What The Incredibles Doesn’t Understand About Superheroes

5

August 10, 2016 by Devin

If you are following this blog for any amount of time or know me even a little bit, you know I have a strong attachment to superheroes. Humans are always looking to gods for inspiration, and this is true in theaters as well as temples. I truly believe that not only are superheroes great pop art and wonderfully entertaining, but that they actually ultimately mean something. Iron Man, Captain America, and the other famous superheroes are both products of culture and instigators of it. They respond to what we believe and challenge us to go further.

Which is why I object so strongly to The Incredibles.

Recently news broke that Warner Bros has begun production on Man of Steel 2, and many people are now discussing what direction that should go and who should lead it. I have seen a couple different places online suggest that Brad Bird, most notable for directing The Incredibles and The Iron Giant, direct it, and my immediate response was…

I want to note two things here. First off, Superman is the proto-superhero. He is the superhero by which all other superheroes are judged. Almost every superhero ever can trace their roots to being inspired by Superman or actively working against Superman. As such, I do think how he is portrayed is incredibly important.

The second thing is that The Incredibles is often propped up as this amazing superhero film. Many people online[1] have called it one of the best superhero films ever.

incredibles_white_background.jpg

The thing is… it’s not.

I do not mean that it is a bad film necessarily. I am not saying that it does not have incredibly entertaining and deep characters or a tight-as-my-marketing-budget screenplay. Like most Pixar films, it excels in these regards. But as a film about superheroes, it fundamentally, and I mean that in the most literal sense, misunderstands what being a superhero means.

What is important to note is that superheroes are, by their very nature, symbolic. Batman doesn’t need to make his ninja stars into bats, but it does it for what that means. Superman doesn’t need a big S on his chest, but he does it because it means super hope.

The same also goes for supervillains. Every good supervillain is comprised of more than just sympathetic motivations and compelling dialogue. Our favorite supervillains tie into deeper themes that connect to humanity in often frightening ways. The Joker as presented in The Dark Knight represents violent anarchy[2] and how our attempts to control the world through force and power leave us most vulnerable, which is why he ultimately wins out over Batman’s suspiciously fascist tactics.[3] Meanwhile Lex Luthor as presented in the 1978 version of Superman represents the worst aspects of humanity, how easily we can fall onto our basest of instincts. Superman wields all the power in the world like the owner of a soup kitchen while Luthor wields almost no power like a Stalin-esque tyrant.[4] On the Marvel side of things, Magneto is one of the great supervillains partially because he represents the more extremist sides of Civil Rights history but also the fear that violent overthrow of oppressors may actually be necessary. In other words, he’s scary because there is a good chance that he is completely right. In addition, Hydra in Captain America: The Winter Soldier is a thinly-veiled metaphor for the NSA and government surveillance, a warning about how easily good intentions can be corrupted. And my favorite Marvel supervillain, Killgrave from the Jessica Jones TV show, is pretty explicitly referencing white privilege and how rape culture can be this controlling and silencing entity.

These themes are not just icing on the cake, either. None of these interpretations are especially difficult to see or grasp, but what is important to note is that each of these villains, and many more, represent and articulate the primary philosophical and literal conflicts in these films. In other words, The Dark Knight is in many ways a film about the conflicts between anarchy and control, and while this is present in many elements throughout the film, it is most clearly seen in the conflict between the Joker (anarchy) and Batman (control).

bat_superman.jpg

People wearing icons in their chest is such obvious symbolism that even Nathaniel Hawthorne would be like, “That’s a bit much.”

My problem with The Incredibles is not that it does not do this stuff. I am not trying to say that it is a shallow film. It does all of this stuff. My problem is that the message it conveys is decidedly not very incredible.

