Being a superhero is, for the most part, a grimly singular endeavour.
Sure, Marvel’s crop of cinematically-popular fighters of evil and catastrophe such as Thor, Black Widow, Iron Man and the like come together when needed as The Avengers, and even Batman, Superman and a cameo-like Wonder Woman have joined forces (to box office dismay alas), but generally speaking it’s one for one and all for one.
Not so, in Pixar’s 2004 affectionate homage/benign parody The Incredibles where the entire family has the powers, the costumes and the chutzpah to take down the bad guys.
Well, eventually anyway.
At the start, it’s very much everyone doing their own thing – with the exception of the children Violet (Sarah Vowell), Dash (Spencer Fox) and Jack-Jack (Eli Fucile and Maeve Andrews) who can be forgiven for not participating on account on not yet being born – with Mr. Incredible / Bob Parr (Craig T. Nelson) and Elastigirl / Helen Parr (Holly Hunter) confronting the evils that insist on invading the ’60s-retro-flavoured urban idyll in which they live.
When we meet them, of course, Mr. Incredible is, unbeknownst to us at the same time racing off, dapper in his tux, racing off to his wedding with Elastigirl; it’s a big deal for the man is smitten beyond hope but even so he can’t help stopping to help multiple people in trouble.
All very noble of him and superhero-like but it delays him, earning him a rebuke from Elastigirl who is feisty, independent and not afraid to speak her mind, but more concerning in the long run, a number of lawsuits from people who don’t appreciate how good they have it with “Supers in town. (One, in particular, that is insightfully amusing is the man who was suiciding off a building and sues because Mr Incredible stopped him dying; it’s funny sure, but also makes a sage point about the USA’s current litigious society.)
Those lawsuits, and countless others lodged by ungrateful citizens force superheroes like The Incredibles, and their friend Frozone aka Lucius Best (Samuel L. Jackson) into hiding, something they can do with relative ease since their masks, which are laughably small and hide nothing (just like their Marvel and DC counterparts), have protected their anonymity.
The anti-Supers movement consigns Bob and Helen to a suburban existence which is no worse or better than anyone else’s 9-to-5 existence.
Bob has a tedious job working for an HMO, one he continually subverts by helping denied claimants find some justice in an inherently un-just system, and he spends his nights out with Lucius fighting crime rather than bowling (with some messy results), effectively making his superhero-dom a closeted activity, but he has a loving relationship with his wife (mostly), three kids who have their issues thanks to denied use of their powers, and just general kid stuff, and a family life a thousand times better than the likes of Batman who goes home to brood in his manor when his crimefighting shenanigans are over.
But Bob can’t see how good he’s got it, and while you can well understand why he’s frustrated and upset with his status as part of a collective public enemy #1, The Incredibles is all about affirming how good a life Bob has and why he should be valuing the best thing about it instead of sullenly carping and complaining.
Not that this deeply-clever, parody-rich film comes out and says that in so many ways of course.
It’s far too sophisticated a piece of storytelling for that, instead letting Bob, Helen and the entire family, who end up fighting Syndrome aka Incrediboy aka Buddy Pine (Jason Lee), a spurned would-be sidekick of Mr Incredible’s – in reality an over-zealous teenage fan in the old pre-banned days who grows up, after MR Incredible rather brusquely declines his services, as an aggrieved tech-augmented super bad guy adult – on a Bond villain-esque island (complete with volcano, monorail and a plan to sort of take over a city) and back home.
It’s got everything we’ve come to expect from modern superhero films – an over-explaining bad guy (they call it “monologuing”, a shared joke between superheroes about how their opponents have to explain everything), an offshore lair, a rocket speeding towards innocent civilians, a skyscraper-bashing battle downtown and a robot!
What makes it really impressive is that it predates the current crop of MCU and DCU films by some four years, drawing on old comic strip constants and Bond movies (everything from the music to the clothes to the urban landscape), honouring them and making merry with them in equal measure.
Apart from the core cast of the Parr family, The Incredibles soars on the back of its secondary characters who, let’s be honest, come damn close to stealing the proceedings out from under Bob and Helen.
The standout is Edna Mode (Brad Bird, who wrote and directed the film) as the fashion designer to the Supers who is incurably cool, stylish, witty and the very epitome of calm, measured, self-assurance; she also has some of the best lines in the film, an amusing foil to the seriousness of other parts of the film.
Still, even when it is being super-serious, and it don’t come more serious than saving your family and the city in which you live, The Incredibles has huge amounts of fun.
The kids, with the eldest two grappling with the usual teenage issues albeit with a distinctly secret superhero twist, act just like you’d expect teenagers too; yes, they rise to the occasion and together as a family save the say, but there’s some hilarious recalcitrance, some understandable crises of confidence and some ill-advised, immature dashing into the fray that causes more trouble than might otherwise have been engendered.
The scenes between Bob and Helen – the latter, you won’t be surprised, is the real hero of the piece, her husband’s extracurricular superhero-dom aside, and is justly celebrated as such in a story that is feminist without making a big deal about it; in truth, it simply gives Helen every bit, if not more, ability and nouse as her husband which is exactly as it should be, and in reality, is – are gems too, alternating between love, exasperation and zingers that speak to the intimacy between the two partners in fighting crime.
The parodic elements are spot-on, making merry with the dangers of superheroes wearing capes, the easy to mock pomposity of baddies and the whole superhero milieu even as it honours it with great affection, but what really sets this film apart, which is even better than I remember it 14 years after the first viewing, is the is its great big, red spandex-clad heart.
Like many Pixar films, it is epically and effortlessly emotionally-resonant without making a big city-flattening issue of it, giving us some beautifully articulated instead into the gender divide, the oft-fraught career vs. home balance, internal family dynamics and the ease with which society can blame the Other, in this case superheroes like our titular family, for their own self-generated ills.
The Incredibles is, in short, the total package – witty, clever, visually lush, character-rich and dialogue savvy that manages to both celebrate and lampoon the genre it gloriously inhabits, all while reminding us, and yes, we do need reminding since familiarity can breed ill-deserved contempt, that we actually have it pretty good.
That, and we don’t have past nemeses and giant AI robots crashing up our home which, when you think about it, is a pretty big win too.