In the 14 years since Brad Bird‘s seminal Pixar superhero film, The Incredibles, was released, a few things have happened. Including, for instance, all 19 films of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, 14 of which followed Marvel’s acquisition by Disney in 2012. Disney also bought Lucasfilm in 2012, and Pixar in 2006. And their bidding war for the superhero chunk of 21st Century Fox is pending. Big Hero 6 is a movie that exists. What I’m saying is, Disney kinda owns the whole Super-market. And this was before Pixar squeezed additional sequels out of Monsters Inc., Finding Nemo, Cars, and Toy Story. The quality of these has ranged from “my #1 film of 2010” to “any of the Cars films”. And if nothing else, I didn’t want The Incredibles, one of my most beloved of Pixar’s back catalog, to have an unnecessary sequel shunted into a saturated market that I’d have completely forgotten within a week. And with so many superheroes to choose from, any return to Bird’s slick, perpetual-1950s retrofuturism was going to have to beat a crowded field in order to maintain relevance. I’m relieved to say, Incredibles 2 largely succeeded.
What worked best in the first film was the family dynamics. When it comes down to it, the Parrs are a family first, and a superhero team second. They all care deeply for each other, even as Bob/Mr. Incredible (Craig T. Nelson) and Helen/Elastigirl (Holly Hunter) spar over important career and family matters and watch each other’s backs, and as the kids, Dash (Huck Milner) and Violet (Sarah Vowell) bicker and poke at each other as siblings do, this family knows that no matter what is happening in the world, they need to look after each other first and foremost. And that’s what makes this superhero team truly special. The Parrs may spar, but they’ve given their audience a well-earned confidence that this family will never experience a deep betrayal or “civil war“. This group is as bound to each other by love as by their ability to kick super-powered ass. Unfortunately, kicking super-powered ass is still illegal in this world. In the opening scene of Incredibles 2, which picks up right when the first left off, the family brawls semi-successfully with the Underminer (John Ratzenberger), who has the delightfully quaint plan of drilling a massive tunnel under the city in order to…rob a bank. They successfully chase him off (and there’s a great deal of hilarious tag-team babysitting of baby Jack-Jack during the fight), but the city blames them for the damage and near-destruction of its city hall, Ghostbusters II-style. The Superhero Relocation Program, headed by Agent Rick Dicker (now voiced by the reliable and ever-beleaguered Jonathan Banks), gets defunded and shut down. Since the family’s home was destroyed when Syndrome’s jet exploded at the end of the first film (which was just a few months ago in movie time), the Parrs have two weeks left in a motel, and then they’re homeless.
This is when DEVTECH, a conglomerate headed up by adult siblings Winston (Bob Odenkirk) and Evelyn Deavor (Katherine Keener), is introduced. This company – a sort of Apple meets Wayne Enterprises – wants to turn public opinion toward legalizing superheroes. Right off the bat, despite its lack of an obvious profit motive, this plan struck a note of realism. It’s probably fair to say that any person in the real world with superpowers would hardly starve…in fact, they’d probably find an endless font of ethically dubious mercenary work available. But the idea of a corporation launching a PR and lobbying push to serve its own aims just feels like a quintessentially Disney solution to this problem. DEVTECH decides that their best chance of restoring the Supers’ legal status is Helen. Mr. Incredible, whose power is principly lifting and smashing things, causes more damage than Elastigirl, whose stretch powers require her to work with a bit more finesse. Bob and Helen have a thoughtful conversation about this (with Bob readily acknowledging that he hated every minute of his boring insurance job from the first film), and they mutually decide that it’s time she puts on the breadwinner hat while he stays home with the kids. This all works. Not only does this feel like a real family dilemma, handled in a mature fashion, but as Helen heads off to be an illegal superhero under a corporate banner (and does a fine job of it), I must note that any facile fodder of Bob “learning to be a father” was pretty much confined to the film’s trailer. He largely does a fine job of keeping the kids warm and fed and happy and on time heading for school, only briefly griping about Dash’s “New Math” homework before reading the book and figuring it out. Bob’s only real problem as a father is Jack-Jack, who is something of a superhero chimera. His powers are practically limitless, and what starts as a novelty of an infant who occasionally turns into a flaming demon and phases through the walls quickly becomes more than even Mr. Incredible can handle. As the parent of a human toddler, I can relate – but as a superhero conceit, this is a novel conceptual solution to the overpowered repertoire and general lameness of Superman as a character. Make him unreliable, dangerous, and also an infant!
