Lessons The Incredibles can teach today’s Superhero Flicks

In a daring departure from the world of sentient toys, fish and insects, Pixar’s sixth film deals entirely with human characters (one giant rolling robot notwithstanding). Starting with a now familiar story (as seen in The Watchmen) and soon to be more familiar (with the upcoming Captain America: Civil War), The Incredibles begins with the passage of the Superhero Relocation Program which forces all active superheroes to permanently retire in exchange for amnesty for any damages caused by their hero-ing. Fifteen years after their relocation, Bob and Helen Parr (aka Mr. Incredible and Elastigirl) live uneventful lives with their three children in the suburbs. Bob now works at a soulless insurance company where any attempts to help people, something to which his life was once dedicated, is now actively chastised. In the evenings, Bob eavesdrops on police scanners with his reluctant friend Frozone. Inevitably, Bob slightly loses his temper at work and throws his boss through a few walls. Before he confesses to Helen that he’s been fired, he is enlisted in a little superhero moonlighting by a secretive employer. Soon we discover his shady employer is actually a would-be sidekick he rejected back in the days of the “Supers.”incredibles-syndrome-biggest-fan

The more I watch The Incredibles, the more its genius stands out to me. We’ve recently started skirting on the edge of “Superhero fatigue.” The problem here is two-fold. First is the sheer quantity of films. Over the last three summers we’ve seen the release of twelve Comic-Book Superhero movies (Avengers: Age of UltronThe Fantastic Four, Ant-ManCaptain America: The Winter SoldierX-Men Days of Future Past, Teenage Mutant Ninja TurtlesMan of Steel, Iron Man 3, Thor: The Dark WorldThe Wolverine, Kick-Ass). The Incredibles was released in the same year as five other superhero movies (Spider-Man 2, HellboyThe Punisher, Catwoman, and Blade: Trinity). We’ve just seen so many superhero movies recently and there is no sign of a let up. We’ve reached the point where movies like Guardians of the Galaxy and the upcoming Deadpool can point their humor back at the genre.

Far more damning than the quantity of Superhero/Comic Book films released of late is the recent dip in quality. I’ll explore this more later in this review but the issue here has less to do with production value or effects and more with a lack of variety. There is a distinct lack of variety in today’s superhero films both in plot structure and in the characters themselves. Most movies now follow similar plots or at least similar trajectories or beats. Darkness has overtaken some (eg Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy, the newest Fantastic FourAmazing Spider-Man 2,  and  Man of Steel). We’ve lost most of the campiness seen in the original Fantastic Four and Spider-Man. Just look at the year of The Incredibles release. That year saw very different heroes involved in very different stories. In Spider-Man 2, Peter Parker watches as one of his idols falls into madness and Parker struggles with taking down the new villain / his old friend. Hellboy incorporated the “I just want to be like everyone else” shtick, combined it with a romance, and told the story in a world of occult and mysticism. Catwoman showcases the only hero brave enough to stand up to beauty products and leather jackets. The Punisher is a revenge story. Blade: Trinity, featured a four-way fight between humans, vampires, Dracula, and Ryan Reynolds’ bantering. Only two of these six movies (Hellboy and Blade: Trinity) deal with a potential end of the world. And even those potential apocalypses are steeped in supernatural and occult-ish worlds. The heroes in all three of the movies that came out in the summer of 2015 (Avengers: Age of UltronAnt-Man, and Fantastic Fourfight to cancel the apocalypse.

Incredibles We're Dead gif

The Incredibles excels both in celebrating old genres and in exposing their tropes. Melding the worlds of superheroes and James Bond-style spy thrillers, the movie seems fresh and familiar at the same time. Syndrome’s lair could belong to any Bond villain with its lava walls and space-age trolley. What may be more topical is its handling of the superhero genre. We’ve never had more movies debuting than in the last few years. But four years before Iron Man and the same summer as Spider-Man 2, Pixar created one of the genre’s best films. Its live action counterparts could learn from its handling of plot and tropes.

