. She’s created a ridiculous strawman villain who represents an incredibly modern fear. The idea that the damn kids won’t get off their phones! Screenslaver initially reads as an incredibly frustrating villain, a Luddite message telling us that we need to look up from our phones and live actual lives. Which also seems like something that Bird may feel. And yet, once again, he seems to refute that idea by having Screenslaver just be a fiction that Evelyn came up with, something that can easily scare the masses. She found it was easy to manipulate people by preying on their fears of technology, making them worried about technological progress because it could be used to control you. Brad Bird is a fascinating creator, someone with a lot of thoughts on humanity and the way we lead our lives, and his films reflect that passion. It can just be a little strange when trying to parse what he’s actually saying. Are screens evil? Are Super’s a menace? Should they be allowed full autonomy to do whatever they want? Is the best option somewhere in the middle? These are all interesting questions, but at the moment I just don’t know if the film has any answers. Which it doesn’t necessarily have to have. Incredibles 2 is a film that leaves you asking questions, pondering about ethical dilemmas, letting you draw your own conclusions. And, just like the first film, that’s something I really appreciate about it. As time goes on, and as I see the film more, it may move around in my estimation, but at the very least it gave me something to mentally chew over, which is more than I can say for plenty of other films.

 

Incredibles 2 was written and directed by Brad Bird and released by Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures, 2018.

 

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