Monday, May 25, 2020

How The Incredibles II Could Have Been Incredible, Too

There are few things that my husband and I disagree on, but one of them that's been a firm sticking point for over a decade is our opinion of The Incredibles.  It's an animated superhero movie from 2004 by Pixar, and it won two Academy Awards.

And Andrew does not like it.

My initial reaction.

For those unfamiliar with the franchise, the premise is this: a family of people with superpowers are living incognito in a world that demands their normalcy.  A supervillain eventually emerges, forcing the whole family to fight him together and realize how incredibly wonderful their abilities are, and in the end, they embrace their gifts, which were previously sources of shame and conflict.

Here are some things I liked about the film.  I liked that it inhabited a proper world that was filled not merely with superheroes, but also regular people whose jobs were critical to their shtick.  (The best example being Edna Mode, a clothing designer specializing in "super suits.")  I liked the direction, and the acting.  I liked the surprisingly dark moments in a brightly animated film, and the jaw-dropping revelation (for me, at least) that the supervillain was none other than Mr. Incredible's biggest fan, who had been rejected as his "boy sidekick" decades earlier.

Most importantly, I think, the film resonated with me.  I knew how it felt to have gifts that were not nurtured properly.  (I had wilted in a strict private school in primary, where the small class sizes meant that there was no "gifted" track, because everyone was "gifted," in the sense that their parents had money to send them to a school that cared more for the neatness of of uniforms than whether or not their reading primers were hopelessly out of date.)

I understood the frustration of having certain exceptional abilities and then suffering through a public school classroom in high school with a bunch of people far below my level, and the annoyance of being in a world that seemed to cater to the lowest common denominator.  I felt the sting of injustice at the idea that remarkable people could "slip through the cracks," and due to circumstances outside of their control, would not be built up, but instead be forced to languish in unremarkability for the rest of their lives.

In short, I felt like a weird kid with malnourished potential, and The Incredibles offered me a message of hope.

So, when the sequel came out in 2018, 14 years later, of course I went to see it in theaters.

I left disappointed, bewildered... and a little more understanding of my husband's point of view.

Let's first talk about why my husband does not like the original movie, and where the original movie missteps.  The problem with The Incredibles, says Andy, is that it solves a problem that does not exist.  The idea that gifted people are being "held back" in a purposeful and malicious manner seems like a bizarre complaint, when you think about it.  The movie has been criticized by some as being libertarian Ayn Rand propaganda whose central conflict revolves madly around egalitarianism somehow being bad or at least politically incorrect.

I confess I didn't see it that way.  Not until the re-watch.  That's when I noticed the subtle, conservative undertones.  For example:
  • The thing that drives the superheroes into hiding is not, as I incorrectly remembered, the collateral damage of their superhero fights, nor the lack of accountability inherent to vigilantism.  It's actually a lawsuit.  And the resolution is not that any new laws are passed or the superheroes are held accountable at the end.  The public just sort of decides they're cool with superheroes acting with impunity because they're so special. 
"I am comfortable with returning to a status quo in which Mr. Incredible occasionally literally kills other people without any consequence."
  • The villain famously says that "When everyone is special, no one is."  Driven mad by rejection in his youth, the villain has devised a ton of technology so that he can be an "artificial" superhero.  This makes no sense because it's clear to me that Syndrome is special.  He's a fucking tech genius and his talents should have been nurtured.  The strange "stay-in-your-lane" message, that unremarkable people should not try to rise up, that being successful is predicated only on God-given gifts and is pre-determined, rubbed me the wrong way.  At no point does Mr. Incredible take any responsibility for his rejection of Syndrome, either.  Syndrome dies without ever being fully explored; he is not meant to be a sympathetic villain, which is a shame, because he truly could have been.
  • And, perhaps strangest of all, the aggressively gendered nuclear family, in which the men's powers are being strong and fast, and the women's are to be flexible, invisible, and protective.
After a decade, I had forgotten my annoyance with how Syndrome was treated.  The movie was, ostensibly, a movie about people being given room to grow and reach their full potential.  Yet Syndrome was painted with broad strokes as a bad guy for wanting to be a superhero and for "cheating" his way into the role.

I had also forgotten what I considered a big plot hole, or at least a gaping, unresolved conflict, which was that the superheroes were never made to regulate themselves.  In the end, the solution is simply that society decides that a benevolent dictatorship is fine, and superheroes can do whatever they like.  (The subject of accountability is explored beautifully in Captain America: Civil War.)

But after fourteen years, I was hopeful for a sequel that used the world-building of the first movie to springboard into a more complex narrative.  The audience, who were in junior high or high school when it was released, were now in their late 20s and early 30s.  We were ready for a story with more elusive messaging, with moral quandaries and challenging, complex issues that lacked simple solutions or answers.  Surely, after fourteen years, the directors and writers had matured alongside their audience, and so Incredibles II would mend any of the weaknesses of the first, the biggest of which was its ham-fistedness.

Ah, if only.

The plot of Incredibles II doubles down on the needless gendering of the world by positing a conflict in which Mrs. Incredible becomes the breadwinner.  Poor Mr. Incredible struggles to fix the kids their breakfast, help them with their homework, and deal with the baby, who fights a raccoon for no discernible reason whatsoever.

The first two acts are mostly dedicated to showing off how Thicc Mrs. Incredible is and how hapless and incompetant her husband is at raising the kids.  Y'know, 'cause he's a boy.

This scene really sums it up.

