It has been 14 years since The Incredibles hit, landing as silver screen superheroes were first on the upswing thanks to Raimi’s Spider-Man duology and the X-films. It was a film that managed to both take the genre seriously while also having a load of fun with the concepts and conceits of it, framing it all through family life and the relationships that shape us all throughout our lives.
But a lot has changed in the intervening years. Superhero cinema is the blockbuster landscape, and we have seen films ranging from sincere to irreverent to deconstructionist, and everything in between. Audiences not only accept and expect multiple instances of these films at the local multiplex throughout any given year, but have even started to become a bit jaded by the seeming ubiquitousness of the genre.1 So what, after all this time, can be offered by Brad Bird, Pixar, and Incredibles 2?
The answer is, quite a lot, actually.
Picking up almost exactly where the first film ended, with The Underminer attacking Municiberg and the Parr family leaping into action to stop him, the sequel treats us to the first of many inventive action sequences. While the first film was no slouch in the action department, it was as much domestic drama as it was superhero film, keeping most of its spectacle for the third act. However, in an age where we are routinely witness to huge action beats it is easy to see this upping the action ante as the response that it is – which is fair, as you can’t expect anything to not change in 14 years. Except maybe the Parr family themselves, but I’ll get to that. For now you can rest assured that the action is imaginative, fun, and placed squarely on the shoulders of character.
A quick aside about the action – because this is a family film very little of the action is centered around punching bad guys; instead, the sequences are largely built around saving people, which is not only welcome, but feels almost novel in an age where superheroics almost always seem predicated on who has the bigger biceps (literally or figuratively).
One reason the action works so well is that it is focused on Elastigirl/Helen Parr (Holly Hunter), whose power set is still fairly unique in the world of film – she’s not just another hero with super strength or the ability to fling lasers out of her fingertips – as she is thrust into the spotlight after a decidedly un-mysterious benefactor, Winston Deavor (Bob Odenkirk), steps in to use the Underminer fight, failure though it was, to push for the re-legalization of supers. Aided by his sister, Evelyn (Catherine Keener), he uses his power and wealth to help bend a few rules so that Elastigirl can operate in the big city (“A criminals playground”) without being immediately arrested. It isn’t long before she is able to spring into action, finding herself in the middle of a plot by the shadowy Screenslaver.
Out on her own she rediscovers a side of herself that had perhaps been sparked in the family’s adventures on Syndrome’s island, but now turns into a burning fire. She has rediscovered her independence and agency outside of her motherly duties. She discovers that she is still a whole person outside of her family. This doesn’t lessen the importance of her family, of course, but it certainly re-invigorates her.
Meanwhile, Bob Parr/Mr. Incredible (Craig T. Nelson) has taken over domestic duties. This is not without some grumbling and more than a little jealousy, but selfishly he also realizes that this is the best shot he has at getting back out on the streets in his red tights to punch bad guys and save the day. I’ll say this about this whole part of the film – they don’t reduce Bob to a mere caricature. He is not the idiot father who can’t handle his kids, nor is he a Mr. Mom, taking over the household duties with aplomb. He feels like a person who is out of his depth, but who, as a responsible parent should do, buckles down, does his best, and figures some stuff out.
I’ve seen concerns that the film would simply revisit the themes of the first, though inverted by the role reversal, due to the fact that it picks up immediately after the first ends. And while I wouldn’t say that those concerns are completely unfounded, I also think that they are pretty minor. There is some overlap, but Bird is savvy enough to continue to evolve the characters in these new circumstances, and the themes have evolved with them.
As before, the main exploration of the film is the function of the family – specifically how families grow and change, and how they must be able to do those things together if they are going to survive and even thrive as a unit. If Pixar and Bird make a third film I could see that being about handing over the reigns to the next generation, but for now I think it was the right move to make it about generations coming together.
The secondary theme is a comment on the nature of heroes, about how the citizens of this fictional world are happy to watch the heroic acts of others play out on their screens as they wait for people who are more powerful than they are to fix the problems that they themselves can’t be bothered to try to fix. It seems pretty clearly to be a dig at the way that some people are content to live in imaginary worlds playing out on screens, never to interact with or work to repair the real world. I’m undecided on how well this idea lands at the end of the film, as it comes from the villain, and the film seems to suggest that the people are right to rely solely on the heroes. Or at the very least, it doesn’t offer a clear resolution on what the movie thinks about it one way or the other.2
There is a cute and slightly too earnest video at the front of the film before the short, BAO, runs, that has the cast and Bird telling the audience just how long these films take to make, and that it is worth the wait, they promise.
Given that the film that follows is fun, exciting, packs an emotional punch, and feels very much of a piece with the original, I am inclined to agree with them.