By Barry Neenan
[This article contains spoilers for Incredibles 2 that anyone above the age of seven would probably guess anyway.]
Ladies and gentlemen, it’s TOO MUCH for my willing suspension of disbelief!
Oh, Incredibles 2. I didn’t think I’d be writing a critical article on your villain. But as Syndrome would say, you can’t always count on your heroes.
Let me preface this by saying Incredibles 2 is a long, long way from ‘bad’. The film is gorgeously animated, often hilarious, and flawlessly slides back into the hectic lives of the Parrs despite the 14-year hiatus. But all told, I left the theatre somewhat disappointed, and that’s almost entirely due to Screenslaver.
I’m not alone in thinking the villain is the worst part of this film. This was especially disappointing considering Syndrome is an all-time favourite of mine. He doesn’t just have funny lines and gadgets which to this day amaze my inner child; he functions as a razor-sharp foil not only to Mr Incredible, but the audience themselves. He’s a truly exemplary villain, and for me, Screenslaver is a huge step down.
The elephant in the room must first be addressed: I am so sick of twist villains. There’s no doubt in my mind that I would have been far kinder to the revelation of Screenslaver’s identity if I hadn’t seen Frozen. Or Wreck-It Ralph. Or Zootopia. Or Big Hero 6. Or Moana, technically. I haven’t even seen Toy Story 3 or Coco (yeah, yeah, I know) but I can tell you exactly who the ~secret~ antagonist of each one is. Taken alone, Screenslaver has some unique traits. But the brute fact is that Disney wants you to see every one of these films. And that makes overusing this trope all the more artistically bankrupt.
Every time I watch an animated movie now, I squint restlessly at every new character. And here, it’s really not difficult to foresee the twist. I wouldn’t say it’s (just) because I’m a genre-savvy cynic – it’s because Disney/Pixar films have primed viewers to watch out for The Traitor. I actually enjoyed the dynamic between Helen and the villain prior to the reveal, but in every scene they had together I felt the Sword of Damocles hanging over their heads, just waiting for it to drop. How I long for the days of Syndrome, when the villain could be as loud and theatrical and glorious as supervillains should be. Alas.
But that’s not even my main issue. I want to talk about mind control.
The loss of free will, of not only your bodily autonomy but your fundamental ability to make decisions, is terrifying. More terrifying than any shrieking narcissist in a cape, at any rate. It touches on the same broad fears that zombies gnaw on – loss of independence, loss of control, loss of self. Although a superhero staple, it’s closer to horror than heroism, and its most effective uses acknowledge that.
My gold standard for mind control, as indeed for many tropes, is the 2004 Playstation 2 stealth-platformer-adventure game Sly 2: Band of Thieves. Part of the plot concerns a mind control scheme. It is conveyed to the audience that, for mind control to work in this universe, several elements are required. There’s a chemical element (“””spice”””) and a technological element (machines that go beWOOoooOOOoooOOO). There is also an academic element – the method is developed by a pre-eminent psychologist using her substantial knowledge and experience for evil. Finally, there’s the most important ingredient in any scheme: time. Subjects must be prepared slowly for best results.
I don’t think I’ve ever seen hypnotism handled as well in a superhero/cartoon setting. Sure, some people can turn invisible or shoot lightning or whatever, but a power as conceptually scary as mind control is treated with the gravitas it rightfully should have. It’s not a fun superpower; it’s a violation of human rights. In Sly 2, the effort it requires adds a serious spin to an otherwise breezy world. Which also made it all the stupider when the (contentious) fourth game introduced a character who gained even stronger hypnotism abilities from having a trumpet lodged in her nose.
Incredibles 2 is closer to the trumpet-nose thing.
Screenslaver has no explicit background in psychology, only engineering. There’s little evidence of in-depth study of the human brain and its weaknesses – just that there’s a certain pattern of white and black spirals that instantly makes people your slave. A pattern Screenslaver stumbled upon.
The superhero genre, where conflicts are manifested as literal fights between characters, can sometimes feel like a chessboard. There are a certain number of Good pieces and a certain number of Evil pieces, and they need to be slammed together long enough to make a story. Mind control is a logistically useful power because you can force more conflict out of a cast which is almost wholly Good by temporary painting them Evil colours. (Black and red, naturally).