The villain of The Incredibles is Syndrome, and Syndrome’s most explicit difference between him and Mr. Incredible is that Mr. Incredible is “super,” as in he has powers, and Syndrome is not. He is a “regular” human who created his own gadgets and powers. This may seem like a small detail, especially considering comic book universes are filled with people like Iron Man, Batman, and Black Widow, but it is a distinction that this movie explicitly makes more than once. In a sense, there are two “classes” of people in this film: supers and not. Now you can use this as justification for any number of thinkpieces on the Randian politics of this film, which I think are legitimate, but I want to make a slightly different hypothesis here: the conflict that Syndrome represents is the conflict between superheroes and the people they save.

You can see numerous examples of this throughout the movie. It is not long into the film before Mr. Incredible is complaining that humans are always making messes that he has to clean up. Superheroes get outlawed because people stop liking them. The people essentially imprison superheroes into suburban life. Mr. Incredible is the one that protests this most visibly, but every super is affected by it. Dash is acting out because he is not allowed to reach his full potential. Violet hides from herself and lacks confidence. Even Elastigirl is forced to give up what she loves doing and settle down to raise a family instead.

It is worth noting that this outlawing of superheroes is a really strange concept to put here. This idea was originally put in Watchmen, which became a foundational text in deconstructing superheroes, but the problem is that this deconstructionist text became a foundation in constructionist superhero stories. In other words, Watchmen is a story that criticizes the very idea of a superhero and its real life applications, and people took their favorite bits and pieces out of that story and out of their original context to use in stories that tell a completely different tale. While that sometimes works, it also sometimes ends up something like this:

(This is a parody video, but it does illustrate my point well)

In both Watchmen and The Incredibles, superheroes were outlawed, but at least in Watchmen, it was for good reason. That book was all about how the whole concept of a superhero is an incredibly frightening concept that would in no way be a net positive for humanity. The heroes, no matter how well-intentioned, exert their power over others in terrifying ways that bring out people’s worst tendencies. They are fascists who should not be trusted with power, hence the recurring phrase, “Who watches the watchmen?” Superheroes are the bad guys driven by their own self-interests.

But in The Incredibles, it lacks that same critique of superheroes. The film frames the superheroes as good guys, so the decision to import the outlawing of superheroes has disturbing implications. The people are not frightened masses who do not want certain people to have the right to abuse and control them, but rather ungrateful children who do not want this clearly good thing for… reasons. The man who attempted suicide comes off like a petulant child who cannot appreciate the help he has been given. Here, the people being saved are the bad guys, and that is an incredibly disturbing bent for a superhero film.

You see this happen numerous times. It started with the man who attempted suicide, then we also see his lawyer. Mr. Incredible’s boss, Dash’s teacher, these are all examples of normal people who are keeping the Incredibles from being Incredible, and they far outnumber the people who seem like they are worth being saved. In fact, how many “normal” people in this movie are actually good? Why do the superheroes even bother saving people in this film?

There are so many great scenes in other superhero films where the superheroes connect with the people they are saving, and these moments set up the stakes of the film. While it may seem cheap, these moments are the magic ingredient that makes these films work. Just try to watch this scene from Spider-Man 2 without tearing up.

The Dark Knight trilogy also has several incredible examples of this. We care about Batman because he cares about Gotham. Thomas Wayne tells his son, “Gotham has been good to our family, but people have been suffering,” and that drives home Batman’s entire motivation in these films.[5] The Dark Knight took time specifically during its big finale and philosophical dwelling to remind us that, “this city just showed you that it’s full of people ready to believe in good.”

Consider how The Avengers come together to avenge Phil Coulson, a “normal” human who represents all the people who look up to the Avengers. Look at the soldiers Captain America works with and respects in The First Avenger. Tony Stark’s relationship with Yinsen is the foundation of the first Iron Man film and the reason why it is so exciting to see him liberate that city in the Middle East. These scenes are so crucial because they drive home that we are invested in these heroes because they are invested in us.

But The Incredibles are not invested in anyone but themselves.

Why does Mr. Incredible go back to being a superhero? What is so important to him that he has to be a superhero? The same goes for Elastigirl, Violet, and Dash. Why do they have to be heroes?

