Comic Book Criticism – The Incredibles 2

Pixar have a accumulated a relatively solid back catalogue over the years. Nevertheless, they’ve had their setbacks; not to mention a couple iffy sequels which aren’t exactly what one may call belters. Whereas features such as Toy Story 2 (1999) were fabulous, follow ups such as Cars 2 (2011) were about as fun as sniffing a used sock after a marathon. Monsters University (2013) wasn’t all that perfect either; not terrible, but didn’t hold so much as a soggy candle up to part one. 

Which is why when a follow up to 2004’s The Incredibles (2004) was announced, I never held what you may call a confident stance toward such news. There were numerous risks making a follow-up to the original. For a start, its predecessor was great. Fun, inventive, delightful and better at being a superhero superhero movie than most of its competitors were. In Tim Story’s Fantastic Four (2005) was half as good as this, that movie would have received a much more favourable verdict by critics and audiences. In short, The Incredibles 2 had an awful lot to live up to, meaning the pressure was on for Brad Bird and his production team. 

Then there was the context of present day Hollywood cinema to take into account. In case you’ve been living under a Kryptonian rock (see what I did there…) for the past 14 years, you’ll have noticed a fair few superhero movies have come out in the years since The Incredibles’ release. Cinematic Universes, television series, genre-bending spin offs, and Christopher Nolan sculpted epics have turned this category of storytelling into a global phenomenon. Not only are they all over the ruddy place, but some of them are damn good. Batman Begins (2005), The Dark Knight (2008), Guardians of the Galaxy (2014), Captain America: Winter Soldier (2014), Captain America: Civil War (2016), Logan (2017),  and The Avengers: Infinity War (2018) vary from very good to outstanding pieces of modern cinema.

Back in 2004, there was only really Sam Rami’s Spider-Man and Bryan Singer’s X-Men flicks up against the Parr family. These days, there’s a considerable amount more to compete with. Even labelling itself as a parody wouldn’t cut the mustard, what with Deadpool (2015) charging about the place, owning that title. It was a noisy market to make a sequel in, which is why there was a risk this would end up getting drown out by Marvel, Fox and Warner Brothers.

In the end, however, Pixar avoided falling foul of such a possibility. Despite rearing its head right after the boisterous Deadpool 2 (2018) and byzantine Avengers: Infinity War, The Incredibles 2 proves to be a thrilling blast that entertains right the way throughout. It’s sharp, adorable, has plenty to say, well made and nearly as exciting as it was the first time around. It’s not reinventing the wheel in anywhere, nor is it going to go down in history as the greatest superhero flick of 2018, but it’s a pleasant piece of work nevertheless.

Set just three months after its predecessor, the American government have opted to shut down the Superhero relocation program, leaving our heroes stranded without a home. After a visit from telecommunication tycoon Winston Deavor and his sister Evelyn, however, their financial troubles come to a temporary halt. In a bid to try and reignite the public’s trust in superheroes (which are now outlawed in this reality) Winston persuades Helen to carry out a series of crime fighting capers with a camera attached to her suit. During her travels, Helen discovers all the crimes she’s combatting lead back to the enigmatic Screenslaver, a masked individual hell-bent on brainwashing civilisation into doing their evil biddings. Meanwhile, back at home the reluctant Bob is tasked with looking after Violet, Dashiell and Jack-Jack in Helen’s absence; a task he’s not all that accustomed to carrying out.

It’s at this point in which the film breaks off into two separate plots running alongside one another. On the one side, you’ve got Helen gallivanting about town preventing a series of incidents caused by the mysterious Screenslaver. Seeing as this particular storyline ties in to the film’s third act, it’s safe to say this is the feature’s A plot, and in many ways it’s the part of the movie which has the most to say; particularly when it comes to the Screenslaver and their philosophies regarding societal behaviour.

