[Warning: this post contains major spoilers for The Incredibles 2]
There’s always more than meets the eye in a Brad Bird movie. This is true on a literal level — there’s a meticulousness to how action sequences in his movies are set up and executed — and in philosophical terms. The Incredibles may have a lot of summer superhero action in it, and Ratatouille may seem like a typical boy-and-his-dog — er, I mean rat — tale, but under the surface are bigger points about the nature of genius, and what to do with the powers that one has. The Incredibles 2 is no exception to the rule.
The film kicks into gear as Elastigirl (Holly Hunter) is made the face of a superhero image rehabilitation initiative by brother-sister duo Winston (Bob Odenkirk) and Evelyn Deavor (Catherine Keener). Winston explains that their father had been a proponent of superheroes as well, but was murdered during a robbery that could have been prevented had superheroes not been driven underground by souring public opinion. In his eyes, bringing superheroes back will make the world a safer place for all, and showing off what Elastigirl can do is their ticket back into society’s graces.
But to meet a (re-)rising superhero, there has to be a supervillain. The Screenslaver immediately throws a wrench into the works, hypnotizing people by broadcasting patterns on any available screen. The tactic echoes the repeated, 21st century take that people are too addicted to their TVs (to fit the Incredibles ‘60s aesthetic) or their cell phones, and prolonged exposure is rotting their brains, turning them into slaves of mass media and consumption.
It’d be easy to leave it at “overreliance on technology, bad!,” but the film ultimately gets at a more complex theme. The Screenslaver — who is revealed to be Evelyn — doesn’t want to take over the world so much as she wants to banish superheroes forever. As she sees it, it was her father’s reliance upon superheroes that led to his death, when he could just as easily have run from the house instead of attempting to summon them to his aid. People need to rely on themselves, instead of relying on heroes to save them.
Through Screenslaver, as well as the idea that society can adapt to survive without superheroes (the Parr family first faces conflict when it turns out that their stopping a supervillain cost the city more than if they had just sat back and let insurance take care of it), Bird comments on our own relationship to superhero movies, as well as technology. We’re enchanted by the idea that someone could swoop in and save the day, or that some magical gadget could make our lives easier, but we shouldn’t be completely dependent upon them. So where does that leave us when the Screenslaver is the villain?
The Incredibles also had a somewhat sympathetic villain. Though Syndrome (Jason Lee) now seems like an incredibly prescient comment on the toxicity that fandom can create, it’s also not difficult to relate to his wish to become, well, super, or at least level the playing field. He’s also one of the chief arguments behind theory that Bird is preaching Randian philosophy (though he himself has called it nonsense) — e.g. super deeds are best left to super people. But Bird defies that kind of black and white categorization.
The middleground between the two poles is a little easier to see in Incredibles 2 given that the Deavor siblings are designated opposites. Evelyn has valid points, but so does Winston: if someone has the power to do good, shouldn’t they use it? Elastigirl — and by proxy, the film — falls somewhere in between them. The world needs good people in it, whether they’re super or not.
The importance of intention and of kindness is an idea that’s common in Bird’s work. He’s not under any delusion as to how rare being “super” is; Amadeus, with its central struggle between Mozart’s natural genius and Salieri’s slavish practicing, has all the makings of a Bird film. But he believes in a middle, too. The in-between exists between Winston and Evelyn, and between Chef Gusteau (Brad Garrett), whose ethos is that “anyone can cook,” and Ego (Peter O’Toole), an elitist food critic, in Ratatouille. “Not everyone can become a great artist,” Ego writes, by the film’s end. “But a great artist can come from anywhere.” And just in case that went over some viewers’ heads, there’s Tomorrowland, which draws dreamers from all over the world to help make the whole world a better place.
In Incredibles 2, being super is secondary to doing what’s right, and simply being good. The villains are those who would use their powers for destruction (both Syndrome and the Screenslaver are geniuses in their own right, if not outright superheroes) and those who would seek to put a leash on that capacity for good, big or small, in others. Maybe it gets a little messy — even though Incredibles 2 runs at almost two hours, it’s a lot to pack in — but it’s pure of heart.
Karen Han is a writer based in New York City. Her work appears on Vox.com, The Atlantic, SlashFilm, and New York magazine’s Vulture.