So, a friend of mine started an interesting conversation on Facebook today concerning the movie, The Incredibles. I think his own bias is showing a little bit in his interpretation of the movie – and I deeply disagree – but I’ll allow that my own bias probably shows here as well because, full disclosure, The Incredibles is one of my favorite movies and is also in my top three for greatest standalone superhero stories. It is certainly my favorite superhero movie. Also, this post is long. Just, you know, before you dive in.
I thought about trying to explain his position in a simplified form but it was too simplified. So here’s his main thought on the subject, in his own words
The Incredibles, intentionally or not, carries the idea of super heroes as admirable fascists even further. The biggest obstacle to heroing is a foolish and stupid public presented as largely unworthy of rescue by these super beings who do it anyway (recall the film begins with super heros being vilified and oppressed by the public after a man sues Mr. Incredible for injuries sustained in the act of being saved from his own suicide attempt). The most moral mortalsin the movie until the final minutes are a villain who sees the error of her ways and turns on Syndrome and an “Uncle Tom” government beuracrat apologizing for humanity and trying to make it up to the supers.
The bad guy, who as Meg discussed certainly has evil methods, is a figure whose evil monolog states his goal is not wealth, not power, not suppress what is special in anybody, but to uplift ordinary people. To make everyone special and to equal the playing field for those not born with super human gifts (every super in the movie is presented as being born with their powers – the two super villains, Syndrome and Bombadeer, are both gadgeteers. Edit: third villain is mole man who we know nothing about except he drives a giant drilling machine that at least implies gadgeteer).
So the good guys are a group presented as being born not just genetically but MORALLY superior and that our questioning of their decisions in how they exercise power is a sign of our moral and intellectual weakness.
Presented as evil is the idea of democratization of power. Of giving ordinary human beings a level playing field.
The movie is not remotely subtle about these points.
There are some interesting points here but overall, it seems like it ignores certain things as well.
I’ll start with the pair of Syndrome and Mr. Incredible. I think this is a good place to start as they are at the core of the conflict in the movie and they are also the core of the message. First, let’s separate Syndrome’s words from his actions. He states that he wants to make everyone special. He states that he wants to make everyone better and level the playing field. But words are just words. His actions show us differently. First, he has an island full of minions. Does he share his tech with them? Not really. Other than a few fancy vehicles, what we see is bad guys in classic mook fashion with machine guns. Also, he employed a super – Mirage (at least, it’s implied she’s a super, I don’t know that we ever see her use powers). Instead of sharing any of his tech with the people around him, he builds a weapon of mass destruction which he plans to unleash on an unwitting populace to prove a point (that he’s a hero). He can SAY he has whatever motivation he wants to claim… the question is – does he? Here’s what I see when I look at Syndrome. I see a guy who was hurt as a child when he was let down by his hero. But here’s the thing. He’s special. He’s a scientific genius who is also clearly smart enough to make the kind of unlimited fantasy wealth that only really exists in comics. He has an island lair and a small private army. But he doesn’t use any of that to improve humanity. He uses it to get revenge on aging supers and plan his big reveal to make himself a “hero.” He’s stunted. He represents a character who is never able to see past a slight to the larger world. He’s entirely caught up in himself and his vision of the world. Which, oddly, is a vision that the world has already given him. The supers are gone. The world turned away from them and they disappeared.
And this is a significant point to make about Mr. Incredible (and the supers at large). For all their power, for all their gifts, when humanity said, “We can’t stand the supers anymore” the supers went away. They could have gone to war with humanity, enforced their vision on the world. This could have been a much more “Aberrant” story (ha! gaming reference). It wasn’t though. Syndrome had already won. The supers were gone and the world was the typical, mundane world he claimed to want. Mr. Incredible chose to accept a world that didn’t want him, went into hiding, and turned himself into a man he didn’t want to be all in the interest of doing what was right. He grew. Admittedly, it was rocky for him. He created a constant state of turmoil for his family because he couldn’t stop himself from hero-ing. Even when it was detrimental, he still had that urge. For the most part though, he was part of the system. Part of the world without supers. Ultimately, his story isn’t about superheroes at all. It’s about a man having a mid-life crisis because he’s turned his back on who he was supposed to be. Because he’s living a lie. But he is at least trying to live in the world as it is. Syndrome is still trapped at age 15, he’s still just Buddy wanting to show off. He still just wants revenge. He kills a man’s family (he thinks he does) just to watch that man suffer. He’s willing to kill as many people as it takes in the city just to show that he’s special.
And if we want to talk stand-ins and such, I don’t see the supers (and specifically, Mr. Incredible) as important because they are superhumans facing a world full of stupid humans. I see them as a powerful message about just going with the flow and letting the bad things happen. The job at the insurance company is a perfect example of this. Sure, Brad Bird’s politics are pretty clear here, but this is a perfect example of the culture we live in – one that values the bottom line over people – among other “legal” injustices. And Mr. Incredible still values people more. In fact, the point that he does have powers to help with and chooses not to actually makes him the worse for it. That’s the dichotomy I see in the film, not powered vs. normal but valuing people and family and being true to oneself over the opposite of those things.
Sure, you can read the inherent hypocrisy of superhumans beating up on normal folk into the film if you want. You can cast Syndrome as a guy who wants everyone to be equal, and you can say that some elements of the message are muddied by things like Dash and his desire to race. They explored this same ground on Smallville too – with predictable results. But here’s the thing… I accept that the message is a little muddy because life is a little muddy. The story isn’t about the message it’s about the characters and they are a very human bunch of people just trying their best to make good decisions in a world they don’t fit into anymore – or in the case of the kids – were never allowed to.
I could go on. This is already too long though. I think I’ve made the point I hoped to.
Thanks for reading.