I’ve already talked about “The Incredibles” once, but I think it’s worth talking more about it.
Because here’s the thing. “The Incredibles” is not a good movie. It’s not even a great movie. It is a brilliant film. It’s one of the best movies of all time – and I am dead serious.
It really is that good.
“The Incredibles” is part of a particular class of stories I refer to as Decon/Recons, for Deconstruction/Reconstruction (I’m sure TVTropes will provide the technical terminology if anyone cares to look). This is a surprisingly common sub-genre of stories, and when it’s done well it can be incredibly powerful. Off the top of my head notable non-“Incredibles” examples include Frank Miller’s “Daredevil: Born Again”, “The Princess Bride”, Tom Simon’s “Lord Talon’s Revenge”, and “Galaxy Quest”.
I’ll try and explain what I mean using one of the stories as an example. Let’s take “Born Again”, one of my very, very favorite books. In “Daredevil: Born Again” the story starts off with Matt Murdock literally going insane. He is at the end of his rope physically, mentally, and (most unusually for a mainstream comic book story) spiritually. He forces himself through sheer willpower into a confrontation with the villain, a confrontation where he is beaten down brutally in an almost laughably one-sided fight. Afterward, he is stabbed by a petty thug and hit by a car before collapsing into the arms of a nun. His love interest, Karen Page, is now a prostitute and drug addict on a fool’s quest to find him and beg forgiveness for selling his secret identity for a shot of heroin.
This raises several painful questions – this is the deconstruction portion of the narrative. Isn’t this a more realistic fate for a poor blind superhero going up against a rich and powerful businessman with near super strength? Isn’t it more likely that a young woman trying to start an acting career ISN’T going to make it, rather than is? After losing his job, his girlfriend, and his apartment, is it really that unlikely for Matt Murdock to slip into a deep depression?
In other words: Isn’t this the natural fate of the superhero?
And then Miller reconstructs it: No, this isn’t where the story ends. Yes, Daredevil CAN pull himself back up with the help of the Church (!!!). Yes, Karen Page CAN find redemption. Yes, through sheer willpower Daredevil can and does find a way to defeat the villain. Miller rejects a supposed realism that might characterize a work like “Watchmen” and as a result comes up with a story far more powerful, a triumph of the human spirit and a testament to the power and appeal of superheroes. Without the deconstruction at the beginning, this is just another superhero story; with it, it’s a masterpiece.
And so it is with “The Incredibles”. Roughly half or so of the movie is spent tearing into and absolutely eviscerating the very concept of superheros and superhero films. It pulls no punches; the questions it asks are presented comically, but they’re serious questions. Are superheroes needed at all, both in the fictional sense of “our” world and the literal sense of the movie world? Isn’t the whole concept silly, and not to mention rather elitist? Are superheroes just glory hogs who engage in heroics for vicarious thrills and a pathological need for validation? Can you even call that heroism?
It then proceeds to rip into the concept of raising a family. Is it worth it to raise a family if it means that you’re no longer going to be helping anyone else, to the point that you’ve actually given up being a superhero? When compared to all of the cool stuff you COULD be doing, isn’t raising a family just boring? Considering the obligations and responsibilities it places on you, what’s in it for you, really? Mr. Incredible is forced at one point to lie to his wife in order to continue with a sort of faux superheroics, reliving his glory days for an ego trip. It’s not even “real” superheroics; the whole thing takes place on a deserted island. Nobody is actually in any real danger. It’s pathetic, and ultimately – to Mr. Incredible’s knowledge – his hubris leads to the pointless deaths of his entire family.
…And then the movie comes out and says YES, we need superheroes, both in-universe and out. The concept of superheroes might be silly, but the values they promote, the joy they bring to people, is emphatically not. Yes, some people just aren’t special, and when we have people especially suited to do a particular job – like, say, stop a supervillain – then they better damn well be the ones to do it.
YES, it is worth it to raise a family. The most powerful line in the film comes just before the climax. Mr. Incredible is going up to face the villain Syndrome’s giant robot on his own; he will not let his family help him. When his wife asks him why, he says that he’s “Not strong enough”. This seems like a reference to earlier in the film, when he hones his skills to get back up to his old fighting shape, and it’s a curious one, as it seems to imply a lack of character development.
…Until he finally admits what he means: “I can’t lose you again! I’m not…strong enough.” The score going in the background, and Elastigirl’s response, is reminiscent of Harrison Ford’s famous “I know” ad lib from “The Empire Strikes Back”, and just like in that movie, the moment is stunning.
And everything is punctuated by one final, brilliant scene at the end of film, when Syndrome attempts to kidnap their infant son Jak-Jak. A Chekov’s Gun from earlier in the film is finally fired in a satisfying manner, and when all of the family’s earthly possessions are destroyed in a fiery explosion the response is laughter, because the important things are safe. It’s a beautiful capper to a powerful storyline and the fulfillment of Brad Bird’s “reconstruction” of the family portion of his narrative, just as the final, superbly choreographed super-fight is the fulfillment of the superhero reconstruction.
And that’s what makes the film better than great. Faced with the opportunity to create a mocking parody of the superhero genre and a scathing indictment of families, Brad Bird has his cake and eats it too, because while there is surely some fun to be had in parody, Bird knows the REAL Fun is in super-awesome fight scenes (and let me tell you, the fight scenes in “The Incredibles” really are spectacular). The REAL power in the story is letting heroes be heroes. The thing that’s going to lift up your soul, that’s going to give you chills and appreciate the movie’s brilliance, isn’t those early, and very, very funny, sections where Brad Bird pokes fun at families but when Mr. Incredible bares his soul in a beautiful, powerful moment played with total seriousness.
Watch this film. And don’t forget that you’re witnessing brilliance.