The Incredibles Revisited

The Incredibles came out in 2004, and the movie landscape has changed drastically in the following 14 years. The superhero film genre has exploded since then, giving us roughly 987 new entries since this film’s release. While The Incredibles remains one of my favorites in both the superhero genre as well as Pixar’s output, I hadn’t watched it in at least the last 5 years (thanks, letterboxd), so this viewing to prepare for this weekend’s sequel was with fresh eyes.

It was actually a really helpful exercise, because The Incredibles is the kind of film because familiarity with it masks all the weird things about it. This film–ostensibly aimed at children–cribs from Watchmen and James Bond, and spends most of its screentime on following the dynamics of a marriage. So weird. Yes, the film boasts a vibrant color palette and a precocious child superhero, as well as some moments of great physical comedy, but the majority is more concerned with midlife crisis, insurance companies, and how superheroes affect the world.

Sharing a release year with Spider-Man 2 is maybe a big coincidence, but they come from a similar place in terms of the kind of superhero story they are reaching for. These two films capture the first few years of the Marvel comic book universe better than any other film or adapted media. When Spider-Man was created by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko, (and later when John Romita, Sr. took over art duties) the character was a melancholy, melodramatic hero struggling with personal emotional problems on top of being a superhero and a teenager. Raimi’s films evoke those first 50 or so issues of Amazing Spider-Man, and none of what has come later has even tried to capture that feeling. In a similar fashion, The Incredibles has been called “The best Fantastic Four movie ever” because it captures the same spirit that Lee and Jack Kirby brought to their creation of The Fantastic Four. While the dynamics between the characters are different–The Fantastic Four are a surrogate, workplace family–the idea of superheroes where there is as much drama stemming from the character dynamics as there is from villains and other threats. This is what made Marvel such a hit on college campuses in the 60s and 70s, and it is also what makes The Incredibles one of the most mature entries in the superhero film canon. Action is great, but what makes  a superhero compelling is not how hard they can punch.

It’s a talk-heavy film, especially for animation, with long sections of the film simply being conversations between two characters, and often those conversations aren’t about the subject of the conversation, but the goals of each character and how they fit into the context of the relationship between the characters. The flirting between Mr. Incredible (Craig T. Nelson) and Mirage (Elizabeth Pena), Elasitgirl’s (Holly Hunter) concerns about an affair, Edna Mode’s (Brad Bird) boredom at being merely in fashion, and even the instructions from government agent Rick Dicker (Bud Luckey) are all laden with a deeper meaning. Maybe kids get some of it and maybe most of it flies over their heads, but The Incredibles feels more sophisticated than almost every other superhero film, and more complex than any other Pixar film (save Inside Out, a movie which I am still thinking about 3 years later). I can imagine a lot of kids being bored by everything that happens up to when the action on the island starts, which is a long way into the film.

This is typical of most live action superhero films, and the lack of action scenes is driven as much (if not more) by budgetary concerns than storytelling, where dollars to be used on action scenes must be planned out far in advance. The freedom of animation should allow for everything to be bigger, bolder. Yet director Brad Bird sets his sights on fitting these characters into their world. Not only do the action scenes perfectly show the geography of the environment, but animation requires that everything be designed. There is no option to film on location. And so Bird and team put a lot of effort into designing the perfect mid-century modern world. The Parr home is a work of art, as is Syndrome’s (Jason Lee) Bond island (heavily inspired by Ken Adam’s work on James Bond and Dr. Strangelove). Leaning into the designed world, as well as the huge variety of character shapes makes The Incredibles also an excellent example of world building.

Beyond that, The Incredibles wrestles with what it means to be a person gifted with super abilities. The answer, according to the film, is that you use them to help people and make the world a better place. Keeping them to yourself hinders your life satisfaction and has a negative impact on the world. The “He’s an Ayn Rand follower” criticism of Bird doesn’t hold water with me because if that were true, the supers in The Incredibles would defy the government and use their abilities to amass wealth. Instead, they risk their lives for the good of others. The film does engage with how it feels to be above average and feel hampered by society, but it’s for self-actualization rather than selfish individualism.

The Marvel films ground this in character rather than theme, focusing on why Tony Stark/Steve Rogers/Thor are motivated to become heroes, rather that what being a hero will mean for the world around them. It is something DC addresses head on (to varying degrees of success), and why those films tend to foreground their themes more so than Marvel. Because of all this, I wish The Incredibles was a more influential film than it turned out to be. We still only have Captain America: The First Avenger and as period pieces, and none of the later films except the work of Zack Snyder have engaged with what the presents of superheroes means for the world. Captain America: Civil War pays lip service to it, but the film is (rightly) more about the Steve-Tony relationship than it is actually about politics or diplomacy.

The Incredibles is the kind of film where every choice seems to be the correct one. It bursts with creative spirit, clever ideas, and honest engagement with ideas. And surprisingly for mainstream entertainment, doesn’t prescribe a solution, either. It wants to make you think while dazzling you with spectacle.

Author: Ryan Silberstein

Ryan spends his days at a company named one of the best to work for in the Philadelphia area, and his nights as a mysterious caped vigilante saving his city from the disease that is crime watching movies. He lives on a diet consisting of film, comic books, experimental beer, black coffee, and those big metal historical markers around town. Follow him on Twitter and Letterboxd.

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