The answer is… because they are super. Dash can run really fast, so he should run really fast. Mr. Incredible has all this potential, so clearly he has to use it. The same goes for Elastigirl, Violet, etc. It should be noted that any connection with actually saving people is almost incidental. When Elastigirl and Mr. Incredible get into a fight about his late night heroics, the conversation has remarkably little to do with actually saving people. Mr. Incredible could have noted that people might have died without him. He could have talked about the good he was doing. He could have said anything that remarkably hinted that he actually cared about the people he saved. But that is not his argument. He mentions civil service in passing and then the conversation quickly moves to the glory days, to how they feel, to being “genuinely exceptional.”

This is the crux of the whole movie. Being a superhero in this film is about expressing yourself and living up to your full potential and having the freedom to be the kind of person you want be, which is not bad necessarily but does not fit in a superhero context at all, and that context is important.[6]

Look at Syndrome’s big speech at the climax. This kind of speech we have seen a million times before. Here the villain lays out his plan and makes a foreboding statement before cackling off, and what’s Syndrome’s foreboding statement? In other stories, it is usually something like, “Everyone will die and I will rule the world!”

But here, his foreboding statement is, “When everyone’s super, no one will be.”

syndrome_fist.jpg

[maniacal laugh]

Seriously? How is that your villain’s big threat? He does not mention death or destruction or widespread terror. His point is that our main characters will not feel special because everyone else can do what they do, and this is supposed to be scary.

This idea is problematic for several reasons, but relevant to this discussion is that the heroes’ self-worth is predicated on their abilities. This film makes the biggest cardinal sin you can make as a superhero film, one that is nearly unforgivable:

In this film, having superpowers makes you a superhero.

This is antithetical to what being a superhero is about. Spider-Man, who probably has the most famous superhero origin story outside of Batman and Superman, is built on the idea that his power did not make him a good person. His power did not make him a hero. It was only when he realized that he had responsibility that he actually became a superhero.

This idea that the superpowers do not make the superhero is present everywhere in superheroes, not just Spider-Man. Steve Rogers is not a superhero because he was injected with a bunch of drugs. Steve Rogers is a superhero because when, as a frail asthmatic, he instantly jumped onto a grenade without hesitation. Bruce Banner is a hero because of what he does as Banner, not as Hulk. In the comics, Thor became a real hero because of seeing Jane Foster, a paramedic with no powers, inspire him. He learned that his ability to fly and make lightning did not make him a superhero. “A strong man who has known power all his life will lose respect for that power. But a weak man knows the value of strength and knows compassion,” Dr. Erskine told Rogers, and this statement rings true for so many heroes.

I want to take this moment to bring out an excerpt from an essay by Mark Waid, a famous Superman writer, entitled, “Why Superman Matters.” This was released in the Birth. Movies. Death. DC commemorative issue, and it has become probably my favorite superhero writing I have ever read.

Imagine how easy your life would be if you had the power of Superman.

You could soar through the air, free of the petty, day-to-day responsibilities that ground the rest of us […] You could rescue people. You could teach bullies a lesson. You could spy on your enemies. You could see and hear all the secrets of your friends and loved ones. You could dominate anyone, seize any throne, rule any nation […]

Look at the world around us. People abuse their power every day. It’s just about the easiest thing on Earth to do […] Right now, as I write this, a billionaire Presidential candidate is running a campaign based almost exclusively on racism and admits flat-out, live on camera, that he likes to stoke up his followers with hatespeak if things “get too boring.” Exploiting the worst of a crowd’s fears and prejudices so that they’ll fight your battles — does that really sound like a “tough guy” to you? […]

When you’re a kid, it’s easy to look up to Superman. All day long there are people more powerful who push you around, and next to the Man of Steel, they’re nothing. As you get older, he may seem childish to you, not gritty enough, but deep down you know that integrity still has a quiet value, and that resisting the urge to punch down is sometimes blindingly hard.

