“The Incredibles 2” (2018): A Super Family Reunion
There’s something about this movie that bothers me. It’s not a flaw per se, nor an issue that reveals some kind of rot or wrongheadedness in this story’s core. Quite the contrary – The Incredibles 2 is near flawless – still as true to its family ethic as you remember from the first movie fourteen years ago. And that’s just it. It’s… timing?
Let me step back.
When critics talk about a movie’s “timing,” they’re usually making a political, culture-war kind of argument that’s almost always frivolous, ignorant, and – most importantly – not real film criticism. Earlier this year, Eli Roth’s Death Wish remake, a movie I liked very much, was panned not because of all that many gripes with its quality but because it was a chance for the critical press and other such useless mouthpieces of political insolence and condescension to put on their anti-2A armbands and sneer at their favorite outgroups. This is not the kind of strange timing I’m talking about.
I’m talking about the kind of timing that elevates good movie to a status of greater (apolitical) cultural ubiquity. Sam Raimi’s original Spider-Man is a good film no matter when it releases, but it wouldn’t have resonated so profoundly with the entire nation at large the way it did in 2002 were it not for the very specific post-9/11 catharsis it offered us simply through its natural integrity. Same goes for the original Star Wars, which owes so much of its immediate, shattering impact to what Armond White called the post-Vietnam ambivalence of an entire generation.
The Incredibles is one of the absolute greatest ever superhero movies, remaining at the peak of the genre alongside The Dark Knight, and Spider-Man 2. Yet one of the strangest things about it is how utterly timeless it is. If you were to give it a complete appraisal, no doubt it would include a discussion of its Nietzschean foundation.
But you wouldn’t spend much time on its relationship to any 2000s zeitgeist-specific event, moment, mood, or backdrop. It has none. It could’ve come out a decade earlier or later and it just fits.
So while it might seem jarring to some that The Incredibles 2 took fourteen years to make, yet commences approximately five seconds after the ending of the first film, that’s not what I find strange about it. What I find strange is the fact that in the fourteen years since the first, the genre has exploded and run the gamut from Christopher Nolan’s brooding realism to the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s comical serialization to the baffling franchise failures of the DC Universe, and the growing inclusion of all the odd delights in between… yet The Incredibles 2 doesn’t care. It proceeds without the slightest cognizance of this new landscape. Sure, it shares in certain moments a parallel or two with other genre staple movies that came out within that time, but otherwise, it acts as though the rest of the genre never came into fruition. That’s weird.
Weirder is that it works. I am certain that the movie I watched on the June 6 premiere was a very good one – maybe one of the best of the year. But my first thought upon writing this review was a fretting over whether we’re in a position to truly appreciate it as such, given the growth of the genre all around it.
The brilliance of the first Incredibles movie lies in how it seamlessly fuses basic family integrity with individual empowerment against social mediocrity. The anxious yet loving Parr family (an ironic name if ever there was one) feels the oppression of the herd morality, beautifully dramatized in familial maturity. Their Fantastic 4-like powers symbolized their age, roles, and states of mind: Herculean strength for the bread-winning super-dad, elastic flex for the multitasking stay-at-home mom, invisibility for the awkward, moody teenage girl, and super-speed for the rambunctious and impatient young boy. Each struggled in their own way with the angst of being gifted in a world of bureaucrats and stuck-up authority figures that have sued their gifted kind out of open existence. And the villain they faced was a disaffected egalitarian, envious of their greatness that he didn’t possess. The Incredibles defied the modern self esteem movement’s “everyone is special” lie, but in non-indulgent ways that made the character struggles feel ordinary and relatable, not just naturally perfect in ways human beings aren’t.
So I’m sure I’m surprising no one by saying that The Incredibles 2 is not as incredible as the first. There is no moment matching the adrenaline thrills of “GO LONG!” nor any as heartfelt as Mr. Incredible’s family confession in Syndrome’s captivity. It’s also less thematically ambitious than the first, going for a classic Orwellian archetype of villainy in one way and then later another. And if you’re hoping for some kind of epic comic blockbuster kind of Avengers-level showdown with a celebration of powers on full display, you should temper your expectations just a bit.
Oh you’ll get a display of powers for sure – probably the best you’ve ever see in any movie in superhero history. It’s a tour-de-force of animated action comedy – the kind of thing you’d find in an old monster fetish movie by Guillermo del Toro, Peter Jackson, or Sam Raimi, and recalls a money quote by Hannah Arendt that would spoil it if I gave it away. You’ll know the moment when you see it.
If there’s a formulaic element to The Incredibles 2, it’s solely in the sense that the structure and style of the first is replicated without equal effect. Forced back into painful normalcy after an epic battle, one member of the Parr family gets a job offer to make use of superpowers and relive the glory days while the other stays at home and plays the babysitter, until that member ends up entangling with a close-to-home villain that draws the rest of the family into action. This time it’s Elastigirl (Holly Hunter), roped into playing the Spider-Man type public hero in a mass PR campaign by a rich tech tycoon who wants to make supers legal again. Outfitted with a body camera that lets the public see how awesome and careful she is as the least destructive super in the family, Elastigirl gets to shine as the new iconic face of supers.
In addition to a handful of minor-league supers, the newcomers (and aforementioned tech tycoon) are Winston and Evelyn Dever (Bob Odenkirk & Catherine Keener respectively), whose father was strongly connected with two former, now-deceased supers. Their motivations stem from a pivotal event in their lives that each sibling interprets differently.
Speaking of something interpreted differently, it seems that The Incredibles 2 opted to interpret the final fight with Syndrome in the first film as one where apparently no one noticed that Jack-Jack has superpowers. I’m not sure this was the smartest story decision, yet so much of the drama is built around it. I can’t really call it a criticism, since the payoff is spectacular, but I guess it bothered me.
But by now it’s clear that the things that I’ve noticed are bothering me have more to do with me than anything the film is endeavoring on purpose. It engages the politics of Captain America: Civil War better than Marvel managed, though admittedly even that comparison seems to shortchange this movie given that Civil War’s political divide was really just a thin veil masking the anguish of two emotionally broken brothers. The Incredibles 2 is the breeziest movie I’ve seen this year, boasting the best use of Michael Giacchino’s impeccable music composition talents since Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol (I couldn’t tell you the plot if you paid me, but I vividly remember almost every set piece in the film, despite having only seen it once, and he’s the reason why). Giacchino has always been to writer/director Brad Bird what John Williams is to Steven Spielberg. Giacchino’s scoring reminisces Bernard Herrmann, whether he’s energizing the retro-nostalgia of J.J. Abrams movies or giving emotional weight to Matt Reeves’s Apes saga.
Having feasted on the growth of superhero genre movies for so many years, I had forgotten how much I missed this family. The wait was worth it.