Even for those of us who are professionally required to deconstruct stuff we’ve seen on a screen on a weekly basis, there are times when being overly analytical about why we liked something we liked doesn’t really pay. Some experiences are just…fundamentally experiential. Incredibles 2 is like that. It’s a thrill ride that leaves one feeling exhilarated but doesn’t bear too much picking apart.
In perusing other critics’ responses to the newest Pixar film, the most apt and succinct comment I encountered was something to the effect of, “Superhero movies should all simply be left to the animators from now on.” One might extend that argument to include all action movies, period. What works most impressively in Incredibles 2 is the superb craftsmanship with which the computer animation guides the eye through rip-roaringly kinetic fights and extended chases, so that viewers never experience a “Wait a minute, what did I just see happen?” moment. No jump cuts or CGI fixes or explosions are required to gloss over the substitution of a stunt double. Nothing interrupts the smooth visual flow, or demands any further suspension of disbelief than the willingness to watch a silly cartoon movie about superheroes in the first place.
For this viewer, who walked out of the first Incredibles movie 14 years ago with an ugly and undeniable taste in my mouth of Ayn Randian “Big Gummint is suppressing excellence by mandating equality” philosophy (which director Brad Bird subsequently denied), part of the sequel’s appeal is the deemphasis of that point of view. The shadowy federal agency running the witness protection program for illegalized “Supers” comes off here as more inept and bureaucratic than evil, and the exasperation of law enforcement and public works agencies who have to clean up the hot mess after a superhero battle seems pretty reasonable. Live-action superhero franchises rarely revisit the unintended consequences of city-leveling fights with attacking aliens, so bonus points to Incredibles 2 for going there.
What is lost in the watering-down of the Objectivist viewpoint is a relatable villain. At least in the first Incredibles movie, bad guy Buddy/Syndrome could be seen as a champion of the mediocre Everyman in the same vein as Salieri in Amadeus. In the sequel, villain ScreenSlaver’s backstory and motivation seem sketchy, unconvincing, a bit tacked-on. We must content ourselves with the obvious contemporary metaphor in the way that the villainy manifests: as an entity that brilliantly uses mass media to exert mind control over the masses.
It’s probably unproductive to criticize that as an anachronism; Incredibles 2 actually goes to considerable trouble to evoke the retrofuturistic vibe of 1962, and the references are more amusing than not. While Helen/Elastigirl (Holly Hunter) is off combating crime and trying to rehabilitate the public image of Supers, Bob/Mr. Incredible (Craig T. Nelson) reluctantly learns to manage his unruly, superpowered brood as a stay-at-home dad. That home is a sort of posh James Bond bachelor pad, loaded with gadgetry and angular “Midcentury Modern” furnishings on loan from media billionaire Winston Deavor (Bob Odenkirk) and his techie-genius sister Evelyn (Catherine Keener). Son Dash (Huck Milner) and baby Jack-Jack (Eli Fucile) get hold of the newfangled TV remote, enabling some glimpses of actual early-’60s television programming. One such snippet is the iconic intro to The Outer Limits: “There is nothing wrong with your television set. Do not attempt to adjust the picture. We are controlling transmission…” It’s a delectable foreshadowing of what ScreenSlaver is about to foist on the unsuspecting populace of Metroville.
The ’60s-spy-movie atmosphere is reinforced continually by Michael Giacchino’s excellent jazzy, horn-heavy score, which seems poised at any moment to veer into the theme from Dr. No. You’ll get extra kicks out of Incredibles 2 if you lived through those days, if you waited on line for hours for the GM Futurama ride at the 1964/65 New York World’s Fair or grew up watching The Jetsons or had to learn New Math. It’s not a movie just for kids – or even just for those young adults who were kids when its predecessor came out in 2004.
That being said, most kids will love it. A few may find it too intense, and caveats are particularly in order for viewers with light-sensitive seizure disorders or migraines: There’s a terrific fight sequence toward the end, when Elastigirl penetrates ScreenSlaver’s lair, that lays on the strobe effects to an extent that some may find triggering. But it’s tough to imagine anyone not totally loving the scene in which Jack-Jack wields an impressive array of superpowers whilst tussling with a foolhardy raccoon. It’s a mini-movie in itself.
If Incredibles 2 has a social message, beyond “Turn your attention now from that little screen in your hand to this big one on the wall,” it’s as retro and as evergreen as storytelling morals get: Family ties matter. So does willingness to sacrifice personal wants in support of other people’s needs. Teamwork accomplishes more than chaotic individualism. Choices, not abilities, are most essentially what make us Super, when we are. Choke on that, Ayn Rand.