Written and Directed by: Brad Bird
In a pre-show interview montage shown before screenings of Incredibles 2, writer-director Brad Bird is asked what has happened to his characters since their last film appearance. A smiling Bird assures us, very little, as Incredibles 2 starts ten seconds after the original film ended. Bird’s comment sums up my impression of his sequel: on the one hand its very much in the spirit of the original film, on the other hand it perhaps doesn’t do quite enough to cements its legacy as a standalone work.
Whenever a (non- Toy Story) Pixar sequel comes out, viewers will inevitably rumble about whether it is a truly inspired and justified idea or whether it is a mere money grab. With Incredibles 2 there’s a third explanation that lies between these two poles: it’s a superhero movie. We live in a day and age where Marvel (and other companies who make films about Marvel characters) are having great success producing story after story introducing different heroes and, to a lesser extent, different villains.
The Incredibles (2004) is not a superhero movie in the sense that Iron Man is. It was not created to be part of a complex, ever lasting universe and action-figure industry. Rather, like other Pixar films, it is an attempt to tell a story using a type of character (super heroes, as opposed to toys, bugs, monsters, etc) as a springboard. The impression I got from watching Incredibles 2, however, is that Brad Bird must have gotten into the fact he was now the creator of a superhero universe. Having ended the last film with the introduction of a new supervillain, The Underminer (John Ratzenberger), Bird felt he had another movie, or to put it more aptly, another metaphorical comic book issue, to put out.
The development of the Incredibles as a multi-film superhero universe has some good elements to it. The Underminer makes for a good villain in the Batman/Spiderman tradition. Furthermore, perhaps taking a page from The Avengers’ book, Bird used this movie to bring heroes besides the Incredibles and Frozen out of hiding. These characters are well designed, and the one we get to know a bit, Void, (Sophia Bush) has powers that perfectly straddle the line between being useful and being hopelessly cartoonish.
The downside of the Incredibles becoming a superhero franchise, however, is that the film relies heavily on its internal logic. What do I mean by this? Well, Pixar films are generally defined by being about a unique subset of characters, and their plots are creatively extracted from that source material. The Toy Story Series worked, because each film was based on the foundational question. “What themes should and could a story about toys deal with?” This led to a series of further questions that defined and distinguished the three films: What is it like to have your favourite toy status challenged?/What does it mean not to be real?; How do you deal with abandonment?/ Is immortality in a museum worth it?; and Can your human love you forever?/Is life with preschoolers bearable? Incredibles worked similarly, asking questions about what it means to have powers and to be admired for it. The difference between Incredibles 2 and Incredibles, however, is smaller than that between Toy Story and Toy Story 2. This is because Incredibles 2 was not rooted in the foundational question: “What would it mean to make a movie about superheroes?”. Instead, its foundational question was: “What would it mean to make another movie about the Incredibles?”.
Furthermore, the villain of Incredibles (I won’t be specific in case you haven’t seen it yet) has an origin story rooted, again, in the question of “What kind of characters could exist in a superhero movie?.” While this logic applies somewhat to the villain- origin story in Incredibles 2, the latter villainous motive feels a tad more forced: it is a motive that can’t be (or at least wasn’t) expressed as smoothly and succinctly as the motive in Incredibles. Further more, while the revelation of the villain in Incredibles is a clever, witty reveal, the equivalent moment in Incredibles 2 can be sensed from a mile away (the only surprise for me was the number of villains not their identity).
Another notable element of Incredibles 2 is its gender politics. The film casts Elastigirl (Holly Hunter) as opposed to her husband Mr. Incredible (Craig T. Nelson) in the central action roll. Mr. Incredible meanwhile is left to care for superhero kids Violet, Dash and Jack-Jack (Sarah Vowell, Huck Milner and Eli Fucile). Elastigirl is given the opportunity to go on missions after a billionaire hero-fan Winston Deaver (Bob Odenkirk) decides, she as the less reckless of the two, would be the best option for rehabilitating the reputation of heroes. For a moment this idea seems to develop into a deeper theme. At one moment Elastigirl and Winston’s sister Evelyn (Catherine Keener) share a conversation, in which Evelyn bemoans that her brother has been more successful than her, despite his reliance on her invention skills (a joint critique of patriarchy and capitalism). This theme, however, is ultimately left underdeveloped. The Incredibles has an intentionally ambiguous gender politics: on the one hand it depicts a traditional nuclear family, while on the other, hand making clear that Elastigirl had an assertive, Rosie Riveter side to her. Incredibles 2 rocks the boat a bit more, but ultimately stays loyal to this formula. Perhaps this was the wise move given that the series’ premise is that a family can thrive as a Fantastic 4-like-super-team despite its mild dysfunctions.
Incredibles 2 is dynamic and full of funny moments. It also manages to be better than most superhero movies in that it is not too reliant on action. When it is action rich, the action is humorous, or at least creative. Perhaps this Pixar sequel does not enrich its universe with characters comparable to Jessie, Lotso Huggin Bear or even Emperor Zurg, but even as Incredibles 2 doesn’t sore to new heights, it doesn’t disappoint either—dah-lings.