This review contains spoilers.
Superhero movies are such a part of our theatergoing experience that it's easy to forget Pixar's The Incredibles riffed on the conventions of the genre before it became pervasive. The movie came out in 2004, four years before Iron Man kicked off the Marvel Comics Universe, and unlike other movies revolving around costumed crime-fighters, it focused on family dynamics. It's as much a period film as an action film. Helen (given voice by Holly Hunter) and Bob Parr (Craig T. Nelson) are superheroes Elastigirl and Mr. Incredible, who fought crime in a golden age resembling the late 1940s or early ’50s but were forced to give up their alter egos after civilians began suing superheroes for the property damage they caused and superheroes were declared illegal. Fifteen years later, Helen and Bob have moved to the 60s-era suburbs. Bob works at an insurance job he despises, while Helen has found contentment as a stay-at-home mom to their three children: teenage Violet (Sarah Vowell), who can turn invisible and create force fields; Dash, who has superspeed; and infant Jack-Jack, whose powers have yet to emerge.
The Incredibles featured great action, but director Brad Bird also knew when to keep it to a minimum and focus on the fun characters. In true Pixar fashion, the situations, some of which involved Bob and Helen's at-times tenous marriage, could be appreciated by children and adults alike. But a darker side to all this prevented me from embracing The Incredibles as so many others have. The film shows the family suffering due to forced equality with the herd. The villain, Syndrome, came to hate superheroes because Mr. Incredible had rejected him as a sidekick. But his hard work and ingenuity are no match for the Parrs' God-given abilities.
With Incredibles 2, Bird adds a new threat: women in power. Elastigirl may be the center of the movie, going out to fight crime while Bob stays home and takes care of the family. The difference is how Helen goes about her work, especially when compared to the villain, Evelyn Deavor (Catherine Keener).
Evelyn is the sister of Winston Deavor (Bob Odenkirk), a free-market enthusiast who comes to the rescue of the family after their battle with the Underminer in the last few minutes of the first movie. In keeping with the first movie's conservative themes, the police chastise the family for interfering, the media depict them as criminals, and the government condemns their activities. "Politicians don't understand people who do good just because it's right," observes Rick Dicker (Jonathan Banks), one of the only sympathetic government officials. In case the point isn't clear, a news report states that "people have more trust in monkeys throwing darts than in Congress."
A smooth-talking salesman, Winston wants to change the public perception of superheroes, and he's in a good position to do so, having been born with a superpower himself: money. He makes his case to the superheroes in a skyscraper that literally towers over the clouds. He wants to use the technology of his telecommunications company, Devtech, to allow superheroes to take control of their own narrative. Evelyn is a genius who invents much of this technology, but there are indications that she doesn't share her brother's fondness for superheroes.
Evelyn is also the one who determines that Elastigirl will be a better fit for their PR campaign, because she causes far less property damage than her husband. Helen is reluctant; when she finally accepts the offer, her family isn't just the main reason, it's the only reason. Mr. Incredible needs no reassurance or excuses to return to his old life—he loved being a superhero, and his desire to return to the life is the main reason he encourages his wife to go.
In contrast, Evelyn's motives are both more complex and depressingly simple. She harbors no ambitions to take over Devtech or do her brother's job; she just wants to be appreciated for her hard work and ingenuity. She feels undervalued compared to her brother, who can read people and sell anything to anyone. Evelyn is critical of the rampant consumerism surrounding her. Through her villainous alter ego the Screen Slaver, she hypnotizes people into doing her biding through their video screens, all the while condemning their vicarious lives. "You don't talk, you watch talk shows," the Screen Saver's eerie voice drones. "You don't play games, you watch game shows." (Why would Pixar, a company that has made innovation the centerpiece of its brand, portray innovation as so insidious?)
Elastigirl's very abilities reflect the movie's old-fashioned ideas, her extreme flexibility giving her the power to meet whatever needs arise. When Elastigirl goes after Evelyn at the climax, she does so only after receiving the approval of every other family member; throughout the adventure, she's ready to drop everything and go back to her family at the slightest hint of trouble. Bird also passes up the opportunity to explore the superpowers of young Violet, who spends the movie obsessing over a boy and looking after her brother Jack-Jack. How interesting Incredibles 2 might have been if it had delved into the power of someone who already feels invisible to society to literally vanish from it.
Because all this takes place in a mythical 1960s, it's imbued with a sense of nostalgia—yet nostalgia can blind us to the ugly realities of the past we long to reclaim. Incredibles 2 pines for the hope, the sense of adventure, and, ironically, the innovation that characterized the 60s, while the negative aspects go unacknowledged. When phrases like "make superheroes legal again" are casually thrown around, I wonder if the movie's nostalgia is less for the period than for a certain mind-set. By making Elastigirl no more than an extension of her family, Incredibles 2 regresses to a time when any power women managed to acquire was carefully controlled so as not to threaten the male order. Such nostalgia is self-defeating. v