Reflections of Social Power In THE INCREDIBLES

There are more threats to public safety than bank robberies.

There’s a selfishness to superheroism. And in The Incredibles, that selfishness is conflated with the complex era that is 1960’s America. At first glance, circa 1960s America is a kind of glistening, gilded Golden Age. Riding on the economic boom of the second World War, successfully suppressing the soon-to-burst frustrations of black Americans and the various social minorities that would follow black mobilization and outrage during the exciting, exhausting, frustrating struggle of the Civil Rights movement in the following decade. The '60s can be looked back on “fondly” as a perfect ideal of white heteronormative social power and control, an actual manifestation of what America could be if the various social groups that contributed – mostly unwillingly and forcibly – to the establishment and maintenance of the world’s youngest Super Power were successfully kept constrained while the white men and women retained social advantage of America’s prosperity.

In the long complex history of superheroes – as dramatic representatives of immigrants and the disenfranchised, of virtues and ideals – the 1960s is a fascinating period to set a superhero film. It’s the same era that Jack Kirby reinvigorated the superhero mythos with characters like the X-Men and the Hulk, who developed into coded representations of Civil Rights and the capacity for chaotic violence within perceived meekness. They retrospectively seemed to investigate the faith in American virtue and morals opposite the fascism of WWII’s Axis Powers that his earlier character, Captain America, represented. Because superheroes, like America, have a capacity for selfishness in power that is just as important a facet of superheroism as the perception of altruism and responsibility. The push-pull of that dichotomy is an important part of how The Incredibles and The Incredibles 2 portray “Supers”.

Even if director Brad Bird insists that The Incredibles isn’t a 1:1 representation of Objectivism – the selfish, individualistic, anti-altruistic, hyper-capitalistic pseudo-philosophy formulated by Ayn Rand, whose worldview was in part an extreme response to growing up in Russia’s totalitarian Communist society – it’s hard to ignore that the Parr family is the kind of idyllic White Nuclear Family that the conflation of Objectivism and modern conservatism seeks to capitalistically support and maintain. A white guy named Bob, married to a beautiful wife with three children, all of whom have the same advantage their parents have: superpowers. His black best friend, the ice shooter Frozone, has powers too, suggesting an adjacency to the Parr family that Frozone’s wife Honey – a strong-willed black woman, without powers, who exists in the world of The Incredibles as a disembodied voice – doesn’t have. Plus, Frozone’s blackness comes more from his mannerisms than his racial identity and potential struggle. Because the Parr’s are a white family in 1960s America, the focus is still on them. Outside problems are periphery, and the threats they deal with as superheroes are mostly eccentric, foreign thieves and bank robbers – threats to American wealth and safety – while the threats of racism, homophobia, xenophobia, sexism and etc. still remain under the surface of the mainstream cultural conscience and, by extension, unnoticed by the watchful eyes of the Supers.

What’s interesting about Bird’s depiction of this setting is how those social problems lightly manifest themselves. Supers are banned by the government after Mr. Incredible is sued for injuring a man while he was saving that man from killing himself. The case begets a snowball effect of citizens suing Supers for collateral damage, resulting in a series of lawsuits too expensive for the government to maintain. They solve this by making super heroics illegal, and force Supers to go into hiding. Through an Objectivist lens, this could read that the strong individualists, Supers, are being limited from their abilities and potential by the meddling Federal government trying to protect the weak. The scary thing about that particular reading is that Objectivism, in its insistence on a competitive leveling-ground no matter the setting, stubbornly views social inequality as weakness on the part of the oppressed. According to Rand, the black girl who grew up in a project is already on the same playing field as the white boy who grew up with two Harvard professors as parents. Because they were both born in a capitalistic society, where the illusion is that hard work is all that’s needed to succeed. The various social leverages and opportunities the white boy has that the black girl doesn’t don’t actually matter. So when the government levels things out – which only ever happened after black people campaigned and lobbied and demonstrated and appealed until the courts would gradually, but reluctantly, grant them their due rights as citizens – the white people with power suddenly feel oppressed.

This point-of-view is key to Mr. Incredible’s character. Within his desire to do good and help his society is a selfishness, an enjoyment of his privilege as a Super. He loves the attention, the glamour, and the celebrity. And when that’s all taken away from him – at the apex of his popularity and privilege, just as he starts his family – he feels the sting of that loss more than anyone. More than his wife, also a Super, but one that was under the shadow of her more popular husband. More than his Super black best friend, who could probably tell him a thing or two about inequality. At his desk job at an insurance agency, he helps his customers find loopholes to gain coverage, another act that could be read as both good natured and power-grasping. “They’re penetrating the bureaucracy!” bemoans his boss. It’s one of the few ways that Bob can help people who are vulnerable to him, while also sticking small daggers into the Federal forces that made him assimilate with “everyone else”.