To feel alien and alone, to feel like you can’t tell others who you really are, to live in a world where everything around you will collapse if you make the wrong move… and still to reach out rather than curl up? That’s power. That’s strength. And that is inspiring, because it is the toughest job of all.

 

The arc of the characters in The Incredibles is the opposite of this. Their entire arcs are built around them learning that the restraints they and other people put on them are bad, that, in essence, they are fundamentally different from other people and that they should embrace that divide. Very little attention is given to justifying their worth in the world at large. Nothing they do, even when they save people, is justified by the good they do but rather always for the benefit it serves them.

This philosophy does not work with Superman or nearly any other hero. Being a superhero is about looking beyond your own needs, about having the power to take what you want but instead using it to help, and about, above all, doing good regardless if that good affects you or not. If Brad Bird can’t understand that, then he can’t understand Superman or any other superhero for that matter.

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[1] Seriously, just Google it.
[2] Which, it should be noted, is not inherent to anarchy.
[3] I will admit that I thought of this interpretation as I was writing this so I’m still developing it.
[4] Shoutout to Moviebob for this interpretation.
[5] Yes, even more than his parents dying. The whole point of those flashback scenes was that Bruce moves from revenge to honoring his father’s life by continuing what he started.
[6] It is for this same reason that The Iron Giant is not a good superhero film. I think that film is wonderful, but the titular character is the opposite of Superman. While Superman is emblematic of the hopes and dreams of humanity, the giant is a reflection of the war-mongering and self-destructive ways of humanity. The giant fits in society more as a weapon, and as a peacekeeper, he has to leave society. This movie is more in common with Planet of the Apes than Superman, which is probably why it was set in the 60’s.

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5 thoughts on “What The Incredibles Doesn’t Understand About Superheroes

  1. jin choung says:

    “Their entire arcs are built around them learning that the restraints they and other people put on them are bad, that, in essence, they are fundamentally different from other people and that they should embrace that divide.” — this is not a different tack than the ayn randian analysis of the movie – that IS the ayn randian analysis of the movie. special people being held back by the plebes… that’s her whole schtick.

    • Devin says:

      I’m not saying that it isn’t. I’m saying that I’m looking at this through the lens of other superhero works, but that analysis is not mutually exclusive to a Randian analysis.

  2. I feel this analysis (and those that follow its tack) tends to apply greater scrutiny to the motives and actions of the protagonists than the antagonists. I also think this is a mistake because, if you take the movie at face value, ask yourself…which side of the culture war sounds more and more like Syndrome these days?

    It also rests on the assumption that Syndrome is not a super, when he quite clearly is. I’d have to rewatch it to make sure, but IIRC the only person who says he isn’t is Syndrome himself. Of course, just like how Mitt Romney and Donald Trump worked for everything they have. People point to Edna Mode as another super based on technology and invention, but what about Bomb Voyage? Granted, he’s on screen for literally seconds, but his power is building bombs. That’s his actual *power*, and he’s a super, so we clearly have inventor supers.

    As a child, he’s ignored and insulted by his idol, and that drives his later villainy. Yet Billy wasn’t entirely blameless, he was reckless and dangerous in the use of his powers (inventions), and while Mr. Incredible could have done more to prevent the monster he became, Billy was already at that young age convinced of his own infallible brilliance if only other people would acknowledge him. However he doesn’t take the time to actually learn how to use his inventions properly, and instead poses a danger to himself and others.

    Back to Edna Mode, if she’s a “super” too, she is content to stay in the background and use her gifts to help others. Contrast this with Syndrome’s narcissism, and how she directly foreshadows his downfall with “No capes!” What if he had gone her route, and given his devices to his soldiers? Or even other supers? He certainly would not have been flying so close to a jet engine, that’s for certain.

    Yet, again, we take his line at face value, as if he tends to truly democratize the abilities he’s given himself with technology. He has had the chance to do so on a smaller level, yet he doesn’t. Why not? Because to him, being super is about power. It’s about having power, using your power, and showing off your power to others. That’s not something he’s going to give up. No doubt he’ll keep the best stuff for himself. Contrast this with how Dash at the end of the movie DOES run fast…and settles for second place because while he knows he COULD win, it’d be unfair for him to do so.

