What does it mean to be super? In a world where every day schmoes get to put on bright, colorful costumes and fight crime with elastic limbs, the answer seems pretty obvious. And yet, Brad Bird’s The Incredibles still found an intriguing meaning for it in 2004, positing if “everyone” is super, then no one really is. It’s a curious way of looking at things—especially as it also could apply to Bird’s long awaited sequel, Incredibles 2.
When the first Incredibles opened 14 years ago—back before much of the sequel’s target audience was alive—superhero movies were still a novelty. Something to anticipate every once in a blue moon like the Olympics or Star Wars. But now, like Star Wars, superheroes are practically drowning the media landscape with more movies, TV shows, and video games than you can shoot a web at. In ’04 Spider-Man was the biggest name of the summer; in 2018 he’s a supporting character in a film where everyone is super.
In such an environment, it’s to wonder if Incredibles 2 can really standout… and be as good as Pixar’s first go at it. Luckily, such fears are quickly put to rest by Bird’s charming, playful, and even subversive return to the daily lives of the Parr family. It’s an easygoing and sometimes overly familiar slouch toward retro superheroics, yet unlike Pixar’s last several bland sequels, and almost the entire whole of the superhero genre these days, Incredibles 2 has something to say. Which is pretty darn super, indeed.
Picking up literally seconds after the last movie, Bird reintroduces viewers to the Parr brood by going over exactly how they took down the Underminer, Pixar’s own variation on Jack Kirby’s delightfully bizarre “Mole Man” from Marvel Comics. These nods and homages to the Silver Age of comics come fast and frequently throughout the film. However, rather than being a tedious bit of fan service or “easter eggs,” Pixar’s original property does this to reestablish the sense of awe and old school cool that the superhero fantasy used to extol. Camp walks hand in hand with chicness in a film that has allusions that vary from Adam West to Andy Warhol. It also, however, has an achingly human family at its center.
Technically still outlaws due to superheroing remaining illegal from the first film, the Parrs are quickly detained by the government and forced to live in a crummy motel until Bob and Helen (Craig T. Nelson and Holly Hunter) get a suspiciously too-good-to-be true offer. A brother and sister pair of billionaires want to wage a publicity campaign that’ll sway public opinion and legalize superheroes again. Winston Deavor (Bob Odenkirk) believes everything in life is PR, including the inventions of his genius sister Evelyn (Catherine Keener). And he thinks Helen’s Elastagirl alter-ego is just the right friendly face to bring “supers” out of the closet.
This is all well and good, except it means Helen must reluctantly leave the charge of raising the kids solely to Bob, whose Mr. Incredible alias is not used to playing the role of sidekick, nor ready to be a stay-at-home dad in the 1960s suburbs. In fact, most of the best humor comes from Bob not only trying to connect with teenage daughter Violet (Sarah Vowell) and speedy smart aleck Dash (Huck Milner), but in personally discovering that infant Jack-Jack has superpowers. Like all the superpowers. And if you can imagine for a moment a baby having the ability to walk through walls—including out of the house—and turning into a flame monster when he doesn’t get a cookie, then you understand just how terrifying a proposition that is.
On the surface, the plotting of Incredibles 2 cannot be accused of originality. More or less having the same basic narrative template of the first film, just slightly flipped, one super-parent must deal with the day-to-day struggle of helping his children through their lives while the spouse proves she still is her own powerful person by working for mysterious benefactors who might be more than they appear. Nevertheless, despite being derived from the same cloth, Incredibles 2 comes out like anything else sown together in Edna Mode (E)’s workshop: looking fabulous.
As visualized by Bird and Pixar, Incredibles 2 is stuffed to the seams with gorgeous animation, often bursting out of the frame in its nostalgia for the heyday of Hanna-Barbera cartoons and general ‘60s pop art. However, it also still imbues the action with a dynamism that cannot be replicated in the real world—or at least CGI trying to pass as a real world with some semblance of physics. The way in which Elastagirl extends herself across a runaway hover train is so dazzling that the fact it is only spotlighted briefly causes it to have a grand impression, as opposed to so many superhero action sequences that tend to bludgeon viewers in excess.
More shrewdly still though is the fact that the “fight scenes” aren’t the point of Incredibles 2, nor why the movie will click with audiences of all ages. By focusing on its characters as more than just action figures and brands, Incredibles 2 derives pathos by relishing in the mundanity of its barely functional family. It even might one-up how the children Violet and Dash are showcased this time around, with Violet’s first date becoming a paramount event of cosmic importance… just like it is for anyone who has lived through (or especially with) adolescence.
Meanwhile, Jack-Jack’s powers, a kind of hybrid of the Incredible Hulk and Craig T. Nelson’s Poltergeist in equal measure, becomes just as epic a struggle for the family as the villain of the piece. The action highlight of the whole film may very well be how fashion designer Edna (voiced by Bird himself) helps curb Jack-Jack’s tantrums, as well as what happens when they cannot be thwarted and he locks eyes with a raccoon in the garbage can outside. When this kid is ready for grade school, Thanos better hide.
Under it all, however, Bird raises some pretty self-critical views of superheroes in general, and corporate media in particular. In this vein, Elastagirl’s greatest foe isn’t a super-powered alien but a figure called the “Screenslaver” (Billy Wise), a fiend who thinks the public doesn’t love superheroes because they’re incredible; it’s an illusion, like everything else they watch on their screens, which makes them complacent as media fills their empty voids. Elastagirl isn’t fighting a force of evil, but a critique that her profession (and franchise) is a hollow toy commercial.
Some might find a Disney/Pixar sequel raising these questions, in a film that is also selling happy meals, a wee bit hypocritical. And Incredibles 2 definitely attempts to have its McShake and eat it too, however the fact the film tries to put that vegetable alongside it, even if sugar-crazed Jack-Jack is unimpressed, automatically gives it more substance than the boilerplate superhero movies that’ve come to dominate the culture in the Parr family’s absence. That the animated family can go there, and genuinely make the case for why the concept of superheroes were so euphoric once upon a time in spite of mass commercialization, causes this film to have the kind of zip only reserved for Dash. In that sense, it’s kind of incredible, really.