I have a weapon only I can defeat.
When I saw The Incredibles in theaters upon release, the easy comparison was Fantastic Four—its own cinematic adaptation still a year away in 2005. You have the physical brute of Bob Parr’s Mr. Incredible (Craig T. Nelson) like Thing, the stretchy elasticity of Helen’s Elastigirl (Holly Hunter) like Mister Fantastic, an invisible teenage girl in Violet (Sarah Vowell) like Sue Storm, and a cocksure speedster in Dash (Spencer Fox) similar to if not exactly like Human Torch. What made Brad Bird‘s so much better, though, was the decision to mold them into a single nuclear family of Dad, Mom, and children. He was dealing with stereotypes (machismo, malleability, shyness, and recklessness) as they pertain to real world situations. He gave the generic household we all know superpowers.
Revisiting the film today, however, carries a different comparison: Watchmen. Bird has gone on record saying he never read Alan Moore‘s graphic novel before setting off on his journey (although he was aware of it). There’s no point questioning the validity of this truth since the similarities are few. Beyond the concept of a world that’s forsaken superheroes after growing tired of paying for and cleaning up whatever mess their saviors left behind (and for creating supervillains in their image), the two properties couldn’t be more dissimilar thanks in large part to their divergent target audiences. Bird only uses this notion of pushback as a means to create disillusionment. If the one thing keeping figures like Bob and Helen going is stripped away, they become ordinary like us.
It’s the perfect fodder for a mid-life crisis—something Bird felt around the time of creation. At what point do you sacrifice your happiness and identity for those you love? And can you make it so family isn’t actually a sacrifice, but the cause for that happiness? These aren’t simple questions, but they are resonant ones. After fifteen years living in hiding, Helen has embraced the compromise of domesticity for survival while Bob has let it crush his resolve. It begins to drive a wedge into their relationship at the worst possible time with adolescence hitting Violet (low self-esteem when it comes to boys) and Dash (becoming a terror without an outlet for his energy since sports would be unfair) as new baby Jack Jack craves constant attention.
So Bird preys on more stereotypes to keep things universal despite the sci-fi skin of superpowers. He has Bob moonlighting as a hero with best friend Lucius ‘Frozone’ Best (Samuel L. Jackson) thanks to a police radio and provides him a purpose through a mysterious proposition courtesy of Mirage (Elizabeth Peña) that promises “world saving” potential. Suddenly Bob has meaning again, but admitting that he’s practicing heroism despite the laws protecting their family from hundreds of thousands in lawsuit damages is a non-starter with Helen. He must do what every victim to the thrill of spent youth does: lie. It only leads to assumptions of an affair and that’s not something one can hide from curious children for long. The underlying mission is therefore to save their marriage.
It’s an ingenious maneuver that ensures audiences will be invested in the action adventure plotting beyond surface theatrics. There’s ultimately a supervillain to be dispatched (Jason Lee‘s once hopeful hero, now jaded bad guy named Syndrome who’s hatched a plan to kill innocent civilians in a ploy to frame himself as the survivors’ champion), but he’s set-up as more sadistic marriage counselor than threat. Until the Parrs can finally get on the same page, Syndrome is their own personal nightmare. He’s the galvanizing force allowing them to open their eyes and see what they’ve missed the past decade despite it being right in front of their faces the whole time. They must fix themselves before they can fix the world—a sentiment as literal as it is metaphorical.
For a studio like Disney/Pixar, this type of complexity was something of a shift. Not only were the logistics crazier than anything they had done up to that point, but its themes and content would earn their first PG rating. Bird came from a 2D background with The Iron Giant and thus wrote his screenplay without knowing what could and couldn’t be done in 3D. So new software had to be built and multiple problems solved throughout production with some ironed out weeks before completion. Being the animation team’s first all-human enterprise too, one could say The Incredibles paved the way for what was to come. And an outsider (Bird befriended John Lassester at college) spearheaded it with his uniquely fresh perspective removed from Pixar’s Emeryville base.
It’s good to know this context because the animation hasn’t necessarily aged well these past fifteen years when compared with their more recent output. But while surfaces may seem more simplistic, the heart beneath absolutely proves itself timeless. There’s an unparalleled honesty to how Violet and Dash use their powers as a coping mechanism to their current, awkward youth. The way Bob and Helen use theirs as a means to visually represent their frustration is also not to be diminished against the humorous situations born from their application. It’s hilarious to see Bob angrily smash his car door before picking the whole thing up to the shocked dismay of a neighborhood boy, but our laughter doesn’t prevent us from understanding his emotions in that moment. This family is struggling.
With a little push courtesy of Syndrome’s malicious antics and the Parrs’ former costumer Edna Mode (Bird doing an unforgettably self-absorbed fashionista caricature) kickstarting their renaissance by reclaiming her own past glory, they’re given the opportunity to be themselves again: Mr. Incredible and Elastigirl. Because, just like Superman, their alter egos are the faces they show the public to blend in. They are special and as such shouldn’t feel the need to hide it from each other. Some welcome satire plays up the prevalence of a “participation” society wherein everyone’s a winner regardless of achievement to get at the freeing nature earning confidence to let loose and do what’s right provides. And how that manifests via mundane daily routine will always be more interesting than on the battlefield.
courtesy of Walt Disney Pictures