Considering how CGI has largely turned comic-book superhero movies into cartoons, The Incredibles (2004) is ahead of its time. Yet it sports a retro look and attitude—insisting that adults should be in charge of running things, while sparing little opportunity to tell the audience that adulthood is far from an easy ride.
Written and directed by Brad Bird, the film is rather plot heavy—taking nearly two hours to depict a conflict between good and evil as really between those who are willing to grow up and those who aren’t. The focus on a family in crisis allows us to see, with few exceptions, the characters develop, and thus they have a greater emotional range than in most superhero movies—especially those that feature characters with secret identities that seem far different than their heroic alter egos.
This is a premise—humans changing into superheroes—that The Incredibles inverts: the mounting property and personal damages, a result of chases, battles, and rescues, results in lawsuits against superheroes and has turned the public against them. The government develops a relocation program for superheroes, requiring them to agree to become regular citizens and no longer use their superpowers.
Bob Parr, the father, who is stuck in a low-paying office job, wishes he could return to his past glory years. Helen Parr, the mother, has become head of the household and a source of emotional support for her husband and children. Violet, the sulky teenage daughter, is having difficulty transitioning to young adulthood. Dash, the younger son, is impulsive. Jack Jack, the baby, is still forming an identity.
Even as superheroes, they retain aspects of their human selves. When Bob, thanks to being recruited by what he believes is a secret government agency, can become Mr. Incredible (who has superhuman strength), he still has to learn the importance of working with others—he doesn’t tell his wife about the new job. Helen, who becomes Elastigirl (having superhuman elasticity), holds her family together during the battle with Syndrome, who poses as the head of the fictitious agency, which is a part of his evil empire.
Bob may be Mr. Incredible, and Helen may be Elastigirl, but they still have adult bodies. On his first mission, Bob has put on enough weight that he has difficulty getting out of a cramped capsule. Helen glances at a mirror and sighs as she sees her enlarged backside.
One of Violet’s superpowers, becoming invisible, reflects her anxiety about standing out too much as a teenager. Feeling more like an older child than young adult, she exhibits heartfelt concern when she detects trouble in her parents’ relationship, as Helen tells her that she suspects that her father is being deceitful. Violet is even more upset when she is asked to create a protective force field during a missile attack, and fails. But with the encouragement of her mother, she keeps practicing. Later, this second superpower plays a crucial role.
Only Dash (who has superhuman speed) appears as an emotionally one-note family member, in keeping with the film’s greater interest in adult characters. Overall, the gender roles are rather traditional—the story is really about Bob’s learning curve: its relative slowness questions the belief (often validated by Hollywood) that self-growth happens quickly or easily.
Syndrome is the most childish of them all. In the past, when Mr. Incredible was a celebrity, he wanted to tag along with him, but was cruelly rejected. Still holding this grudge, he has become a technological genius who has built an empire from the profits generated by inventing and selling weapons. His ultimate creation is the Omnidroid; he has been tracking down superheroes for it to learn from and then destroy.
He is jealous because he can only be human and cultivates a fantasy of releasing the Omnidroid on an unsuspecting city. After it wreaks havoc, he will disarm it with a remote control and receive a superhero’s welcome. When he has lived out his dream, he will sell the technology to the public, eliminating superheroes altogether.
This is the high-water mark for the allegory that has used the superhero movie as its vehicle. Syndrome’s success would create a world where everyone would appear equal in terms of physical attributes—it is certainly debatable that even this outcome could remove differences, such as in wealth, that create other kinds of social inequalities.
Most villains make one crucial mistake. Syndrome makes three. The film reassures us that his dream will not come true, suggesting that children, or adults who remain children, will be outsmarted by adults. His first mistake is forgetting or being unaware of Violet’s ability to create a force field. When he captures the family, she waits until he has left the holding cell to break the electronic shackles and release them.
Syndrome’s next mistake is to fail to disarm the Omnidroid when he lets it loose on the city. Instead, it knocks the remote control out of his wrist holder. He can only watch as his carefully choreographed spectacle now rages out of control.
The Incredibles race to save the day. Along with the broad humor—Bob’s driving an RV (just like a typical American family, right?) that he commandeered from Syndrome’s henchmen—is a dramatic moment right before the epic showdown with the Omnidroid. It was his moonlighting, away from his family and without their knowledge, as a superhero that allowed Syndrome to track him down. Now, about to battle Syndrome’s deadly creation, he tells Helen that he’s got to do it alone. But she stops him from making what would be a critical error—she knows it will take their working together to survive. Which they do, and the Omnidroid is destroyed.
Syndrome watches in dismay as the superheroes’ triumph is celebrated, leading him to his last and fatal mistake. He kidnaps Jack Jack, only to have the baby suddenly display his superpower, which verges on the demonic, forcing Syndrome to release him. Mr. Incredible throws his sports car at the getaway plane. The impact sends Syndrome flying—his cape is sucked into the jet engine. He didn’t learn the critical lesson of being a superhero that Mr. Incredible learned earlier: never wear a cape!
The finale, with Jack Jack’s superhero identity a clever reference to satanic offspring horror movies such as Rosemary’s Baby (1968), displays the dazzling tones of the writing (the screenplay won an Oscar) which throughout emphasize the dynamism of family relationships, especially between Bob and Helen, and Helen and Violet.
The scene shifts to three months later. Violet has predictably gained confidence through her family’s adventure. She is no longer socially invisible. Her hairstyle has changed (which Bird apparently thinks is a major advancement). Attracting a good-looking boy’s attention, she takes the initiative and proposes they go see a movie together, her springing for the popcorn. Meanwhile, Dash competes in the elementary school city track finals. Having learned to control his speed, he deliberately finishes in second place. A sign of compromise—perhaps he is growing up after all.
Down to its closing minutes, the film argues that the superhero movie is not a standalone genre, but rather an amalgamation of family drama, spy action-thriller, and sci-fi allegory. If Hollywood took this argument seriously, filmmakers could try out new narrative combinations that might surpass the gender limits of The Incredibles. A movie with a female protagonist as emotionally flexible as Elastigirl would, without a doubt, be a shining new star in the superhero universe.