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‘Incredibles 2’ director Brad Bird thinks our fascination with superhero stories is part of being human

‘Incredibles 2’ director Brad Bird thinks our fascination with superhero stories is part of being human
"Incredibles 2" is among the animated-feature nominees for the 91st Academy Awards. (Disney Pixar)

“Incredibles 2” writer-director Brad Bird was worried 14 years might have been a bit too long of a wait for the sequel, but that doesn’t seem to have been an issue with the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

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The film, which centers on “Incredibles” matriarch Helen Parr’s return to the superhero spotlight, was among the 2019 Oscar nominees for animated feature, along with “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse,” “Mirai,” “Ralph Breaks the Internet” and “Isle of Dogs.”

Bird admits there was a bit more pressure with this follow-up. Not only did 2004’s “The Incredibles” win the animated-feature Oscar at the 77th Awards, but there has been an exponential increase in superhero-related stories since the first film hit theaters.

“You can’t throw a rock without hitting a superhero these days,” Bird told The Times on Tuesday morning, while also sharing his thoughts on our fascination with superhero stories and why aging-up the Parr kids in a future “Incredibles” installment just wouldn’t work.

How did you hear the news this morning?

My wife woke me up. She always wakes up before me. This morning it was still dark, and she had watched the announcements online and woke me with the sweet news. It was really great coming from her because the movie is largely about Helen, the superhero mom, and that’s kind of my wife.

The first “Incredibles” won the Oscar for animated picture. How were things different this time around? Was there more pressure?

The movie took awhile to come into being. I had the core idea when we were pushing the first film of the role switch between Bob and Helen. I was worried that it might have been too long of a wait, but to have the movie embraced by everybody so nicely was really wonderful. This is just gravy on top of that.

Why do you think Helen/Elastigirl’s story resonated with audiences?

It has to do with who she is as a character. In the first minute of the first film, she said, “Leave the saving of the world to the men? I don’t think so.”

For this one to be geared more toward her was one of the pleasures of working on it. Being able to explore the professional side of her, the working side, I think was intriguing for people and certainly I had fun with that idea.

Brad Bird photographed in November 2018.
Brad Bird photographed in November 2018. (Peter DaSilva / For The Times)

How does it feel to know that “Incredibles 2” stood out among all of these other superhero movies?

Very, very gratifying, because “Incredibles” is the only superhero film that didn’t have a pre-existing fan base.

We were kind of swimming against the tide on the first film. On this film I was a little worried too much time had lapsed and the market was now oversaturated with superhero movies.

It seemed like there were too many superhero films several years ago when we first pitched the idea for this movie, and I was saying if there’s too many now, there’s going to be way too many by the time this one’s ready to be released.

I got enthused about the idea because really the core idea is more about family than the superhero aspect. The superhero genre is used as a way to comment on the institution of family, whether that’s defined as biological family or your friends. Anyone who has your back is essentially family.

That’s an idea that will always be interesting to me because it’s so universal and kind of mysterious in a way.

It was a strong year for superhero movies overall with nominations for “Incredibles 2,” “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” and “Black Panther.” Why do you think these specific stories had such an impact?

I think it has something to do with something that’s deep inside of us as a species.

Joseph Campbell has always discussed the hero’s journey. Why do we keep telling ourselves these stories of people gifted with huge powers? They’ve been around as long as stories have been around with Greek myths and all of that.

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What’s really interesting is the fact that if you go back in time far enough, there were very few ways for cultures to know what other cultures were doing, but everyone seemed to have different versions of the same stories, almost as if the stories are encoded into us.

I think it has to do with the fact that we’re the dominant species on the planet and we have this tremendous power, and yet we are constantly struggling with what to do with it. There are many positive ways to use power and there are many terrible ways to use power and we’re always struggling with that within ourselves.

I think that the superhero genre deals in some way or another with that struggle. What do you do with these powers when you have them.

I think this is the first year with two superhero movies in the animated-feature category. How does it feel to be going up against “Spider-Verse”?

It’s an honor. The film is very inventive and visually dazzling and certainly didn’t do a typical story, so it’s an honor.

Will we have to wait 14 years for another story about the Parr kids?

I think that one of the strengths of “Incredibles” is that it explores what it feels like to be certain ages that are key in your life. If you age these characters up, which for some reason everyone seems determined to do, it loses that iconic power.

One of the epiphanies I had in the original film was that I picked the superpowers of the family members based on their roles in the family.

Fathers are expected to be strong, so I made Mr. Incredible super-strong. Mothers are pulled in 20 different directions at once, so I made Helen, [as] Elastigirl, have stretching powers. Teenagers are insecure and defensive, so I had Violet’s powers be invisibility and force fields. Ten-year-old boys are energy balls, you know, so I had Dash have super speed. And babies are unknowns, so they could have no powers, which is what Jack-Jack has for most of the first film, or they can be a Swiss army knife of powers.

I think that breaks down if you just start aging people up. I think that’s actually a less interesting way to go. Everybody wants to age them up and make them all dark and broody … and to me that in itself is the cliché.

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