The Incredibles 2 (2018)

Directed by Brad Bird

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There’s a lot to like in The Incredibles 2, so much so that I feel like my relative disappointment with the film is my fault.  The story is fun and entertaining, and early reviews raved about the movie, but half of the story feels innovative, true to the core of what The Incredibles is about (domestic life, family) while the other half is a retread of the same villain and antagonistic themes as the first movie.

Bob and Helen Parr, aka Elastigirl, are pulled apart in this sequel.  The story begins immediately after the end of the first movie, and yet another action set piece gone wrong, like at the beginning of the first movie, leads to public outcry against the “supers.”

The Parr family hides out in a motel while they consider a return to quiet, non-super life.  Bob loathes the idea of hiding their powers while Helen feels strongly that they should not do anything illegal that could jeopardize their children’s future.  An early, relatable domestic debate establishes these two opposing viewpoints in anticipation of parallel stories which will force Helen and Bob to contradict their own beliefs.

Winston Deaver (Bob Odenkirk) is the wealthy owner of some kind of tech company, along with his sister, Evelyn (Catherine Keener).  Their parents were murdered like Batman’s parents when Supers were made illegal, and Winston has ever since made it his mission to change their public perception.  His plan is to make Helen the star, mostly because she is less destructive than Bob.

So we jump into act 2 with Helen riding off as the new superhero in town, even though supers remain illegal.  Bob remains at home to take care of the kids and in particular Jack Jack.  These stories run parallel to each other, with each parent wishing, to some degree, to be in the other’s shoes.

They are effectively two different movies.

The domestic story concerns fatherhood.  Bob’s struggle with all three of his children reminded me of Kramer vs. Kramer but with the occasional superpower while Helen’s story is much more of a conventional superhero tale.  She stops these grand, criminal enterprises that come out of nowhere like in so many modern comic book movies.  First she must stop a runaway train, and before we know it she’s foiling a plot to kidnap an ambassador.

There is of course a villain hanging around to fulfill the movie’s genre conventions, but I’m left feeling that the villain was completely unnecessary to the story, in stark contrast to the first movie where Syndrome reached in and latched onto something deep with Bob, his yearning for an old way of life.  He appealed to Bob’s nostalgia as much as to his ego, and that helped ground the character’s motivation.  The Incredibles is so great because underneath all the superhero aesthetics, it’s a story about family, about middle-age and about remembering what it is you were born to do.

In The Incredibles 2, the villain is a mysterious, masked, almost inhuman figure who targets Elastigirl/Helen and supers as a whole because it is furious about what supers represent.  The villain appears only on tv screens and before then is unseen but hypnotizes people through their screens.  It is a force that shows us all the ways in which we are already hypnotized, sleepwalking through life and living vicariously through our tvs, supers and other sensational beings.

What’s most funny is that this could be a valid complaint, certainly a commentary on our society today, but this movie is set somewhere in the mid-1960s.  Our villain would be mortified by what we have now, computer screens, tablets and smartphones, not to mention the rise of virtual reality.

So this villain feels forced, just there for Helen to fight against.  As the story goes along, but not to spoil anything, we learn that the villain really just wants to make supers illegal.  So while Winston wants to change public perception, this villain acts in direct opposition, wanting to push them back into obscurity.

Okay.

So I’ll stop with the plot, but there are a few twists and turns which further clarify what’s going on in the fight against the supers but which only further mystified me.  The villainous plot is limited by archetypes and cliches, and the final battle seems to neglect two very important characters.  The third act is all about the action, and while this remains entertaining, the heart of the story all but disappears.  It is no longer about Bob’s growth as a parent or about Helen returning to the workforce following years at home.  Those stories grind to a halt while they work together to stop the bad guy.

And that’s fine, but the movie alternately hums and roars early on when it plays around with the characters, their respective struggles and the relatable human moments of those struggles.  In particular, Bob’s story feels so original because of the unusual juxtaposition of real parenting trials with superpowers.  When he learns that Jack Jack has his own powers, he is elated and then beaten into submission as it turns out the baby, who can’t control himself, has up to 17 different abilities.

The best sequence of the film follows a midnight battle between Jack Jack and a raccoon.  It would work on its own as one of those Pixar short films they show before every feature, and it certainly received the best reaction from the audience with whom I saw the movie.

The movie really leans on Jack Jack.  As director Brad Bird noted in an interview with Sean Fennessey on The Ringer’s Channel 33 podcast, Jack Jack was the Checkhov’s gun from the first film.  We learned that he has superpowers while the parents seemingly didn’t know he was a super.  Any fanfiction version of an Incredibles sequel undoubtedly included the revelations pertaining to Jack Jack’s many abilities, and precisely because there are so many, it yields constant surprises throughout the film.  We learn of a handful of his talents which recur through the movie, but in the third act Jack Jack introduces one particular power which was never foreshadowed.  We buy it because we understand that no one, not even Jack Jack, knows what he’s capable of.

Pixar’s movies are typically pretty amazing.  They follow familiar storytelling beats but without giving away the blueprints.  The stories are executed so well that we excuse anything that might feel like forced sentimentality because goddammit the emotional beat usually works.

The Incredibles 2 is at its best when it feels wholly unique and innovative.  Bob’s domestic storyline falls in this category, and elements of Helen’s journey do as well.  The specifics of her new crimefighting life are original, both the visual design of the world and her new superhero toys as well as how she uses them.  Still the nature of her story is a retread of the first movie and of other superhero stories.  It’s not until the midpoint that things start to change, but even then the villain is predictable and made a little lame just by the sheer unoriginality of its goal.

One other thing that bothered me was the lack of stakes to the journey.  While supers are illegal and at one point many of them put under the control of the villain, what’s at risk is the exact same thing as the first movie and the villain’s spell turns out to be remarkably easy to combat.

Alright, because I enjoyed this movie I have to end on a positive.  The Incredibles 2 had many stretches that were the most fun I had at a movie this year.  It’s bookended by more stagnant introductions and conclusions, but once the story gets going and before it feels rushed to wrap everything up, it’s one hell of a ride.

Up Next: Fedora (1978), The Iron Giant (1999), Something Wild (1986)

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