There’s a moment whilst Helen is hunting down the Screenslaver in which our unknown antagonist begins to deliver a monologue concerning society’s sheep-like tendency to follow superheroes. They describe people’s habits of blindly accepting the values of heroes as a substitute for dealing with their world problems. The Screensaver proceeds by accusing such behaviour as belong to a part of our brainless desire to “replace true experience with simulation[s]”. Everything – according to the antagonist – must “be packaged and delivered to watch at a distance so [we] can remain ever sheltered, ever ravenous consumers”. 

What’s interesting here, is the use of the word “superhero”, which can be read quite literally as a criticism to the 21st century’s comic book genre boom. The use of this word implies a specific criticism toward the genre as a whole and our culture’s overreliance on heroes as a form of popular-yet-superficial consumption. Many have decried the abundance of comic book adaptations as the end of cinema itself; the moment where original ideas and standalone storytelling are devoured by production line filmmaking intent on drowning out all competition with a never-ending tirade of interconnected universes staring cape-wearing crusaders. This school of thought is of the opinion that all we’re getting these days is the same movie remade over and over again; regurgitating identical ideas, indistinguishable morals and duplicate story structures in the form of easily digestible package flicks.

As well as our over-dependency toward Superman, Captain America, Wonder Woman and co; this monologue can also be seen as a dig at humanity’s general overreliance and susceptibility when it comes to technological tools and the media in general. After all we’ve lived in a world littered with computers, radios, newspapers, televisions and phones for quite some time now, and the Screenslaver does seem intent on quite literally weaponising the media-based technology we’ve created against us. This is a fear that’s been knocking about in stories since the advent of television many moons prior; the notion that humanity’s breakthroughs could inevitably bite us on the backside. 

Whereas “technology turning against us” isn’t an original concept in and of itself, the Screenslaver’s viewpoint creates a unique angle by hitting upon some contemporary truths concerning our use of technology in conjunction with 2018’s political landscape; particularly in regards to the United States of America. Neo Nazis rioting on American streets, gun crime becoming a fact of life for far too many Americans, children being separated from their parents at the Mexican boarder, the dismantling of LGBTQIA+ rights and Donald Trump serving as America’s commander in chief for crying out loud. It’s all descended into the stuff of nightmares it would seem, yet many of us are all too content with burying our head into our phones; “liking” political comments in the hope of reversing all the world’s ills, shrouding everything in glittery Instagram filters, filling up the digital wasteland with cat pics & selfies, arguing about reality TV stars over Twitter, tailoring our Facebook feeds to show stories validating our political ideologies, and loosing ourselves in the never-ending tirade of superhero franchises convoluting our Netflix accounts, cinemas and news feeds. While the world spirals out of control, technology allows us to put up a blanket and feel safe in the stew of our own previously formulated ideologies. Whether it’s the shared beliefs held by Spider-man & co, or the regurgitated think pieces popping up on our feeds, media keeps us at a distant from the real world problems that we probably should be addressing during our days off from watching Infinity War, Jessica Jones, Keeping up with the Kardashians or whatever the hell your poison is.

It all sounds a touch pretentious, but it’s a fascinating villain to put in a family movie. The Screenslaver acts as a commentary on the overreliance of superhero films in modern cinema, as well as a critique on the problems modern technology pose in an age where distractions let bigots and fools take over the White House.  Heavy stuff Pixar.

There’s even one or two moments during the primary plot in which feels reminiscent of what I imagine a number of LGBTQIA+ American citizens are feeling in this day and age. Seeing as Trump and his evangelist zealot thugs appear intent on stripping away the queer community’s rights in modern America, I imagine it’s pretty horrifying to live under such a presidency if you don’t conform to cis heteronormative standards. Seeing as the film makes a point of the US government making it illegal for superheroes to be open, themselves, and visible in the world – plagued by misunderstanding from people ignorant to the fact they aren’t wrongdoers – can be read as a metaphorical comparison to present day struggles endured by the queer community.  Admittedly this might be a bit of a stretch for some viewers, although the scene in which Voyd explains to Helen how her presence in the public eye helped her accept herself feels all too reminiscent of a young trans and/or gay girl finding herself through the visibility of someone similar to herself.  

