I like to think about what words used to mean. Take “incredible.” It’s the opposite of “credible”, which is to say it originally meant “unbelievable.” Not always in a good way.
“You claim that you had no knowledge of a crime, carried out over the course of many weeks, under your very nose. Mr. Brad, this jury must find your testimony truly incredible.”
Today incredible basically means “So awesome it’s hard to believe!” A much more positive connotation, don’t you think? I’d agree it’s incredible that The Incredibles II managed to be a sequel every bit as good as it precursor. It’s a show worthy of adding to my superhero movie collection.
Go see it. No spoilers, but I’ll say that it’s worth watching just for the incredibly clever use the writers/director made of such superpowers as elasticity, “teleportation disks,” and force-fields. It’s nothing you haven’t seen in the comics before, but that’s the point; the movie’s makers obviously spent a great deal of time studying the permutations of powers worked out by superhero comics writers over the years. But here I’m going to talk about something else. To be blunt, I think that too many people critiquing superhero fiction like The Incredibles have forgotten the point that it’s supposed to be incredible.
What I mean by this is that, more than most genres, superhero stories are metafiction. They are supposed to be unbelievable in a good way. Much of what is fun in superhero fiction only works if you recognize the artificiality of the genre, and don’t try and read too much into it.
The Incredibles I and II are more metafictional than most superhero stories, and totally up-front about it. The Incredible Family is a family of incredible superhumans attempting to go unnoticed, and so their public family name is the Parrs? Par as in “average”? And Bob and Helen’s children are named Violette (a Shrinking Violette, with powers of invisibility and barriers), Dash (an impulsive speedster), and Jack-Jack (jack of all trades . . . ). Obviously Bob and Helen named their children at birth, before any powers manifested, yet the children are aptly named for both their powers and personalities. Incredible, but powers fitting personalities is a common superhero convention. So is everyone’s inability to recognize people they know personally when they put tiny masks on.
The key here is that, to enjoy a movie like The Incredibles II, you need to recognize the conventions and tropes of the genre, identify which the show is playing straight, or lamp-shading, or deconstructing, and just roll with it. Fortunately, most viewers do that rather easily. Unfortunately, too many people who are payed by the word to think about and write about movies don’t.
The result can be something like this:
“Like “The Incredibles,” the new film presents the Incredible family chafing under the ostensibly democratic order that prevents them from taking the law into their own hands whenever they perceive a threat that their talents could thwart.”
“Yet what’s chilling about “Incredibles 2” isn’t its smug self-promotion; it’s the superhero essentialism—the vision of born leaders with an unimpeachable moral compass to whom all right-thinking people should swear allegiance and invest confidence.”
“Incredibles 2” invokes a political world in nonpolitical ways; it’s a vision of apolitical, quasi-unanimously acclaimed virtues that are assured by the supreme powers of innate and doubt-free strongmen and strongwomen who intervene only in emergencies. It’s a nostalgic vision of total power of a local minimum that echoes sickeningly with the nostalgic pathologies of the current day, nowhere more than in Win’s enthusiastic declaration of his plan to “make superheroes legal again.” In such moments, “Incredibles 2” stakes an unintended claim to being the most terrifying movie of the season.
Those are quotes from Richard Brodie’s New Yorker review of the movie, the title of which is The Authoritarian Populism of “Incredibles 2.” In case you missed the last reference, he was equating “Make superheroes legal again,” with “Make America great again!”
In a word, “Huh?”
Now, I’m not saying that TI2 was politics-free. It wasn’t; in fact it contains a couple of “clever” throw-away lines that had nothing to do with the plot and should have been thrown away. And the way the legal situation resolves at the end . . . Just go with it. Maybe I’ll address it some other time.
But Brodie and many, many critics like him are falling into a trap because they don’t recognize the self-conscious conventions of the superhero genre. He looks at The Incredibles movies and sees Superhero Essentialism as a sinister ideal; “…the vision of born leaders with an unimpeachable moral compass to whom all right-thinking people should swear allegiance and invest confidence.” But if there is such as thing as Superhero Essentialism, it’s “With great power, comes great responsibility.” Which is in many ways exactly the opposite of what Brodie sees. Responsibility, not authority.
I think that where Brodie and the rest often go wrong when trying to derive social and political metaphors from superhero stories, is they equate superhuman power with moral authority. But superhuman powers are fantasy. The unique position they put superheroes in simply doesn’t exist in the real world; how many people do you know who can stop a train full of people from crashing? How many people do you know who can shut down an active-shooter situation quickly, decisively, and at no risk to themselves? Beyond the idea that if you can do something, you should do something (and any of us can make a difference in much more human-scale ways), superpowers as a fact in a superhero world don’t mean anything.
The Incredibles don’t want to “lead with an unimpeachable moral compass,” they want to help because they can. We enjoy wish-fulfillment movies like this because the wish to be able to help is a near-universal human trait. While I’m often critical of billionaires and celebrities who use their money or fame to push causes I think are less than informed, I’ll never deny their right to try and leverage their “superpowers” to make a difference. The way we’re wired, many of us actually feel bad if we don’t try and make a difference when we can. We expect it of ourselves and others.
So if you haven’t seen The Incredibles II yet, go enjoy it. Do not fear the super-authoritarians, there aren’t any. There’s just a bunch of superheroes who want to do what superheroes do in a superhero world. Save the day.
Marion G. Harmon