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How the dazzling, overstuffed ‘Incredibles 2’ holds up a cracked mirror to present-day reality

How the dazzling, overstuffed ‘Incredibles 2’ holds up a cracked mirror to present-day reality
A scene from the movie "Incredibles 2." (Disney / Pixar)

One of the first things you notice in “Incredibles 2” — and if you haven’t had the pleasure of seeing it, you should do so before reading any further — is that no time appears to have elapsed since the events of the first “Incredibles.” Fourteen years may have gone by since the release of writer-director Brad Bird’s Oscar-winning hit, but the sequel picks up right where its predecessor’s cliffhanger ending left off, with the Parr family — Bob, Helen and their kids, Violet, Dash and Jack-Jack — leaping back into the fray.

It’s a testament to the power of animation, of course, that this is possible. “Incredibles 2” is hardly the only recent example of a beloved American screen family making a long-deferred comeback, but unlike their live-action counterparts on “Fuller House” or the evolving reboot of “Roseanne,” the Parrs haven’t aged a day. If anything, the wonders of digital nipping and tucking ensure that they look even better than before.

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And the story that Bird has devised for them, while considerably more elaborate, resembles the first in general outline. Once again these “supers” seek redemption from a world that has outlawed their powers and forced them to hide behind their average-Joe identities. And once again they are duped by a villain hiding behind a smile and a seductive job opportunity — this time for Helen/Elastigirl rather than Bob, who reluctantly sets Mr. Incredible aside and takes on the role of Mr. Mom.

The sudden plunge back into familiar narrative territory feels both a little eerie and entirely welcome. The distinct period setting and sleek, angular design of the first “Incredibles,” with its Midcentury Modern home furnishings and retro-futuristic architecture, made it the jauntiest, most American of Pixar masterworks. The sequel’s ’60s touches are even more whimsically pronounced: One of the perks of Helen’s new crime-fighting gig is a real-estate upgrade for the family (less “Brady Bunch,” more Frank Lloyd Wright).

But the changes that have befallen the Parrs are more than merely lifestyle-related. The world beyond the slick, escapist parameters of the movie screen is not the same world that greeted “The Incredibles” in 2004, and beneath its period trappings and upbeat mood, “Incredibles 2” seems slyly aware of the difference.

It is, make no mistake, a delightful entertainment, an ingenious hybrid of action caper and domestic comedy that’s every bit as hilarious and human-scaled as its predecessor. But it is also a messier, more unwieldy piece of storytelling, a grab-bag of topical talking points — feminism and vigilantism, technology and commerce, media and politics — that seems to embody, and at times succumb to, the confusion of our turbulent present. If this is 1962, then it also seems to be feeding us blips of data from 2018, which register as quickly as retinal imprints. The afterimages are fleeting, but fascinating.

Siblings Evelyn and Winston Deavor (voiced by Catherine Keener and Bob Odenkirk) in a scene from "Incredibles 2."
Siblings Evelyn and Winston Deavor (voiced by Catherine Keener and Bob Odenkirk) in a scene from "Incredibles 2." (Disney/Pixar)

The giddily overstuffed plot hinges on two wealthy sibling entrepreneurs, Winston and Evelyn Deavor, who set out to help the Parrs change their public image and “make superheroes legal again” — a slogan with a suspiciously Trumpian echo. The Deavors hope to accomplish this by equipping Elastigirl’s suit with a hidden camera whose footage will demonstrate and vindicate her every heroic move. (The evocation of police body cameras is an angle the film could have spent more time pursuing: It’s fascinating to consider that a device used to keep law enforcement accountable might also be exploited in service of pro-vigilante propaganda.)

“Incredibles 2” is hardly the first picture to grapple with the notion that the proper pursuit of justice requires a measure of public and civic appeasement. The epic clashes of will and ego in “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice” and “Captain America: Civil War” similarly raised the question of whether the government should impose limitations on the exercise of superhero powers, in light of widespread public disagreement as to whether those powers were being wielded responsibly.

Damage must be controlled, and laws must be obeyed. But what is a super to do, as Bob argues with Helen in “Incredibles 2,” if the laws are prejudiced against his kind to begin with? Isn’t it a necessary form of civil disobedience to reject a law that is unjust? That question harks back to the libertarian streak that many detected in the first “Incredibles,” and it is no less provocative for being repeated here. Familiar though its pleasures may seem, this is a sequel that both avoids and complicates the comforts of simple nostalgia.

Political divides

And besides, was the first “Incredibles” ever so comforting to begin with? That picture was released in November 2004, shortly after the reelection of President George W. Bush amid what was then considered (ha!) the most bitterly contentious political season in recent memory. And despite the typically universal, bipartisan appeal of Pixar’s output, the response to “The Incredibles” in some circles seemed to further inflame the nation’s red-versus-blue polarities.

A scene from the 2004 movie "The Incredibles."
A scene from the 2004 movie "The Incredibles." (Associated Press)

The movie’s conservative appeal went beyond its dryly affectionate portrait of Middle American suburbia. For many, its depiction of an ordinary-yet-extraordinary nuclear family defending itself against its enemies carried an unmistakable resonance in the wake of 9/11 and the nascent war on terror. When Helen warned Violet about the dangers ahead of them (“Doubt is a luxury we can’t afford anymore, sweetie”), some couldn’t help but hear an echo of Bush’s absolutist rhetoric, one that struck you as either righteous or insidious, depending on your political persuasion.