After several sleepless days, in which Bob keeps his woes with the baby to himself (even from Helen), he enlists the assistance of superhero costumer Edna Mode (Brad Bird), who is more than equal to the task. All of this feels like a fine continuation of Bob’s arc from the first film. He previously experienced a crisis of malaise that led to him listening to police scanners and moonlighting as an illicit Super with his chillest buddy Frozone (Samuel L. Jackson), who is obviously back. And he decided to deal with it all by himself – leaving his family out of his loop until they were forced to power through some serious danger to save his selfish ass. And he nearly lost them for it! Bob has clearly learned from this – he’s putting his family first this time around. But his instinct to keep his woes with the baby to himself fits his character as well, and makes his struggle as a parent that much more relatable. Because let’s be honest: nobody wants to hear about your kid troubles. They’re boring and quotidian and all have essentially the same useless solution: it’s a phase! They’ll get over it. We suppress the high-stakes game of keeping tiny humans alive as something that occurs outside of civil society, away from view, and without any recourse for the people involved to complain about it (and if their spawn act up in public, you’d better believe the childless onlookers will tweet about it). And why should they complain? They chose this life for themselves. I knew I was getting ready to become a parent when babies crying in public stopped bugging me quite so much, and suffice to say, my own tenure as a father has significantly raised my threshold for making judgments on others’ parenting decisions (unless they’re anti-vaxxers, of course). But if Robert Parr, Mr. Incredible, a literal freaking superhero, is experiencing his own parenting woes and needs to ask for assistance, then maybe we can all just stand to cut ourselves and each other some parenting slack once in a while? This is an empowering message, and certainly my most positive takeaway from the film.
I’ll leave the plot dump there, as anything beyond this point is probably a spoiler. Not to say the villain – a nihilistic weirdo named Screenslaver, isn’t fun – he’s just a bit obvious. His rant midway through the film about the role superheroes play in this society feels thematically muddled, but it’s book-ended with a close-quarters fight that is visually stunning. The visuals alone would not have been a good enough reason to return to this universe, but it is true that Disney and Pixar have made some impressive technological achievements in animation in the past 14 years (their advancements in particle rendering were a big part of what made Moana and Frozen possible), and these advancements feel almost as important to the film’s existence as having a rich family adventure story to tell. Odenkirk and Keener play their roles admirably, he as the Steve Jobs pitchman, and she as the overshadowed engineer. The suite of B-List supers who join the fray are enjoyable as well, which I’m especially pleased about, as the second-string Supers in Big Hero 6 (everyone besides Hiro and Baymax) had a pretty lame suite of abilities. The mark of a good superhero matchup is clever and complimentary use of superpowers, and this is an area where Disney has clearly learned a thing or two. A particular standout is Voyd (Sophia Bush), whom I’d like to learn more about, since her awkward demeanor wasn’t explored in nearly as much detail as her power: essentially to be a portal-gun from Portal, which is put to many clever combat uses. She’s something of a foil for Violet, whose invisibility and force-field powers have also evolved in some clever ways. But while the action is entertaining and well-choreographed, it’s also fair to say that this villain feels less personal than Syndrome did in the first film. He has no particular connection to the Parrs, and his beef with superheroes comes out of nowhere. As a superheroic struggle, this feels more like the metaphor that Bob raised in the first film: that he feels like a maid who just tidied up the world, and wonders if it can just stay saved for a minute. It’s hard to complain though. This banal-but-maniacal villainy is probably the best justification for keeping the Supers legal and engaged in this world, especially since the whole Parr family saving the city from Syndrome’s giant spherical killbot – a few months ago in movie time – apparently failed to make a dent in public opinion. As long as there are ridiculous villains like the Underminer going on mad destructive capers every week, the Supers should have plenty to do.
FilmWonk rating: 7.5 out of 10