The Parr family, who fly under the moniker of “The Incredibles” in Disney-Pixar’s superhero franchise of the same name, has spent the last fourteen occupying a fuzzy, nostalgic spot in our collective pop-culture conscious. They predate the dawn of Marvel Studios and DC Films’ superhero movie explosion, yet they’ve persisted in popularity for over a decade -- enough to earn them not only a hugely anticipated sequel but their very own ride at Disneyland.
More than just the requisite Pixar magic, The Incredibles and Incredibles 2 seem to have tapped into something in the superhero zeitgeist that makes them stand out, even under the looming shadow of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. According to writer-director Brad Bird, the secret to the Parr’s continued, warm regard is the fact that they’re a family first — the superheroics are simply “a twist of lemon on top.” He’s not wrong; family units have been carving out a critically important niche in superhero stories for decades. The real question is why? What makes superheroes and family drama two great tastes that go great together?
The answer is more historical than you might expect. Most famously, the Parrs are an echo of the Fantastic Four, one of the Stan Lee/Jack Kirby joints that kickstarted what would become Marvel Comics in the 1960s. With some power modification and gender swapping, Mr. Fantastic becomes Elastigirl, The Thing becomes Mr. Incredible, and the Invisible Woman becomes Violet — even the omni-powered baby Jack-Jack has some echos of the Richards’ universe-creating son, Franklin. But the Parr’s owe their familial legacy to more than just their obvious inspirations — in fact, they’re following in the footsteps of a narrative that’s are almost as old as superhero themselves.
In 1940, during the height of the Golden Age superhero boom, new publishers Fawcett Comics introduced a character named Captain Marvel in their book, Whiz Comics. Captain Marvel was, like many new heroes at the time, a thinly veiled Superman dupe with one key difference — when not fighting crime as an super strong, super fast, magically empowered adult, he was actually Billy Batson, a preteen boy who was only able to transform into his alter ego by saying a magic word: “Shazam!”
Billy was popular on his own — he tapped into the same young reader insert niche that characters like Robin had sussed out just one year earlier — but more than that, he was a direct answer to the questions that Robin couldn’t really answer. Sure, being a kid with a superhero for a dad was cool, but what about being a kid who was the superhero dad? Step aside, Boy Wonder, Billy Batson doesn’t need to be anybody’s ward.
It was the perfect blend of four colored catnip for kids buying new comics en masse. When Billy’s wish fulfillment wasn’t enough, Fawcett artist C.C. Beck introduced the Lieutenant Marvels, a group of identically costumed sidekicks, who incidentally were also the first sidekicks ever to display the same powers as their “adult” counterpart. When Fawcett wanted to go after new demographics, Billy was given a long lost twin sister, Mary Marvel. When they wanted to up the charm factor? Talking animals, uncles, nieces — you name it. On and on the pattern went until, by 1947, the world of Fawcett Comics was stacked to the brim with Marvel and Marvel-adjacent characters, from an anthropomorphic tiger to the children of recurring supervillains.
In the Golden Age, the idea of a “shared universe” and continuity between characters didn’t actually exist, while the concept of superhero teams had only just gotten some legs with the Justice Society of America. By fleshing out a whole world full of characters who were actually related to one another, Fawcett was revolutionizing the genre before they even really knew better, and uncovering the start of an engine that would drive modern comics into the future. The Marvel Family promptly became one of the most popular (and best selling) character groups of the era. For a time, Captain Marvel even had the distinct honor of outselling Superman himself.
The Marvel Family’s success went on to inspire copycats of their own — DC (then known as National Comics) replicated the process for their entire trinity, complete with costume-wearing animal companions, super babies, wonder tots, and long lost elderly relatives. The ensuing legal battles coupled with the declining superhero market of the post-war, Comics Code Authority era saw Fawcett’s super-family empire slowly crumble until they were eventually acquired by DC themselves — though they’d never quite regained their former glory, even under a new owner.
Still, the foundation laid by Fawcett’s families and their duplicates carried through even after their descent into relative obscurity. The experiment had proved a success, despite the tragic ending: the real key to making these new fangled super people relatable wasn’t in building out their charmingly human alter egos or explaining away the “logic” of the first real superpowers, it was giving them a network of people to relate to and rely on.
Several years later, Lee and Kirby tapped into the ‘60s version of the same nerve Fawcett had exposed. Though the politics of the era had changed, and the cynicism of Vietnam had overtaken the spit-shined optimism of WW2 pop culture, the drive was the same — sure, they were a little dysfunctional and a little more brooding, but the quartet that made up the Fantastic Four scratched the family itch.
It’s somewhere between these two extremes is where we find the Parrs today, and the secret spice of their successful recipe. By plucking just enough of the warm, slightly slapstick dressing from their 1940s ancestors like the Marvels and mixing in just enough conflict and modern day “realism” like the Fantastic Four, The Incredibles have found a sweet spot in the historical makeup of superhero stories. Super families are woven right into the capes and cowls of the comics that started it all, and have since become part of the DNA that continues to build the genre. Pixar’s award winning namesake, Disney’s buying power, and major advancements in animation technology may account for some of the Incredibles franchise staying power — but at the end of the day, it’s their place in history that keeps them so fresh in fans’ minds.
Meg Downey is a freelance pop culture journalist based out of Los Angeles, California who specializes in comics history and superheroes. You can find her on twitter @rustypolished, where’s she’s probably having a very public meltdown about something extremely embarrassing.