Max DeCurtins revisits the politics of the superhero in Brad Bird’s The Incredibles and finds that the real villain isn’t Syndrome, but complacency.
It’s November in an election year. As I write this, Americans have just done what I can only describe as unthinkable: They have returned control of the Senate to the Republicans, as well as installed them in a number of House seats, governorships, and state legislatures. As I come back to this piece to tinker and revise, the New York Times reports that the extent of the damage became apparent over the course of Wednesday (incidentally, the exact release date, ten years ago, of The Incredibles, as listed by Wikipedia). Though more than a few editorialists have invoked Seinfeld’s anti-premise to describe this election, I think we all know damn well by now what this election was about: Our corruption no longer feels the need to cloak its existence; almost all major institutions of journalism have reported on the torrent of unregulated money producing substanceless attack ads. Depending on the state in which you live, this means that your television, radio, newspapers, and public spaces were essentially commandeered by Rich Persons Wishing to Remain Anonymous (RPWRA, because acronyms). That we knew perfectly well what was going on, but hadn’t the wherewithal to protest, to refuse to hold the election until the RPWRA either revealed themselves or got the hell out, speaks to the Orwellian times in which our country now finds itself. In countless interviews, the self-proclaimed Priority Number One of most voters was to escape the endless barrage of cheap political theater. It’s sensory degradation in a different guise, and when faced with dehumanizing treatment like sensory degradation, we’ll do anything to make it stop, including—in a spectacular example of misguided action—not voting.
When The Incredibles came out, we had of course just come through another election, the 2004 presidential contest between W. and then-junior Massachusetts Senator John Kerry. It was my first election after becoming eligible to vote, though I had been interested in elections since 1996. At the time, my naïve self thought the country had ample reason to boot W. out of office, and no goddamn hanging chad, idiot state Secretary of State, or court was going to fumble the true outcome of the election, this time. I think, like many, I thought that 2004 would correct the grievous error of 2000. We were wrong. The 2004 election got ugly, but in comparison with the election of 2014, it was a civil, dainty afternoon tea. We didn’t yet know it, but things like swiftboating and the odiously-named Patriot Act offered a mere taste of what would transpire over the next decade.
Complexity in discourse all but evaporated and, if anything, has seen a wider adoption of the language of violence: “death panels” and “job killers” and so on. Privacy would become the last asset of the poor and the last refuge of the RPWRA. Less than a week ago, Mitch McConnell, whose ugly mug we now have to endure for at least the next two years, stood in front of a crowd of Kentuckians and crowed that “They think they’re smarter than us, better than us.” I died a little inside. No, not a little. A lot. Somehow I’ve always thought this the kind of line only uttered in satirical sketches, political movies, and House of Cards. I think that, re-watching The Incredibles, I finally realized just how political the superhero movie is, with its reductionist take on good versus bad, on Us versus Them, and I read it now in an entirely different manner than I did ten years ago.
As we all know, superhero stories have good guys and bad guys. At first glance, the “bad guy contingent” of The Incredibles strikes many, I think, as strangely non-threatening. Syndrome, the movie’s villain, presents us with an outright formulaic explanation of what tipped him from fanboy to fanatic. Even in adulthood he still appears childish. His assistant Mirage comes off like someone paid to put on a pep rally for a political campaign: smart but bored. Against a whole family of superheroes, there’s no real sense of danger to the good guys, at least, in the eyes of this jaded re-viewer anyway. There’s enough traditional bad guy behavior to convince the younger viewers of the movie, but Pixar, famous for creating movies that can operate at two levels of complexity (one for young audiences and one for adult audiences), did something altogether different and unusually abstract for the adult viewers. What’s interesting about the villainy in The Incredibles is that it depends on a subtle idea: When everyone can boast exceptional qualities, then those qualities lose their exceptional character and cease to be meaningful, and, by extension, so do the people who possess them.
As human beings, we have an innate valuation of rare things: precious metals, gemstones, artworks, historical artifacts, and so on. I won’t hesitate to suggest that an intrinsic valuation of rare (and often unique) things defines us; indeed, it may prove an essential evolutionary characteristic of an egocentric species in possession of higher-order thinking. In the rarity of these things we see reflected our own, egocentric sense of our individual worth to the world; after all, who among you is exactly like me? I am like a gemstone: I have something brilliant and valuable to contribute to the world, I will strive to make my sparkle seen, and the world would be a poorer place without my presence. (I exaggerate, of course, and we hardly—if ever—compare our lives to coins and jewels, but we do espouse a line of thinking very similar to this as a component of self-affirmation.) I think rarity also fascinates us because it brings us closer to awareness of our own temporality; its uniqueness and durability outlasts the frail mortality of our bodies, and it surprises no-one that rarefied things have close connections to death: a tomb splendidly adorned clearly indicates, how great was this individual in life.
