[Warning: this post contains major spoilers for The Incredibles 2]
Beneath all the warm nostalgia and animation spectacle of Incredibles 2 is a knotted ball of thematic messages. The strangest and most topical of them has less to do with the superheroes in play and much more to do with the people surrounding them. With Bob Odenkirk’s character Winston Deavor, Incredibles 2 gave us a genuinely hopeful look at the concept of fandom, and it couldn’t have come at a better time.
From the start, Winston is a character we’re not supposed to trust. He comes into the picture as an opportunist, jumping ecstatically from his luxury limousine into the chaos caused by the villainous Underminer — seemingly oblivious to the fact that the Incredibles themselves are causing much more destruction than they are preventing.
Later, at a meeting he organizes between his sister, Evelyn, and our three adult heroes, Frozone, Elastigirl, and Mr. Incredible, Winston sports all the hallmarks of a classic duplicitous billionaire: a clean suit, a fast-talking sales pitch, and an overeager grin. It’s made even worse by Evelyn, who is decidedly not that; she’s laid back and detached, oozing with a sort of carefully cultivated cynicism that makes her feel like the trust-worthy level head of the duo.
Winston has even more going against him when you consider the franchise itself. The Incredibles positioned its villain, Syndrome, as the ultimate example of a fan who broke bad. Buck-toothed wannabe sidekick Buddy Pine displayed all the same passion and naked enthusiasm as Winston, in a slightly less polished package. In the world of Incredibles, the naked passion and obsession of the self professed fanboy is something to be scrutinized and distrusted, so of course our hackles start to rise the second Winston starts toe-tapping an a capella rendition of Mr. Incredible’s vintage theme song to him.
But Syndrome’s villainous turn fourteen years gone isn’t the only reason we’re innately skeptical of the passionate fan. Pop culture has been running with the trope of the passionate nerd-turned-megalomaniac for decades, especially in the realm of superhero stories. Characters like Superboy Prime of DC Comics fame were spun-up as transparent stand-ins for voice-cracking super-nerds who nearly tear their fictional universes apart when their own stories didn’t meet their specific demands. In some incarnations, even top-tier villains like the Joker are portrayed as fans gone wrong, spurned to violence and megalomania just to get the attention or maintain the purity of their “favorite” things.
And then there’s reality. The parable of the entitled fan predates the boom of social media, but platforms like Twitter, Tumblr, and YouTube have made the voices of the distrungled nerd louder and more obvious than ever. Perhaps fourteen years ago, Syndrome’s inevitable collision course with villainy was a surprise to audiences who, in their daily lives, wouldn’t come into contact with the archetype he represented all that often, but now? Upset fans are making headlines on a practically weekly basis.
From the Marvel Cinematic Universe to the juggernaut Star Wars franchise, pissed off fans claiming ownership of their favorite arms of pop culture have created coordinated destructive efforts that have harassed actors off Instagram, prompted attempts at mass boycotts and instigated an entire genre of conspiracy-theory spinning and blackmail. All with one specific mission statement in mind: Love of a thing equals ownership of that thing, no ifs, ands, or buts about it. The issue has even spilled out of internet harassment and into real life violence with the rise of “swatting,” or the act of calling in a police response on people fans want out of the picture.
The unfortunate side effect of these narratives, and the volume at which they’re projected now in the mainstream, is a sort of blanket distrust that settles across most fan communities. There’s pressure to distance yourself from the things that you care about, lest you be misconstrued as one of “those” fans — an impulse which quickly swings around into a sort of self conscious irony or self imposed apathy. It’s much easier to just not be outwardly passionate and remain safely at arms length from the villainous tropes of both fiction and reality than it is to take the risk of being lumped in to the loudest parts of the conversation.
This is where Incredibles 2 starts to become really subversive. Rather than eschew Winston into the roles we’re conditioned to expect for someone like him — which is to say, someone who deeply and earnestly loves something — he’s allowed to skirt through the entire movie as innocent and genuine as he presents himself. His fandom of superheroes is literally as kindhearted and well meaning as it seems on the surface. He has no ulterior motives and no master plan. Despite the low hanging fruit of his powerful position and fortune, he’s never even given a moment to talk about profits or personal gain. Winston Deavor just digs superheroes, full stop.
In contrast, his sister, Evelyn, winds up being the one with a bone to pick — but her villainous turn isn’t born of some self aggrandizing masterplan. Evelyn’s real evil is spun up from her detachment and her cynicism — the two things that fans are so frequently pressured to adapt. Unlike Syndrome, whose crime was caring too much, Evelyn doesn’t care enough — she mocks her brother’s belief in heroes as childish, she scoffs in the feelings of the hope inspired by Elastigirl, and she’s willing to sacrifice lives to prove to herself and the world that her disbelief in the superheroic cause is justified.
It’s a radical message, considering the current shape of the pop culture universe, but it’s one that we desperately need. There are ways to engage with your favorite things that don’t cause people pain. There is no inherent evil behind passion. Sometimes people really are just fans. Winston’s story isn’t going to magically solve the problem of toxic fandoms any time soon, but it is a refreshing reminder that there is a light on the other side of the tunnel. There’s more to fan culture than just an inevitable turn to villainy.
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.