You thought this one was going to be number one, didn’t you?
Any of the top three could have been in the number one position: we’ve hit the rarified-air portion of our program. There is, and I want to say this emphatically, nothing not to love about The Incredibles, except, you know, for that one terrible thing. And that one terrible thing? I’ll get to that in a minute. The fact that there are two other off-brand superhero movies I love more than I love The Incredibles is my problem, ultimately, not yours. Please don’t get yourself worked up about it.
The one terrible thing is not that The Incredibles is terribly derivative, though it is. Superheroes, by definition, always are. Even Superman, the first superhero, stole much of his schtick (including the name and location of his secret hideout) from earlier pulp heroes like Doc Savage. Longtime comic book fans have noted a very strong similarity between The Incredibles and the original quibbling superhero family, Marvel’s Fantastic Four — down to the costume design and the power set (though the powers are distributed differently among the family members — the mom’s power in The Incredibles is the dad’s power in Fantastic Four, etc). The imitation (shall we call it “borrowing?”) doesn’t end there, though. There’s a bit of Watchmen in the governmental clampdown on superheroics, too. Director Brad Bird knows the superhero genre treasure chest well enough to know exactly what to steal, when, and in every case his crime does pay. The very first scene, for example, is an homage to Christopher Reeves saving a cat from a tree — though Mr. Incredible’s methods are more harried and desperate and direct. Bird’s star turn as Edna Mode, fashion designer to the truly super superstars, puts him in a position to comment on the ridiculousness of the genre’s conventions (“No capes, dahlink!”) while celebrating them at the same time. It is not parody, but it is also not not parody. I think.
The one terrible thing is the overall theme.
“When everybody is special, nobody is,” several characters say during the course of the film. It is the explicit goal of the villain, ultimately, to “make everybody special — so nobody will be!” And so on. This is just an indirect way for the filmmakers to say: “some people are naturally better than others, and we shouldn’t try to pretend otherwise.”
That sounds okay if you’re, say, a talented graphic designer comparing the way you and your friends rock the hipster t-shirts at the local brew pub versus the losers from down the street at the other brew pub who look stupid and unswell. Sure, you’re better than they are. Kudos. It’s not as interesting or defensible a position to take if you’re, say, a talented money market manager squeezing profit out of your clients using legal but shady derivative trading (you can — so you should!), or if you’re a hulking bully from the less-trendy brew pub down the street kicking the ass of t-shirted hipsters (because they’re fucking annoying, which they are, and, besides, you can). It’s downright anti-civilized, this idea that superior people should be allowed to use their superiority however they see fit. Maybe this, too, comes from the superhero genre itself — I have no doubt that that’s the case. But it’s not subtexty enough for me. It’s explicit and proud.
You think I’m reading too much into this? Maybe so. I wouldn’t try to defend my position on the film’s undemocratic impulses as an academic thesis. It feels icky, though, the Randian/Nietzchean uberlord thing. Not icky enough for me to hate the movie! I love the movie. The movie is a movie of moments, and every moment is awesome. I do mean that. I can’t think of an unawesome moment. But the ickiness is there, all the same, right alongside and mingled up within the awesome.
What do you think?