1. Start with characters:

The characters of The Incredibles are not terribly complicated but they are well defined and given clear motivations. Bob wants to relive the glory days. Helen has moved on from her hero days and puts all her efforts into her new family. Violet just wants to be noticed but is too shy to seek out new friends. Having clear characters helps strengthen the film and allows for characterization to develop. Compare this to an Avengers film. The Incredibles has six super powered characters (Bob, Louis, Dash, Violet, Frozone and Syndrome) plus a super robot and a super baby. The Avengers features seven supers (Iron Man, Captain America, Thor, The Hulk, Hawkeye, Black Widow, and Loki) plus a friendly AI. Each has a set of supporting characters (The Avengers has more, but the core set of characters is close). The Incredibles players are fairly well defined but what drives The Avengers? All of them are pushed by past issues (the Hulk by his past rampages, Hawkeye and Black Widow by old crimes, Stark by his family legacy of death, Thor continues to redeem himself and become a proper ruler of Asgard, and Cap still laments the death of his barbershop quartet). But the relationships among the group is much more complicated which does detract at times from the film. Clear character profiles helps make The Incredibles feel contained and more convoluted interactions contributes to the complicated nature of The Avengers.

(Obvious arguments against the argument above: 1. The Incredibles are de novo characters and the Avengers have to compile and recitfy decades of back-story; 2. The Avengers are new-ish to each other and the Incredibles are obviously very familiar with one another cutting out need for introductions and first impressions; 3. The Incredibles revolves around a family which comes with fairly stereotyped relationships requiring little no backstory).

And The Avengers is one of the good ones. Think of Spider-Man 3The Amazing Spider-Man 2, the new Fantastic Four, and some of the worst Marvel-based movies. They suffered not just because they had too many characters (and especially villains), but because these extra characters were weak. They took enough screen time to hurt other plot lines and not enough to become their own stories. Some of the most memorable characters in The Incredibles only appear for a few minutes:

Exhibit A

Incredibles Supersuit

Exhibit B

Incredibles Edna Mode

2. But don’t forget about the powers:

Most superhero flicks wait for one or two major fight sequences to show off the powers of their heroes and in between these set pieces they go back to normal lives. Sadly it is easy to forget that Supers have powers when you aren’t in one of these expensive action sequences. Casual uses of powers makes the characters more interesting and in some ways more relatable. In The Incredibles there is a brief sequence where Bob picks up a couch allowing Helen to vacuum under it. Helen stretches to quickly vacuum the whole area while Bob barely pays attention while reading a magazine. Sure this isn’t as exciting as Dash running from henchmen or Bob fighting the Omnidroid, but it’s almost as interesting to see how Supers use their powers in everyday life. I imagine most of us wish we were telekinetic when you’re sitting on the couch and your drink is just out of reach. Or during a traffic jam.

The now repetitive caveat is that its base in animation helps The Incredibles pull these casual feats off more readily than live-action counterparts. This extends into the comics as well where characters use their powers much more often than their on-screen iterations. My favorite example from the comics has always been Mr. Fantastic working in his lab, using his stretchiness to simultaneously type on two keyboards and fiddle with a gadget, allowing him to maximize his brain. Even though live-action movies won’t be able to compare to animated/comic versions, movies can still strive for this presence. And there are notable exceptions to this rule: Robert Downey Jr.’s Iron Man always seems like he’s tinkering with his gadgets, chatting with J.A.R.V.I.S., and sometimes getting drunk in his suit; Andrew Garfield’s Spider-Man swings into screens even when he’s not chasing a villain; and Ian McKellen’s Magneto absent-mindedly powers a string-less pendulum in the first X-Men movie. The blueprint is there, other movies just have to use it.