When it comes to imagining something rare that would confer great value on its possessor, about the most alluring thing any of us can think of is supernatural powers, whether they be of the superhero, Jedi, or Harry Potter variety. Having powers makes one a rarity; those in possession of such powers find themselves in a perpetual minority relative to the masses, whether they are the handful of outcast X-Men, the few thousand Jedi, or those pseudo-Latin-equipped Hogwarts alumni. The superheroes of The Incredibles not only possess rare superpowers, but each of them has unique abilities, cementing their super status that much more. Imagining that we have our own special superpowers marks most every childhood; we can just about all relate to wanting to be able to fly, or to disappear, to have some other preternatural ability. And yet, The Incredibles asks, what if the most fantastical and valuable thing you can imagine has no meaning? It’s a particularly terrible thought, because it leads to questions of moral equivalence and moral relativism. Does putting super power, attained through technology, up for sale to anyone willing to shell out the greenbacks really make all average Joes super, or does it just make the world a really fucking scary place where many people are trod underfoot?
On re-viewing The Incredibles, I found the political and philosophical connections too hard to ignore; the real enemy in the movie isn’t Syndrome, it’s the moral vacuum he threatens to create. It’s a life of complacent conformity; of bureaucracy; of Bob’s job at the insurance company; of government that lives and dies by public opinion, a government that can force a whole subset of people underground (or deeper into the closet); of being overrun by those who generate bogus research in order to drown out actual academic study. It’s a preoccupation with the “Us” vs “Them” dichotomy, often more perceived than real. Helen (Elastigirl) invokes this several times; she tells Violet that “right now, the world just wants us to be normal.” The real enemy is the culture of fear: though Ebola threatens only a very small area of West Africa, alarmists here clamored so loudly for an outright travel ban that—despite the opposition from educated professionals in medicine and public health—a few state governors adopted, then relaxed, ill-advised quarantine measures. We can’t know what an expert opinion in the world of The Incredibles might have recommended, but it may just have provided a counterweight to the political mob mentality that forced the supers into hiding in the first place.
I think it easy to read Syndrome’s plan to change the public’s valuation of the rarity of superpowers—and the people who possess them—as analogous to the various campaigns ongoing in the United States to devalue the work of scientists, teachers, policy researchers, and so on. What Syndrome knows that Mr. Incredible doesn’t is that context determines reality. The right—and the right-wing—in America knows this all too well, and over the course of recent decades they have succeeded in breathtaking ways at changing the tenor of the conversation on issues ranging from abortion rights to taxes, and have set up factories like the American Enterprise Institute, the Cato Institute, and the Heritage Foundation to churn out work designed to make ill-informed ideas appear as valid as well-researched ones. Linguist and political scholar George Lakoff writes that morality and politics intertwine intimately through the mediating prism of metaphor, which enables political behavior that is both highly coherent (under the surface, at least) and also deeply emotional; in less academic works he has argued that conservatives have largely outstripped liberals in controlling the context within which Americans must decide how to discern reality, and I think few would deny this assessment.
What I take away from The Incredibles is the message that being legitimately super, and not just playing at it, matters a hell of a lot. Notice that when his chance to play hero finally comes, Syndrome quickly loses to the Omnidroid of his creation; he’s sent flying out of control and crashes into a wall. When our need is dire, pretenders won’t do. And our need is dire: reversing soul-crushing levels of inequality, mobilizing against climate change, improving education, public health and health care, protecting rights such as civil marriage and its benefits and voting, among others. Hacks and spooks and bigots…the Syndromes of the world won’t do. We need people armed with the best, most thoroughly-vetted knowledge who actively seek to implement well-informed policy and who have a minimal tolerance for bullshit. We need people with, as The West Wing’s Sam Seaborn calls it, gravitas. We need people who are legitimately super, who own up to supporting morally defensible causes. The duality of good/bad always on display in superhero movies, often enough manifested as an internal struggle between two competing halves of the superhero’s id, finds itself reflected in the duality of the American electorate; every two years, a different America votes: one younger, more diverse, and overall more liberal, and one older, whiter, and vastly more conservative. And, increasingly, the one American electorate can’t abide the other. This particular election cycle has given us all the evidence we need: when money matters above all else, mediocrity and intemperateness win the day and everything—and everyone—else loses.
