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Incredibles 2

Fourteen years, folks. We’re getting a sequel to The Incredibles after fourteen goddamn years, yet the story is picking back up as if literally no time at all has passed. That’s a pretty big ask, considering how much time has passed and how much has changed in the intervening years.

We thought superhero cinema was everywhere back in 2004, following the massive successes of X-Men and Spider-Man. Little did we know that X-Men would go on to become the longest-running superhero film franchise in history, and Spider-Man would go through another two reboots in the following years. That isn’t even getting started on the Great Marvel Experiment — Iron Man had been given up for lost in development hell back in 2004, and nobody dared to dream of anything on the scale of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. This is back when a Justice League movie or a World’s Finest movie still sounded like a good idea, for God’s sake.

Animation technology and cinema are light-years ahead of where they were back then. The entire Kung Fu Panda franchise has come and gone in the time since. How to Train Your Dragon didn’t come out until a good six years after The Incredibles, and that franchise is wrapping up in just a few months. Despicable Me and those ubiquitous goddamn Minions took over the world in less time than it took for us to get an Incredibles sequel. Ditto for Disney Animation with Frozen, and those guys were in the gutter during the Pixar heyday of 2004. Pixar is doing pretty well now, but not after a slump that yielded its first-ever indisputable flop. (Does anyone even remember The Good Dinosaur?) To say nothing of Pixar mastermind John Lasseter’s ouster, following a wave of sexual harassment scandals throughout Hollywood.

Barack Obama wasn’t even a US Senator when the first movie came out. Donald Trump was still nothing more than a pop culture punchline. The phrase “One Percent” was effectively meaningless. The Great Recession, the housing crash, the bank bailouts, the auto bailouts, Hurricane Katrina… these were all well beyond the visible horizon back in 2004. But they’ve shaped the world in a way that has dated The Incredibles in some sadly unfortunate ways.

After Captain America: Civil War, the film adaptation of Watchmen, and pretty much the entire failed DCEU attempt, the concept of bringing accountability to superpowered individuals is no longer a novel concept in mainstream cinema — in fact, the ground has been well and deeply tread by this point. The difference is that these other movies were framed in the context of metahumans who wanted the trust and freedom to save people and make the world a better place as only they could. By contrast, The Incredibles was about superhumans who wanted to use their powers openly and freely just because. It’s a subtle difference, but an important one.

The distinction becomes even more crucial upon consideration of the “villain”, whose grand plan was nothing more than to help ordinary people achieve superhuman feats. Granted, achieving those ends through staging a citywide disaster to make himself look like a hero was a total dick move, and killing superheroes one by one didn’t help his case at all. But when Syndrome talked about releasing gadgets and cures to make it so anyone with any disability could be superhuman, making it so humanity as a species could be so incredibly powerful that “supers” would become obsolete, and that monologue is framed as a “villain speech”, it raises a few red flags.

Equality is a huge, HUGE issue in a way that it wasn’t in the mid-aughts. Seriously, just try and count how many post-2004 movies were about divides in class, race, sexuality, etc. Just look at the headlines and the protests we’ve seen in the time since. A lot of ink has been spilled about the Objectivist overtones in The Incredibles, and that’s never going to fly in today’s climate. To wit: Brad Bird’s Tomorrowland — released only three years ago — was basically a retro sci-fi reimagining of Galt’s Gulch, and that movie bombed.

Even so, The Incredibles is still listed among Toy Story, Finding Nemo, and Monsters Inc. among the instant classics in Pixar’s Golden Age. In spite of the iffy thematic material, it’s still a fun and stylish movie centered around a beautifully authentic family dynamic.

The good news is that everything that was great in the first movie is even better in Incredibles 2. First and foremost, the family dynamic between the Parrs is still beautifully authentic, with squabbling, struggles, and means of support that ring perfectly true. Even without the superpowers involved — which automatically raise the stakes and make the characters more interesting — the scenes of family dinner bickering, sibling rivalry, adolescent rebellion, and parenting struggles are presented with so much humor and heart that the characters would still be instantly compelling. It speaks to Brad Bird’s immense talent as a storyteller that through clever writing, staging, and film editing, he could take something so mundane and make it so consistently entertaining. Seriously, who else could put so much everyday family drama into a multimillion-dollar tentpole summer action blockbuster and get away with it?