His kids Dash and Violet also struggle a bit with their Super identities, though not to the extent of their father. Dash wants to compete with other kids in sports despite the obvious advantage his super speed gives him, but he says he’s okay with being second as long as he can compete. Violet wants to be able to date and socialize with people her age, but also enjoys bonding with her family over their shared identity as Supers. And Helen Parr, Elastigirl, introduced as a proto-feminist and kick-ass superhero, becomes committed to family life, and would rather obey the Super ban than put her children at risk. The restraint Bob and his family have to exercise, despite their given advantages, stresses him out to the point where even his commitment to his family begins to seem like a chore. In Ayn Rand’s 1957 narrative “opus” that lays out the fundamentals of her ideals, Atlas Shrugged, there’s a character named Hank Rearden. He creates a metal stronger and lighter than steel, giving him a significant advantage in the Steel industry. He is pressured by the government to share his creation, a pressure he resists. He also feels stifled by his family, who he views as parasitic, especially his wife, portrayed by Rand as ungrateful and cold. And the whole nature of Bob’s/Mr. Incredibles struggle is to not be that guy, even though he has every opportunity to.

The first film's villain, Syndrome, has been read as an example of the kind of entitled fandom that seems especially rampant in the era of increasingly socially progressive media, chasing an image of coolness, dominance, and vicariousness that doesn’t actually mean anything. But what makes Syndrome such a great foil to Mr. Incredible is that his professed desire to make everyone a superhero so that no one is, and Mr. Incredible’s hearkening back to his days of sociocultural supremacy, both stem from a misperception of Supers as an ideal of power, adoration and acceptance. Syndrome, whose gifted intelligence apparently never translated well into the kind of attention that Mr. Incredible had, always felt slighted, even despite the mass amounts of wealth that he amasses, and his dedicated girlfriend, all a result of his own advantage: his genius. Syndrome doesn’t just want success; he wants to lord his power over people, a temptation that Mr. Incredible also feels. And unlike Kilmonger, Syndrome freely admits that he’d only share his powers after he’s “had his fun”. Syndrome obsessively kills Supers because he wants to replace them, to be worshipped like they were, and he serves as an example of how power doesn’t equate with emotional fulfillment.

Syndrome, more than anyone, understands the draw of power, which is why it’s so easy for him to lure Mr. Incredible. Syndrome gives Bob money, first-class treatment, a beautiful, racially ambiguous woman for cleverish tete-a-tete, and the illusion of being wanted and appreciated as Bob feels like he should be appreciated. It’s the perfect tableau of James Bond-like agency and the reconstruction of Bob’s golden past: exciting superhero missions, a new suit by Edna the supremely confident clothing designer, an expensive car, an enlivened sex life with his wife. It’s an Objectivist, capitalistic wet dream, a wonderfully realized depiction of the idealized perception of white sociopolitical power. And the only costs are the perpetual lies to his wife, who thinks he’s been promoted at the insurance agency, and the increasing emotional distance from his family. This detachment leads to hubris, and Mr. Incredible is suddenly attacked by Syndrome, captured, and forced to listen as his family is shot down dead while they were looking for him.

It’s at this lowest point, however, that Mr. Incredible is granted a second chance. His family survives and helps him fight back. He’s able to find fulfillment in the family he had taken for granted and, in a nice symbolic gesture, Mr. Incredible kills Syndrome with the expensive car he bought on Syndrome’s payroll. Bob chooses his personal relationships over the empty chase for power, but at the same time he negotiates his and his family’s utilization of their own superpowers and their ability to assert their privilege. It might be better to use your power in tandem with the people you love (who also have that power), than to selfishly exploit people for self-gratification, but that difference is relative, and doesn’t affect the actual balance of that power.

In The Incredibles 2, not much has really changed. Bob, though grateful for his family, is still pouty, frustrated, and bitter when his wife gets to be a superhero and he doesn’t. That streak of selfishness is still there, and it’s a bad sign that he knows so little about his wife Elastigirl before he met her, despite her having been a nationally known superhero like himself. And though the world of The Incredibles 2 looks like the diverse composite of identities that’s always been underneath the sheen of the idealized 1960s, the scope of what constitutes as problems is limited in a similar way, with a few issues idly poking their way through.