As for the mechanics of the movie, though The Incredibles stands the usual assumption about the cultural status of superheroes on its head, and though I think the writers meant us to find this novel, it feels relatively predictable to me. Keeping one’s superhero identity secret hardly qualifies as novel for such narratives. I can’t say it detracts too much, though, for The Incredibles excels in several ways.
Firstly, I think the most positive story in the movie belongs to Violet’s character; in a limited fashion, I can see her self-empowerment as the germ of a type of narrative that ultimately gave us Frozen. She learns that her power to disappear doesn’t have to serve in the capacity of literal self-effacement. Her two superpowers to each of her family members’ one makes her perhaps the most powerful member of her family, which underlines the importance of learning to be assertive. She learns that it’s okay to be different, and that’s a huge lesson to teach and to absorb.
Until I looked up the voice performers, I didn’t realize that the director Brad Bird, who also has 2007’s uplifting Ratatouille in his filmography, voiced Edna Mode, one of the more popular characters from The Incredibles. Knowing this has put a delightfully queer spin on Edna’s character, an impression I’d always had. The writers clearly intended for her personality to outstrip her small physical presence, yet another challenge to the reign of conformity and stereotype that the movie positions as the true evil force to be defeated, as I have explored above.
I don’t get much from any of the other characters, and some of the mild annoyances I remembered now make me wrinkle my nose in distaste. If we find complexity and something uplifting in Violet’s character, we find the exact opposite in Dash’s character, a bratty reinforcement of the idea that boys are hyperactive, unfocused problem children who don’t take interest in school. His name fits his superpower to a T, and if it weren’t for his power he’d probably have been put on Ritalin or Adderall a long time ago. Mr. Incredible himself doesn’t make for a particularly compelling character, though I suppose we could point to him as an emerging example of a different type of masculinity, one that recognizes that strength comes in many forms. To me, though, this feels like a secondary—though still worthy—message among other, more immediate ideas. So although, on re-view, most of the characters seemed rather bland, The Incredibles still holds up on the basis of two characters who have embraced non-conformity and learned to own it, Violet and Edna.
Secondly, The Incredibles has a phenomenal score, albeit one that has the unusual trait of not being especially memorable. It’s not “catchy,” which doesn’t bode well for it when so much pop music resembles processed food—specifically engineered to get you to want more of it. I’m reminded of a discussion captured in one of the special features for Peter Jackson’s adaptation of The Two Towers, the second installment in the Lord of the Rings trilogy. He’s discussing the genesis of Howard Shore’s leitmotif for the people of Rohan, and Philippa Boyens comments that she knew that Howard had succeeded in composing a great theme for Rohan when Peter, riding in a car from one remote New Zealand location to another, started to hum the theme that Howard had composed. It reveals an interesting trope about what we consider “great” music. One of the more interesting judgments applied to music is the idea that great music sticks with you; the degree to which it doesn’t leave your mind’s ear or you can recall it easily later, sometimes even after not hearing it for years, somehow defines its greatness. This naturally creates a bias against certain types of more “abstract” music, particularly music closely allied to instrumental jazz, as is the score for The Incredibles. Abstract music, which might present less identifiable themes, or might prove harmonically complex by meandering chromatically through many keys, doesn’t naturally lend itself to sticking in your ear. But music is an ephemeral phenomenon, a fact more often than not lost to us, we who have never known life without recordings. Because we can just rewind the track, or hit seek on our iPods, the incentive to listen closely to every minute of music as it unfolds just doesn’t exert the same influence it used to. Didn’t hear that word the first time, or catch that auto-tuned twang? Just play the track over and over, as many times as you need to, until you’ve heard what you want. But back to The Incredibles.
Big band music informs much of the score, but none of it follows the neatly-packaged 32-bar song format that makes other types of jazz and ballad crooning popular and easy to remember. The rest of the score, like the architecture in the movie, owes a heavy debt to spy and caper flicks of the 1960s and 70s. One can almost feel the spirit of the Rat Pack or John Barry’s work for several classic Bond movies emanating from the soundscape of The Incredibles. As with the storytelling, I marvel at the ability of the artistic teams involved with Pixar movies to create multiple layers of complexity and cultural reference for audiences of vastly different ages, and the music and the architecture certainly speak to the more seasoned viewers, and make the movie for me—neither a kid nor a Baby Boomer—a surprisingly engaging work.