    And what of the rest of humanity? Certainly, everyone being super would be a good thing, right? Well, as he well demonstrated in the opening, that power can be misused out of carelessness and recklessness as easy as malice. I doubt he’d be in favor of regulations and licensing, so give everyone jet packs and you’d have people crashing through windows and colliding in midair. Give everyone zero point energy gauntlets, and what would you have? A much more deadly, and far less detectable, method than any existing firearm for people who are willing to use violence to get their way to do so.

    So let’s put it all together. As an adult, he lets his ostracization as a child excuse his every action, and the bitterness it He sees other people as specially–no, make that unfairly–gifted while refusing to acknowledge his own gifts, and not as a way to diminish his achievements but as a means to aggrandize them. His goal is to use technology outpacing society and regulation as a way to gain profit, recognition, and disrupt systems of power while ensuring that he himself remains on top, all while giving lip service to equality and fairness. Above all else, even his own personal safety, he flaunts his genius–his *privilege*–at every chance while paradoxically denying its existence.

    Oh yeah, let’s not forget that his ultimate plan is to eliminate competition and convince people he’s a hero, and when that fails his first recourse is to go after his enemies’ family and home.

    Is this sounding familiar? Because looking at the last decade+ of the culture wars since The Incredibles was released, it sounds downright prophetic.

  3. swanpride says:

    Personally I think that The Incredibles is the best of the Pixar movies. I think you don’t give it enough credit. Yeah, at its core it is about people embracing their own abilities instead of holding back just to make everyone else feel good. But it is also about embracing normality, about finding the middle ground. At the end of the movie Dash doesn’t run for gold, he runs for silver, which is the perfect middle ground between his mother’s wishes that he should fit in and his father’s stance that he should be allowed to participate in sports. While Helen’s arc in the movie is to remember that she is Elastigirl, damnit, Bob’s arc is to remember that there is glory in the simpler things in live and where his priorities actually are.
    And the same is true for Buddy. Yeah, he isn’t a “super”, but remember, being smart is just as important for a hero as having a special power. Spider-man doesn’t have organic spiderwebs, he created the webshoters themselves, Batman and Iron Man have no power at all aside from their minds, Hulk is only one half of scientist Bruce Banner. Buddy had the power to change the world for the better with his inventions, but instead he used it for destruction. And can you imagine a world in which everyone had access to this kind of technology? A theme which is often addressed in Superhero stories is also to act responsibility with the technology you created.

    So, I disagree with the notion that The Incredibles isn’t a Superhero movie. It is, and it puts more effort into its underlying themes than most of them do.

    Now, if Brad Bird is the right guy for Superman, that is another question. Certainly not for the version in the DCEU, because his sensibilities aren’t a good fit at all. For a new take, I would argue that he is a better fit than all those hack who think that they need to make Superman “relatable” by letting him broad constantly. Superman is not human. That is the whole point of the character. We don’t need to be able to relate to him, we need to be able to like him, which isn’t the same thing at all. God knows that I like every single one of the Avengers (with the notable exception of Rhodey who falls more into the “eh, at least he doesn’t annoy me” category), but there is no way that I am able to relate to womanizing Billionaire Genius, a Supersoldier from the past or even a trained Spy. Yes, they have human struggles, but they are so far removed from my reality, that they are not necessarily relatable.

    It is the same thing with Superman, I don’t need him to be doubtful and brooding, I need him to be Superman, a token of wish-fulfilment just as much as he is a token of hope. And I think that Brad Bird would actually be able to embrace that Superman is, well, Super, exactly because he has shown in the past that he knows way better ways to humanize a character like that then coming up with BS weaknesses or focus on what he can’t do.

  4. Johnny Applesauce says:

    You’re a fucking nerd hating on a legendary movie. Go fuck yourself.

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