The most exciting parts of The Incredibles 2 are Elastigirl’s forays as a hero. Though Bird doesn’t expand on an insistent feminist theme, the directly observable difference in quality between Elastigirl’s approach as a Super and Mr. Incredible’s is its own kind of argument. Elastigirl is smarter, more resourceful, quicker on her feet, and more thoughtful than anything that’s been shown of Mr. Incredible. And she needs to be, since the problems she faces are given a bit more complexity than when her husband was in the spotlight. There’s a nice parallel between the first time we see Mr. Incredible in action saving a moving train, and Elastigirl’s first time in the field, also saving a train. The difference is in the conversation Elastigirl has before she springs into action with Win and Evelyn Deavor, the owners of the massive corporation DevTech who hired her. They mention that they sent Elastigirl to a crime-ridden city because it’s the easiest way to get video of her fighting crime. It’s a scary prospect when, to suit their own interests, powerful corporations instigate or track crime. And when you consider that Win’s and Evelyn’s father, the founder of their successful company, monetarily supported Supers before his death, it makes you wonder whether Supers had really been in the pocket of corporations before, and would be again.

Win and Evelyn both add facets to the conception of fandom and hero perception kick started by Syndrome. Win, who uses his deep resources to lobby for Super reinstatement, is like Syndrome before Syndrome became embittered. His faith in Supers is apparently unshakeable, but this could be because, like his father, he also serves to benefit from having heroes at his beck and call, and in his debt. Evelyn, the sheltered genius and creator to her brother’s extroverted marketer, is disillusioned by superheroics after her father is shot dead by a robber. Her father tried to use the deadened direct lines to his Super friends, post Super ban, rather than heed his wife’s advice to go into their home’s safe shelter. Evelyn thinks her father was responsible for his own death. She becomes driven against convenience culture, and creates a character, the Screenslaver, who rants about people becoming too dependent. To prove her point, she hypnotizes anyone who looks at a screen she controls. Evelyn is interesting to consider as a meta-character, representative of Pixar or Bird himself, staging arguments against the very spectacle she’s hosting. But as a white millionaire genius, her arguments for self-sufficiency ring a little hollow.

The conflicts of both Incredibles movies read a little circular, and maybe that’s part of the point. When it comes to social problems, not much changes. In the 1960s, white Americans kept the same blasé problems as priorities, while entire swaths of the country lived considerably more difficult lives. As Violet bemoaned Evelyn’s wealth as a potential get-out-of-jail-free card, I wondered how she would react to the push for Civil Rights in a decade, or the forced labor of the Prison Industrial Complex a decade after that, or if those things would even happen in her Universe.

The strength of The Incredibles’ legacy is a cinematic investigation of what’s become a vital vestige of current pop culture, superheroes, through a story that is relatable and thoughtful and fun. Since the release of the first Incredibles in 2004, 19 Marvel movies have engaged, to varying degrees, the social and political nature of hero stories, while slowly expanding the cultural scope of those stories, in a long-form storytelling format that is unlike anything else in film. Popular anime have also similarly used hero stories to portray social values. One Punch Man is about an insanely strong hero depressed because he’s unable to find an equal opponent. While My Hero Academia features a similar world full of heroes organized and ranked by a government, but focuses on a protagonist who loves heroes but is born without a power who, through his virtues and will, encourages the strongest superhero All Might – an American superhero analog – to pass down his powers to him, with parallel stories about experienced heroes serving as mentors to younger ones. And recent games like the God of War reboot and Horizon: Zero Dawn examine the interplay between mythologies, the legacy of Western power, and the potential for moving beyond a history of violence. The Incredibles helped to frame an interest in power narratives that has had a noticeable effect on cinematic forms of storytelling since.

But fourteen years after the first one, and despite how fun it is to watch, The Incredibles 2 shows that the Parr family remain in the bubble of the retrospective 1960s, occasionally prodded but never popped into awareness of the complexity of American problems. There is something genuine in Bob’s efforts to reform his selfishness by engaging with his kids, in the hilarious chaos of Jack Jack’s power montage (referred to as his limitless “potential”, another potentially loaded term for white legacy). But the selfish conception of what power represents is also an inescapable part of the celebration of The Incredibles as a depiction of the American family, which raises the questions of whether the Parr family could ever expand their perception of the evils in the world, or fight for anyone besides themselves.