In the third act, finally, a conflict emerges that doesn't involve Mr. Incredible getting tangled in the blinds or burning toast in the microwave while Mrs. Incredible learns how to do the splits and eat a banana.  A man named Winston wants to help superheroes by giving them bodycams and recording their good deeds.  I think we're supposed to think he is the bad guy, but then he introduced his Evil-Looking Sister, who is immediately, clearly, and obviously the villain, "Screenslaver," who, like Syndrome, is a "regular" person whose "only" ability is that she is an insanely smart and technologically-savvy person with a chip on her shoulder about people with natural-born powers.

What were the takeaway messages of The Incredibles II?  Well...
  • Women are superior parents to men / men are hapless at raising their own children.  (Sexism!)
  • Bodycams are bad.  (No accountability!)
  • Screens/technology is bad.  (Remember, this is a movie whose main demographic was supposedly Millennials...)
  • Evil people look evil and you can determine who is evil by looking at them.
  • "Specialness" is pre-determined; your gifts are inherent and if you have worked for them, you're not truly talented, you're just uppity.
  • The same tired bullshit about superheroes being superior in every way to regular people - not only due to their powers, but morally, as well.
I left with a feeling of grief for the movie that could have been.  The Incredibles II wasn't merely bad because it missed its mark; it also ruined the first movie by confirming some uncomfortable truths about its messaging.

Fucking lazy joke.

I will tell you the movie I wanted to see, the one I envisioned.  The one I had hoped for when the lights in the theater went down and there was a special message from Samuel L. Jackson at the beginning telling me that this movie had taken 14 years because it was "worth waiting for."

It's a movie about accountability and accessibility, and it fits perfectly with the themes of family, of how different people are integrated vs. celebrated in our society.  And it's a more mature movie than Incredibles I, which was what the audience wanted (an audience including a lot of new parents struggling with questions of how "normal" to raise their child, whether it's more important to fit in socially or stand out at the risk of ridicule or shunning).

Sorta weird how everyone is defined by the mere existence of their powers and not how they choose to use them.
That would've been a great avenue to explore: the question of personal accountability.
Alas, once again, all the "Supers" are good and all the bad guys are jealous nerds.

Here's my pitch:

The movie is, in brief, a metaphor for disability.  The first movie establishes that some people are abnormal (i.e., they are superheroes) and that they struggle to fit in with society.  However, their powers are gifts, not inconveniences.

Enter the baby of the Incredibles family, Jack-Jack.  An infant with out-of-control and dangerous abilities (including teleportation, laser eyes, and the ability to transform into a weird monster-demon), Jack-Jack represents a huge liability.  Jack-Jack is different.  And not in a good way.  His is a power that weighs him down, and holds him back.

Instead of picking up where we left off, I would have liked the movie to have aged a little.  I would have liked it to be, oh, five or six years in the future.

Now we return to the conflict of the first movie.  Violet, the shy elder daughter, has integrated well into society.  A little bolder, she can control her powers, and she is in college, living a "normal" life and enjoying it.  Dash, the middle son, has embraced his powers and is thriving in junior high, where he is celebrated for his abilities and happily, openly demonstrates them.  The conflict faced by the parents is what to do about Jack-Jack.  Can they suppress his powers?  Help him learn to control them?  Should they hide them, knowing what a danger Jack-Jack poses to his classmates?

Violet insists that integration is the best possible outcome, while Dash counters that accommodation and "special treatment" is. 

A frustrated young boy, Jack-Jack struggles in a school that is helpless to accommodate him, eventually becoming frustrated to the point of being a villain and tearing the place to the ground.  His parents leap into the fray to subdue him, but what they bring isn't a big battle.  They lay down their masks and their suits, and they speak plainly to him: "We don't know how to help you.  But we won't abandon you.  We will advocate for you.  We will help you navigate this.  We're not heroes.  We're parents.  We've got you."

This isn't a movie with a clear-cut message, nor is it meant to be.  It's a conversation about disability, about what we, as a society, owe to the people who live on the outskirts, people whose differences are burdens, whose differences pose difficulties or even dangers.  Ultimately, if there's any message, it's that we should try to build up all people, but recognize that people are individuals with varied talents, and varied needs, and that "building up" will look different according to differing circumstances.

What's more, it's a message of love from parents to their children.  It's a message of advocacy, not for people who are "special" (gifted), but for people who are "special" (different).  It's a message that being "special" (gifted) does not make you correct or morally superior, and that parenting is a lot of confusing grey areas, even if you happen to be very talented, because your child might not be as you expected them to be.

Incredibles I was a movie for children and I had enjoyed it, as a child.  I went into Incredibles II as an adult, expecting an adult message, and what I got was not a film that had matured, but one that had stagnated.  Worse, the second tainted the first by doubling down on all the things I had disliked (but missed, or forgotten).  Seeing the first movie with adult eyes made me all too aware that it was not the movie I remembered and treasured.  The messages I had interpreted were not the movie's, but my own.

For a generation of people who grew the fuck up between Incredibles I and Incredibles II, a story about parental responsibility and a thoughtful discussion on disability would have been remarkable.  And frankly it's baffling how they didn't settle on that for the sequel because it was set up wonderfully at the end of the first movie.

Instead, we got a "what if the lady were the breadwinner?" story that felt like it belonged in the early '90s.  It was tone-deaf and tired, a weary repetition of the shitty messages of the first movie, but without the subtly or innocence that allowed me to enjoy the first.  It was a movie that glorified conservatism and upheld the status quo, that peddled in the same themes as the first: technology bad, nuclear heteronormative family good.  It was cut-and-dried, black-and-white, without anything truly thoughtful to say.

There was nothing new here.  There was nothing original here.

Worse of all... there was simply nothing special.

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