This principle can be seen in many stories, perhaps most prominently in the first Avengers film. Loki’s first act upon exploding onto Earth is to forcibly recruit Hawkeye and Selvig to his side. Actively opposing his teammates gives Hawkeye something to do and generates conflict, which the film requires in great amounts.
There are plenty of superhero stories featuring the same pattern, where a small group of heroes must slowly reclaim their comrades. It’s cathartic to see the tide slowly shift back in the heroes’ favour, as indeed it is in Incredibles 2. But typically such fast and powerful mind control is accomplished by appropriately strong and frightening beings, like the all-powerful Darkseid, or Starro, a huge alien starfish intended for exactly this kind of story. Literal gods. Not someone with an engineering degree.
In real life, hypnotism cannot force someone to do anything they don’t volunteer for. Obviously, little details like this are easily ignored in genres where the laws of physics are less ‘laws’ and more ‘suggestions’. But unlike the DC, Marvel, or Sly universes, where malicious hypnosis is possible with a sufficiently scary amount of power or planning, Incredibles 2 has established that its version of the human brain is as resistant to mind control as an ice sculpture is to a blowtorch. This should terrify the characters. Even if we’ve seen the last of Screenslaver – and the film all but states we have not – this deadly pattern of black and white exists for anyone else to exploit. Doubly so since Screenslaver’s high-profile crimes have undoubtedly made it common knowledge.
The film doesn’t touch on these harrowing implications. The mind control is in service to that chessboard analogy, shuffling almost all the pieces to the Evil side in order to create a dramatic climax. And while the results are satisfying in an immediate, short-term sense, I can’t help but feel we missed an opportunity here. It isn’t just lazy writing – the very message of the movie has been compromised.
This film is trying to talk about perception, about media, about how opinions are shaped by omnipresent screens. This is an important topic to discuss, and I have confidence that this team could have produced something beyond the usual tired clichés of, to borrow Mark’s borrowing of a Facebook catchphrase, “what if phones but too much?” There was potential here.
But Screenslaver is so hideously powerful that any nuance is lost. There’s no commentary on how our beliefs are genuinely shaped, even twisted, by technology. That process takes time. In real life, it’s a slow drift down certain mental paths. But Screenslaver, at the flick of a switch, can completely rewrite the brain of even the most principled individuals. It’s so unrealistically powerful we file it under Cartoon Stuff in our heads, and move on.
Say you wanted to write a script on the topic of income inequality. You start strong, and Bob Odenkirk gives an accessible explanation to your protagonists, and hence the audience, on the basic concepts: capitalism, ethics, the evil men do to buy yet another mansion. Then, halfway through, Mister Moneymuncher appears. Mister Moneymuncher is your antagonist, and is crashing the world economy by eating everyone’s cash. Just suckin’ up those liquid assets with a straw. Your protagonists punch Mister Moneymuncher and send him to jail. Roll credits.
This sounds like an utterly absurd sentence (even considering how that last paragraph introduced a hypothetical character named Mister Moneymuncher), but: I think this animated children’s film could have provided effective commentary on the problems facing modern politics. If Screenslaver was more subtle, more underhanded and slow, kids could have been introduced to a difficult topic in an accessible way, the same way Zootopia deftly explains unconscious prejudice. But Screenslaver’s sheer power means that message is lost. Children aren’t going to critically analyse their televisions and computers and tablets, because none of those screens display huge evil spirals. Any impact would be soon forgotten. There’s certainly potential here, but don’t give this film more credit than it’s due. The mind control is to the service of the action sequences and nothing else.
If you’ve been paying attention to the header images (and I hope you have, Kimmy did a superb job!), you may be wondering why Screenslaver is represented as a FunkoPop figure. Is it because transparent images of such a recent, intricately-animated character are rare? Yes.
…But I also thought it made for an apt metaphor. Syndrome stood for something, and if anything, the way he represents the dark side of nerdish fanaticism has only become more relevant. But I have my doubts Screenslaver will hold up as well in 14 years. Plastic, big-headed, shaking an undersized fist. A product to be bought, then forgotten.
Feel free to change the channel.