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Review – Incredibles 2

By Mark Laherty

Nowadays, the film market is oversaturated with inevitable superhero sequels. When I say inevitable, I mean that you can tell from the first movie that there are going to be two more of these whether there ought to be or not. See: the upcoming Ant-Man and the Wasp. In this context, Incredibles 2 is a little different in that it doesn’t need to exist and you wouldn’t have expected it to get made.

See, when Brad Bird brought us his first Pixar superhero movie, it was years before superheroes were the globally dominant genre that they are now. More importantly, it was a complete story. It tied up all its loose ends. The final moments are sort of a cliff-hanger but more of a statement of ‘everything is okay now because they can be superheroes.’

To give itself a conflict, Incredibles 2 backtracks on the resolution of the first movie and unties those loose ends. Specifically, where the first movie has someone assert that ‘supers’ will be legal again and that they need only let the politicians figure it out, this movie opens with supers still being illegal and with no sign of that changing soon. So, that happy ending is re-worked into a cold open which says ‘actually, everything isn’t okay because they still can’t be superheroes.’

So, that’s what this movie is about. Frustrated with the law and in need of work, super-parents Bob and Helen sign on with a benevolent millionaire who wants to lead a campaign to make supers legal again (it’s unclear if any Trump echo is deliberate or has meaning). Helen re-assumes her old super identity as Elastagirl and cavorts about saving the day as a sort of superhero advocacy while Bob, to his own chagrin, becomes a stay-at-home dad.

What we end up with is a movie about Bob and Helen trying and struggling to swap roles. Bob must become the caregiver and Helen needs to be the breadwinner. Bob’s progression is light on stakes or things actually happening but it’s still easily the stronger half. There are a few reasons for this. For one thing, Bob’s character development is cohesive and strong, more so than some critics have given the movie credit for. There are countless endearing and genuine moments of parenthood and bonding with his three kids.

It also helps that Bob’s plot branches off into his daughter Violet’s cute first steps in teenage romance, which sounds corny but mostly isn’t. Baby Jack-Jack is a show-stealer; the end of the first movie showed him developing a wide array of superpowers and a lot of fun is had with those ideas here.

Helen’s plot is what might be called the ‘real’ plot, the one where superhero things happen and the danger is greatest. It’s fun as a sequence of action scenes with entertaining characters. Easily the best newcomer is Voyd, an aspiring young superhero who is definitely a trans lesbian (sorry, I don’t make the rules). For the most part, the worst thing to be said about it is that it is merely good. The exception to that – and the reason this part of the movie feels a bit hollow – is Screenslaver.

Put it this way. In the first movie, the viewer understands exactly where the nefarious Syndrome is coming from because we see the explanation play out on screen. We see Mr. Incredible turn him down (“I work alone”). We understand that this is part of Bob’s overall character flaw (he spends the movie cutting himself off from his family, i.e. working alone). So, we understand why Syndrome wants the things he wants and can even concede that he has a point, even if he’s being a murderous jerk about it.

This time, the villainous Screenslaver’s motivations and ideology don’t have much to do with anything that Bob or Helen are doing wrong. There’s nothing that our heroes do in the movie that their foe can point to and say, “This is exactly the sort of thing I’m talking about.” Sure, they explain themselves at great length but it never specifies what they think Helen is doing that’s so terrible (apart, I suppose, from breathing). There are ideas in play here but it never feels like a coherent battle of worldviews beyond ‘supers good VS supers bad.’ It’s just punchy people punching each other. Which is great! But not terribly complicated.

The good folks over at Wisecrack tried to unpack Screenslaver’s ideology. Incredibles 2 is a movie preoccupied with perception, or (yes) ‘screens.’ The campaign to legalise superheroes is based around filming Helen while she fights crime as Elastagirl so that everyone can clearly perceive her heroics. Screenslaver is the dark flipside of this, hypnotising people through screens. This, to be fair, is topical and occasionally breaks out into being interesting.

But, as you can probably tell even now, it usually feels like the sort of hackneyed, unoriginal, patronising shlock you’d expect from the likes of Banksy. This isn’t a case of a reviewer getting angry at a movie that has a political message that they disagree with; I agree that phones and TV and stuff have screwed us up. I just don’t think that’s a particularly interesting thing to build a movie around in 2018. Even in a movie for children, Screenslaver’s screeds feel like an insult to the viewer’s intelligence. All of this is in service of a moral which is little more than, to borrow a Facebook catchphrase, “what if phones but too much?”

Incredibles 2 functions best as a story about Bob becoming a stay-at-home dad. This is a little awkward because the movie seems to think this is the less important half. It’s remarkable that it starts out by framing this as ‘Bob feels emasculated’ but wisely retires that angle before it gets annoying. Bob quickly becomes far too absorbed in the terrible, practical business of parenthood to be jealous of his wife.

That’s what we’ve got. The heart of The Incredibles was always that it was a story about a married couple trying to keep it together. Given how The Incredibles is a difficult movie to draw a sequel from, the driving force of the concept has held together surprisingly well. It’s just that Screenslaver is no Syndrome – and that’s because everything Brad Bird has to say this time around is so much less interesting. Watch this movie for a great movie about being a dad interspersed with a beautifully animated Saturday morning cartoon.

Mark Laherty writes about media and politics on his WordPress blog. You can also support him on Patreon.

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