Meanwhile, for the movie’s B plot, we have Bob trying to fill in for Helen during her time away working for Winston. Whereas the secondary story doesn’t exactly connect on a materialistic level to the primary narrative – not until the third act at least – there are a number of thematic ties between the two. Our main plot focuses very much on the consequences of becoming overly dependent on an external force, whilst Bob’s story looks at the growth which can come from learning to separate yourself from reliance. 

Seeing as the film is set in the 1950s, the Incredibles plays out in a period where society expected the women of the family to look after their children. Therefore Bob has spent his days up until this point taking for granted the work Helen puts into his family. Now that she’s no longer present, however, Bob finds himself shackled with the task of making sure Dash, Violet and Jack Jack. Bob may not be central to the main action of this movie, but his character has certainly ventured on his own journey throughout the duration of it. After numerous mishaps and false starts, by the time the credits make their way onto the horizon, Bob has learned plenty about fatherhood and what it means to fend for his family when the mother Hen is absent. 

Admittedly, the second plot is actually more engaging than the main bulk of the Incredibles 2. Everything regarding the Screenslaver, Helen and Winston’s family are perfectly entertaining, it’s just they lack the heart, warmth and humour found in Bob’s journey toward independence. It’s just nice to see one of these protagonists find themselves struggling with a very real and very domestic hurdle that many of us have endured at some point or another. It’s messy, intimate and all too human. 

One part of Bob’s journey toward figuring out parenthood concerns the discovery that his youngest son, Jack Jack, has developed a series of seemingly arbitrary super powers. Some have read this to be a metaphor for autism. I didn’t quite catch this comparison myself, although I’ve had absolutely no experience when it comes to raising/living with children on the spectrum, so if there was a connection, my lack of spotting one is solely down to my own ignorance. Instead I very much saw Jack Jack’s development of unpredictable powers to be an allegory for raising children in general. Parents often place far too much expectation upon their offspring. You see it in all walks of life. Assumptions regarding what sort of job they’ll get, the grades they’ll have, their personalities, even who they’ll grow up to inevitably love or how they identify are assumed pretty much from the get go (hence why some parents still express shock/distress/disappointment whenever one of their kids comes out as LGBTQIA+). Of course children can’t meet the assumptions held by their parents. Kids are unpredictable, complicated and completely independent. You never know who they’re going to become at any stage of their life. Learning to handle Jack Jack with love, care and in a manner that isn’t harmful to him can be likened to managing a child with erratic behaviour, individualistic mannerisms, unique outlooks and – now that I think of it – autism.

All of this is great, and really adds to the heart belonging to Bob’s B plot. It really hits home, elevating the Incredibles 2 to new heights. Admittedly, however, Violet and Dash aren’t as fleshed out as they could have been. There was plenty of potential which could have been mined from Violet’s potential future-boyfriend finding out about her secret identity, yet the film neglects this for the most part. It’s only really there to throw a few more obstacles in Bob’s way. Dash’s only real part in the story is to play the kid who has some really hard maths homework he needs to finish in time for school. 

Violet and Dash would have probably benefited from one or two script rewrites. Nevertheless, there’s surely time in future movies (should they happen) to give them the screen time they deserve. Who knows how large a part they’ll play should anymore Incredibles movies get the green light. 

All in all, the Incredibles 2 falls under the mantle of a good Pixar movie. It’s far from perfect, but it isn’t trying to be. In an age where superhero movies are bursting from Hollywood’s backside, it’s nice to see a standalone feature from this genre that’s fun, unafraid to criticise the category it belongs to, has something to say about the modern era’s political turmoil and willing to explore the idea of becoming independent from things we’re overfamiliar with. 

Fun, thoughtful and has a surprising amount to say about the world we’re all currently living in. Certainly worth seeing.  

Published by Amber Poppitt

I'm a writer from the UK with dreams of someday becoming a professional screenwriter. I also happen to be a huge film/TV/novel enthusiast with an undying obsession toward Doctor Who.

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