Mr Fantastic lab

3. Tell the best story you can, not the one you think you have to:

Superhero movies should be one of the most creative and flexible genres out there. Sadly is has become one of the most formulaic. Comics themselves have provided thousands of stories about thousands of interesting and varied characters. Inevitably details are lost in the translation to the big screen but the medium in and of itself doesn’t force filmmakers to tell the same story every time. I’ve always loved origin stories but not every movie needs an origin story and not every origin story needs to play out the same. The first Spider-Man and X-Men movies, two of the earliest movies in the Third Era of Comic-Book movies, were both origin stories in some way but they didn’t feel like echoes of each other. In Spider-Man, Peter Parker first gets his powers and learns how to use them while Norman Osborn spirals into darkness. In X-Men, a group of already capable super-heroes join together to fight an already capable villain. In that first film in a now long-lasting franchise, only the character of Rogue plays follows a true “origin story” as she struggles to control her nascent abilities, offering us a way to understand and empathize with the characters. This is partly the reason why I didn’t like X-Men: First Class as much as most. I never really needed to watch the origin story for Magneto or Professor Xavier. I preferred to think of Xavier as the wise grandfather-type and Magneto as the fanatical madman on the other side of Xavier’s coin.

The Incredibles spends as little time on origin stories as the audience needs for understanding. In the first few minutes we establish Bob and Helen’s relationship and their superpowers. An in-era news montage tells us about the Superhero Relocation Program and we soon meet Dash, Violet and Frozone. We don’t see Bob and Helen as kids learning about their powers because that isn’t relevant. Even Dash and Violet are treated like fully developed Supers. We watch them grow and develop as kids but in the traditional “origin story” format. I would argue that there are maybe three scenes where we watch characters learn about their powers, or develop them. The first is Bob’s training montage which is more like a Rocky montage than a Superhero montage. The second is Violet practicing with her powers by forming force fields around smoke. This moment lasts just a few seconds and serves to also show Dash and Violet’s emotional state after their mother left to go save their father. The third example is when Dash learns he is fast enough to run on water. And this really isn’t an origin story moment but an awesome realization. Dash already knew he was fast and was dying to let loose. Running on water was just a sweet perk.

In a way The Incredibles was perfectly timed. Its story is at once simple and also strays away from the now rigid structure of superhero films. That structure usually involves 1: Pre-Power character building (usually involving bullying or death of a loved one), 2. The initial bestowal/manifestation of super-powers, 3. Early uses of the powers which is usually awkward and ineffective, 4. Conquering some minor challenge, 5. Confrontation with major villain, 6. Final fight, 7. Set up for the sequel. In the past Steps 1 and 2 were told in flashbacks (as in Hellboy) but now are often told in the main timeline (as in the new Fantastic Four). This formulaic structure is partly the product of external pressures. In his review of Fantastic Four for Grantland, Mark Harris summed up this dilemma of expectations faced by newer films:

“There is, I think, an increasing sense that every mark the comic-book genre is forced to hit — origin stories, Easter eggs, big-picture continuity, action beats, fan service, world-stakes battles, potential sequels, post-credit sequences — is obstructing them from being movies. It certainly seems to be keeping their makers (“architects” feels like a more accurate term than “creators”) from any sense of joy — directorial joy, cinematic joy, authorial joy, or even the obsessional joy that allowed Peter Jackson to commit himself to living in Middle-earth for 15 years or that has sent James Cameron off to whatever solar system in which he is currently purporting to make Avatar sequels. “

-Mark Harris, Grantland.com

Harris goes on to discuss the creative issues that arise when Comic book films become a rung on a career ladder for directors and writers. They are asked to step into this industrial film complex and produce a solitary cog in a much larger machine. This inevitably forces the writer’s pen and the ultimate direction of the film. Joss Whedon’s Avengers: Age of Ultron may be the worst victim. While it’s Phase 2 companion Guardians of the Galaxy was left alone and etched its own space in the MCU, Ultron must at once synthesize all the stories leading up to it, tell its own story, and set up the coming Phase 3 films.

4. Have Something to Say:

This doesn’t just mean have a good plot (I’m looking at you Fantastic Four) but have something to say outside of the main plot. Captain America: The Winter Soldier worked in commentary about freedom and security. The X-Men movies pit the opposing philosophies of Xavier and Magneto against each other. At its core, the original Spider-Man story deals with Uncle Ben’s philosophy: “with great power comes great responsibility.” Hellboy tries to handle questions of discrimination and identity.