Naturally, this comes part and parcel with the perennial Pixar theme of male obsolescence. You see, The Incredibles’ recent activities have inspired a hotshot billionaire (Winston Deavor, voiced by Bob Odenkirk) and his sister/business partner (Evelyn Deavor, voiced by Catherine Keener) to launch a massive PR campaign that will revitalize the image of superheroes and make supers legal again. The catch is that such an ambitious campaign has to start small, and it’s better to put all the focus on one superhero instead of spreading efforts and attention too thin. Since Helen “Elastigirl” Parr (voiced once again by Holly Hunter, who clearly sounds a decade too old for the part) is the most photogenic of the available supers, and her power set tends to create the least collateral damage, she’s the natural choice to go out crimefighting.

The catch, of course, is that she’s out doing her job and saving the world while Bob Parr (Craig T. Nelson, once again) is stuck at home watching the kids. It’s a reversal of the status quo that was long in place at the time of the first movie, and it’s tough for the two parents to adapt. Helen is still quite visibly struggling to balance work and family, constantly worrying about her kids and dealing with ill-timed phone calls from home while she’s on the job. But Bob is having a much harder time of it. While he wants to be proud of his wife, he wants to be out there saving people in a world that quite possibly may have outgrown him. It also doesn’t help that Bob doesn’t really know how to be a single father, and the job is wiping him out.

The man used to work as an insurance adjuster — with an encyclopedic knowledge of the bureaucracy and how to destroy it — but he can’t figure out his son’s math homework the way Dashiell’s teachers are trying to teach it. Violet (Sarah Vowell, who still voices a surprisingly convincing teenager) is acting out because her superpowered life has impacted her love life in too many ways for me to get into here, and Bob doesn’t know how to fix the damage. That isn’t even getting started on Jack-Jack and Bob’s many sleepless nights dealing with the baby, but we’ll come back to that.

(Side note: Dashiell Parr is voiced this time by Huck Milner. Apparently, Spencer Fox aged out and Pixar didn’t even give him a voice-over cameo like they did for Alexander Gould in Finding Dory. Shame.)

Then we have the action scenes, which were definitely a highlight of the original movie, and those of the sequel are no less impressive. The pacing is wonderful, the fight scenes are stellar, and the chase scenes are phenomenal. I was particularly fond of the Elasticycle, which separates into two independently moving parts, using Elastigirl’s power in beautifully creative ways. But even that’s only part of what will instantly endear me to any superhero movie: The sight of so many different power sets coordinating and conflicting in new and unexpected ways.

The sequel introduces a sizable host of other superpowered people, all driven underground by the law and encouraged by Elastigirl to come out. Easily the most prominent example is Voyd (voiced by Sophia Bush), who can make portals — like in the Steam game, but without the gun. Other highlights include Krushauer (Phil LaMarr), who can telekinetically crush things; and Helectrix (LaMarr again), who can create electric shocks. There are many other newcomers, and of course we still have Frozone (Samuel L. Jackson) back in the mix.

The Incredibles, Frozone, and all these new additions have creative power sets utilized in jaw-dropping ways. Watching the different power sets aiding, counter-acting, and counter-counter-acting each other made for some of the greatest scenes in the whole movie. But then there’s Jack-Jack.

As the previous movie and the “Jack-Jack Attack” short film established, Jack-Jack is catastrophically unpredictable as to which powers he can use and when. On the one hand, this helps explain Bob Parr’s deteriorating health and mental state, as he stays up all night trying and failing to keep up with an infant son who doesn’t know his own powers or how to control them. This unpredictability also makes for some highly entertaining scenes — his fight with a raccoon is great fun, and his interplay with Edna Mode (voiced once again by Brad Bird himself) is a showstopper.

(Side note: Keep an ear out for Bird’s sons, Michael and Nicholas — the former reprises his role as Violet’s love interest while the latter voices “Monster Jack-Jack”.)

The downside, of course, is that Jack-Jack has the miraculous ability to conjure whatever superpower he needs in the moment. He is an all-purpose plot device, capable of slowing the characters down or helping them in whatever way is necessary at the time. This wasn’t exactly a problem in the first movie, as he was offscreen through most of the runtime and his powers didn’t manifest until the movie was practically over anyway, but here? It’s really hard to ignore how Jack-Jack is miraculously able to do whatever the plot needs him to at any given time, with no defined limits or consequences.