Some critics went further to note the possibility of an Objectivist reading of Bird’s movie: Here was a story, after all, about literally superhuman individuals being sapped of their potential by the unremarkable, untalented masses. The suggestion that Bird was some sort of closet Ayn Rand disciple eventually calcified into received wisdom, though I’ve never had much use for it myself. Like the director’s other Pixar triumph, “Ratatouille” (2007), “The Incredibles” may allow that some individuals are innately gifted, but it also insists that those gifts, far from being allowed to flourish at any cost, must be tempered and nurtured through creativity, humility and public service.

Bird himself has since denied any associations with Rand’s philosophy, and he goes out of his way to assert the point in “Incredibles 2,” in which the closest thing to an Objectivist diatribe is pointedly stuffed into the mouth of a villain. Still, I couldn’t help but flash back on the old debate not long after seeing “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?,” Morgan Neville’s marvelous sleeper-hit documentary portrait of Fred Rogers, whose pioneering TV show “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” hit the airwaves during the same mid-’60s era satirized by the “Incredibles” movies.

Not every commentator shared Rogers’ belief in the unique inner worth of every child, and some accused him of raising a singularly spoiled, entitled pre-millennial generation of what would be dismissed today as “snowflakes.” Mr. Incredible himself might have agreed, at least at first. Resentful that he and his family were forced to stifle their superpowers, he spent much of the first movie railing against a society that seemed inclined to celebrate and encourage mediocrity at every turn.

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The irony of his position is that, where the business of Hollywood entertainment is concerned, there may be no clearer example of mass mediocrity these days than the superhero movie. Far from seeming extraordinary, men and women in capes, masks and electronic suits have now become avatars of the unimaginative and the commonplace — a development that Bird and his collaborators could hardly have anticipated.

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Superhero overload

It is strange to recall that the first “Incredibles” arrived a year before the launch of Christopher Nolan’s “Dark Knight” trilogy and four years before Iron Man kicked off the Marvel Studios franchise. In the past 14 years an entire cinematic cosmos has taken shape, a veritable supernova of superhero content that seems happy to expand and expand, with no signs of collapsing anytime soon.

Superhero franchise fatigue, in other words, is one of the many real-world villains that “Incredibles 2” must contend with. What might have seemed fresh, witty and subversive in 2004 certainly ran the risk of feeling stale and tired in 2018. (Who would disagree with Violet when she declares, “Boys are jerks and superheroes suck”? Not me.) But Bird, with characteristic stealth, not only avoids that fatigue but positions his movie as a corrective. Within the narrative context of 1962, he reverse-engineers a layered meta-critique of our 21st-century status quo.

The chief villain in “Incredibles 2,” a dastardly tech whiz named Screenslaver, can hypnotize anyone within reach of a TV screen — a power that speaks potently to the addictions of the 21st century, with its handheld devices and content-streaming services. The accusatory words that Screenslaver directs at the public might just as well apply to us: We are a race of unthinking, uncritical zombies, intellectually complacent and physically lazy, overly reliant on superheroes, or at least superhero narratives, for our edification and entertainment.

That tension builds to a casual but loaded conversation between Elastigirl and Evelyn Deavor, the gifted inventor working behind the scenes of her brother Winston’s PR offensive. With a mixture of cynicism and spiritedness to thrill the business-school grads in the audience, the two women wryly debate the commercial realities of selling a superhero, especially in a market where advertising tends to eclipse the quality, or even the purpose, of the product being manufactured.

If there is a more spot-on description of the American movie industry — or a more thoughtful, pointed conversation in a recent Hollywood blockbuster — I haven’t heard it. The fact that two women are having the conversation makes it even more remarkable, and it serves as a reminder that, amid the many overlapping virtues of “Incredibles 2,” its forthright, matter-of-fact feminism should not go unnoticed.

Elastigirl (voiced by Holly Hunter) in a scene from the movie "Incredibles 2."
Elastigirl (voiced by Holly Hunter) in a scene from the movie "Incredibles 2." (Disney/Pixar)
Wonder women

Elastigirl is unambiguously the action star of this sequel, and Winston chooses her to lead his pro-superhero campaign for purely pragmatic reasons: She saves the day more efficiently, and with far more finesse, than her husband. It’s a plot development that seems more revolutionary in the context of 1962, with its relatively constrained gender roles, than it does in 2018, a time when female-centric action movies, from “Wonder Woman” to “Mad Max: Fury Road,” are happily in the ascendant.

Still, progress is progress. It’s worth noting that the success of “Incredibles 2” has coincided with a startling moment of #MeToo reckoning for Pixar, one that has tarnished or at least complicated its status as the animation industry’s gold standard. The studio will soon part ways with its longtime chief creative officer, John Lasseter (an executive producer on “Incredibles 2”), following allegations of inappropriate workplace behavior. Those allegations were compounded last week when Variety published a damning account by Cassandra Smolcic, a former Pixar graphic designer, testifying to an open culture of toxic masculinity and rapacious sexism within the company’s ranks.

An analysis of a movie studio’s practices, drawing connections between internal strife and creative output, falls beyond my critical purview. Suffice to say that no one at this point should be shocked to learn that a company with a questionable corporate culture has somehow managed to produce a string of great films and a few legitimate masterpieces.

“Incredibles 2” may be too thematically ragged to be counted among the latter, but there is something undeniably poignant, even heroic, about its struggle for deeper meaning. Bird, an auteur whose own thematic obsessions have long transcended even the Pixar brand, once more demonstrates that he has few peers when it comes to merging cinematic spectacle with the cinema of ideas.

His movie works its way toward a troubled but strangely optimistic vision of the world — 1962-adjacent, but 2018-conversant — where women wield real power and autonomy, where media honesty can stir meaningful political change, and where, against all odds, cartoon crime-fighters prove newly worthy of our time and investment. Sound too good to be true? Perhaps it is. But for two hours, he makes optimism credible again.

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