The underlying question that The Incredibles addresses is the question about individual snowflakiness. Recently, it has become increasingly popular to both reward “averageness” and to bemoan these rewards. This may be an extension of the larger push and backlash for and against”Political Correctness.” The film frames most of its discussion on this subject around Dash. Given Dash’s superspeed, he could easily win every athletic competition he entered. Bob and Helen argue about how he should use them throughout the film:

“Dad always said our powers were nothing to be ashamed of. Our made us special” -Dash

“Everyone’s special, Dash” -Helen

“Which is another way of saying no one is” -Dash

These issues come up so frequently in the first third of the movie that its easy to imagine it was written by a group of grumpy Greatest Generation grandparents scowling at the shelves of participation trophies and blue ribbons. Taking a broader view, any reaction against The Incredibles anti-snowflakification of the world may in part be due to context. In popular culture (ie morning talk shows) this question comes up relatively frequently. Just last month, professional football player James Harrison told Twitter that he would return any participation trophies earned by his sons, stating that While I am very proud of my boys for everything they do and will encourage them till the day I die, these trophies will be given back until they EARN a real trophy…I’m not about to raise two boys to be men by making them believe that they are entitled to something just because they tried their best…cause sometimes your best is not enough, and that should drive you to want to do better… #harrisonfamilyvalues” Many would agree with James Harrison but I have to disagree with him on principle. That principle being that he plays for the Steelers and is therefore evil and not to be trusted. But the Incredibles  easily takes this question into the non-Super world with a similar scenario to that addressed by the evil Harrison:

I can’t believe you don’t want to go to your own son’s graduation. -Helen
It’s not a graduation. He’s moving from the fourth grade to the fifth grade. -Bob
It’s a ceremony! -Helen
It’s psychotic! They keep creating new ways to celebrate mediocrity. But if someone is genuinely exceptional. -Bob
This is not about you, Bob! -Helen

In the movie, Bob’s excitement over Dash is obviously linked to his retired status and his work at the insurance company. But his relishing in Dash’s speed is much more paternal than selfish as he watches his son grow and develop.

Even with all of the above, The Incredibles will not be remembered for breaking new ground in either the animated or superhero movie genres. What makes it stand up so well is how perfectly it accomplishes what other movies so easily forget. As the superhero genre continues to grow, more and more movies are released because they can be released or because they need to be released. The now thoroughly blasted Fantastic Four reboot was made in part so Fox could avoid ceding the franchise rights back to Marvel. DC’s nascent “Universe” is a response to the Marvel Cinematic Universe and will soon release a film that functions in part to pave the way for more films. And there are now cracks in the MCU foundation that suggest difficulty ahead (eg We’ve been building towards the end of Phase 3 for years. What happens after that? Can you resell everyone on the MCU as easily as you did in Phase 1? Also, how can movies like Captain America: Civil War function as a stand-alone movie when so much of their content is requisitely a conduit for the movies before it and the movies to come? When we already know what lies ahead in the MCU, how can any one movie maintain its own suspense or sense of importance?)

Forget about the upcoming Incredibles 2 for a moment. Part of the charm of The Incredibles is its sense of closure or finality. Or to put it another way, its sense of completeness. When you’re watching the movie for the first time you don’t know the end point. There is no final target the audience knows about beforehand. Take the upcoming Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice as an example. Even casual fans will understand that Batman and Supes will team up by the end of the film. Not just because of their history but because their future in the DC Cinematic Universe requires it. The same goes with Avengers: Age of Ultron. Plot points from previous and future movies dictate how that movies developed (including the eventual recruitment of the Maximoff twins). What The Incredibles gives us is that rare superhero film that stands alone. It doesn’t suffer at all from this uniqueness but gains from it, showing us what we’ve seen before in new ways. And in the process it becomes one of the best examples of the genre.

Rating: 10/10

Check out other Flashback/Backslide reviews in the Pixar Blogathon:

Inside Out (2015)

Toy Story (1991)

A Bug’s Life (1998)

Toy Story 2 (1999)

Monsters, Inc. (2001)

Finding Nemo (2003)

Cars (2006)

Ratatouille (2007)

WALL-E (2008)

Toy Story 3 (2010)

Up (2009)

Brave (2012)

Cars 2 (2011)

Monsters University (2013)

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