The Incredicar is a similar case in point. After a brief but amusing setup, Mr. Incredible’s old car resurfaces with the ability to be anywhere the characters need it to be, and instantly do anything it needs them to. As with Jack-Jack, the Incredicar may not be a deus ex machina in the strict technical definition of the phrase, but even one such infinitely useful plot device would look like lazy storytelling. Two in the same movie is just plain sloppy.

Then we have our villain. The Screenslaver is a mysterious figure who uses televisions, cell phones, computers… basically, he can hack anything with a screen and use it to broadcast hypnotic commands. A mind-controlling supervillain in a world full of superpowered people is a wonderfully sinister concept, and one that takes actual brains to defeat instead of simply punching something really hard. The possibility of superheroes under villainous mind control opens up all sorts of exciting possibilities, and it’s immensely satisfying how the movie utilizes that. Also, the Screenslaver’s various methods of hypnosis are surprisingly inventive and dazzling to watch.

The obvious drawback is that there are really two Screenslavers: Before and after the unmasking. Initially, the Screenslaver has a lot to say about how we act and consume through mass media, but there’s no reason to pay attention when we all know it’s an act and it won’t mean jack shit when the villain’s true identity and motives are revealed. Sure enough, the reveal happens, and it’s such a disappointment.

(Side note: I suppose there’s a third villain, as John Ratzenberger returns to voice the Underminer in the opening action scene. Unfortunately, the Underminer escapes to places unknown and he’s never heard from again. Way to botch the lead-in, guys.)

Setting aside how lamely predictable the big reveal was, it raises the point that superheroes could potentially make people complacent. If supers were made legal, what’s to stop non-supers from depending on them for every little thing? It’s a legitimately interesting point that the movie does absolutely nothing to address. Any kind of deeper argument is limited to “the villain believes this and the villain is bad, so this must be bad.” Sorry, but that’s just not enough.

Oh, and one of the heroes takes a shot that absolutely should have left the villain stone fucking dead, but the villain somehow miraculously survives. Okay. Whatever.

The franchise’s recurring theme of conflict between the individual and the collective is put into much sharper focus here, but the filmmakers sadly have no idea what to do with it. Every time the characters raised some point about politicians with more ego than sense or whether unjust laws should be changed or broken, the filmmakers promptly dropped the argument without making a point. It got to be deeply frustrating.

Also, the Incredibles are a family of superheroes working with the Deavor siblings. Two families working together to try and save the world, and this family-centric movie never comments on that once. What a massive waste.

(Side note: Speaking of non-super supporting characters, we don’t even get a passing mention of Mirage, voiced by Elizabeth Pena in the previous film. Pity — I thought she was a solid character and I would’ve liked to know more about what happened to her.)

For miscellaneous notes, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the production design. The 1960s “Jetsons-esque” sci-fi aesthetic was just a neat little touch in the first movie, but it reaches dizzying heights in the sequel. Every single set is bursting with personality, and many have moving parts that contribute to jokes or fight scenes. The whole movie looks jaw-dropping from start to finish, with creative camera movements and pitch-perfect editing on top of the fluid animation and sensational design work. And I can’t possibly overstate the impact that Michael Giacchino had — he hasn’t composed a score this mind-blowingly awesome in a very long time.

(Side note: I suppose I should address Bao, the new Pixar short that screens before the movie proper. The film is about an old woman who cooks up some bao, and as soon as she bites into one, it starts screaming like a baby. When that happened, I checked out so hard that I spent ten minutes trying to drown out everything with a constant unbroken stream of “WHATTHEFUCK WHATTHEFUCK WHATTHEFUCK WHATTHEFUCK WHATTHEFUCK WHATTHEFUCK–“)

Incredibles 2 suffers from some lazy storytelling, and the franchise’s elitist streak is questionable for being wishy-washy instead of being definitive. Otherwise, this is a fantastic sequel that successfully builds on the humor, heart, and thrills of the first movie. I love the world-building, the new superheroes are all wonderful, every single action scene is breathtaking from start to finish, the central Parr family dynamics give the movie a strong beating heart, and the retro flair lends the movie a great deal of personality. The dialogue is aces, the visuals are sterling, and the score is insanely good.

There is so much comedy and heartfelt drama here that the film is always entertaining, even in its weakest moments. This is absolutely worth a big-screen watch.

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