Lit React ~ Analysis & reactions on works of fiction.

31 Aug 2012

(2004 Movie) The Incredibles directed by: Brad Bird

(Reaction) Superlative by: Jose Angelo Singson

On the surface it is easy to dismiss The Incredibles as just another CGI cartoon movie: an amusing bit of eye-candy that entertains with a combination of a clever exchange of lines, a bit of slapstick and lots of explosions. The film however, surprises in that it is much more sophisticated and more intelligent than standard family oriented entertainment.

Enter the Parr family. They are the titular Incredibles, a family of supers trying to blend into their suburban limbo; operative word here being trying. Life as a non-super is hard for many different reasons. Chief among these reasons is of course that none of them has ever really had any experience with being normal which then brings us to the main theme of the movie: Identity---Superhero vs. Alter-ego.

I recall a very interesting monologue by the eponymous Bill from Kill Bill regarding the myth of superheroes. As per Bill:

...Now, a staple of the superhero mythology is, there's the superhero and there's the alter ego. Batman is actually Bruce Wayne, Spider-Man is actually Peter Parker. When that character wakes up in the morning, he's Peter Parker. He has to put on a costume to become Spider-Man. And it is in that characteristic Superman stands alone. Superman didn't become Superman. Superman was born Superman. When Superman wakes up in the morning, he's Superman...
I brought this up because this particular monologue beautifully crystallizes the unique quandary that all the supers (and not just the Incredibles) go through as they attempt to integrate into the quotidian.

Many of the supers were born the way they are, i.e. they were superhuman from the get-go. No need for radioactive spider bites, cutting-edge surgery, exposure to radiation or a dousing of unstable chemicals. They are the superhero persona. However, with the advent of the Supers Relocation Program (SRP) in effect the supers now have a terrible dilemma: if the government outlaws my identity, who then will I be and what do I become? If you think about it this is a really sad, really tragic matter. Akin to, say a fancy digital tablet being used as a serving tray for snacks because the government has decreed that using the machine's higher functions is unfair to the other non-digital appliances.

Which then brings to mind the other half of Bill's monologue concerning the superhero myth:

...His alter ego is Clark Kent. His outfit with the big red S - that's the blanket he was wrapped in as a baby when the Kents found him. Those are his clothes. What Kent wears - the glasses, the business suit - that's the costume. That's the costume Superman wears to blend in with us. Clark Kent is how Superman views us. And what are the characteristics of Clark Kent? He's weak... He's unsure of himself... He's a coward. Clark Kent is Superman's critique on the whole human race...

With the SRP in effect supers are forced to relinquish their not so much their superhero activities and their costumes. In actuality they are being asked to relinquish their identity, their uniqueness, if you will.

This begs the question: how does one surrender a crucial part of one's identity? In the film they attempt to answer this question by yanking Mr. Incredible/Robert Parr out of his role as a superhero and placing him into a situation as far removed from the glitz and glory of being a superhero---a nameless rank-and-file employee in an ironically self-serving medical insurance company.

This to me is more striking than a mere fish-out-of-water situation. I prefer to think of this as more of a Unicorn in the Garden (a short story by James Thurber, later turned into an animation short) sort of situation where the mundane and the spectacular come together but with a more unpleasant sort of role-reversal.

In practice, working in a medical insurance company would give Mr. Incredible/Mr. Parr an opportunity to still be the hero for many people. He would literally be able to come to the aid of widows and orphans in their time of greatest need. However, the self-centered policies of the insurance company make it all but impossible for the claimants to get their payouts.

Here Mr. Incredible/Mr. Parr still desperately tries to fill the role of the hero, in whatever way, shape or function he can. The way I see it, he can't help it, it's all he's ever known. Try as he might though the current system that he moves around in stifles all his attempts at merely being himself: his manager criticizes him for doing what he ought to do, the government constantly dangles the threat of bankruptcy by holding him liable for the damage he's caused during his time as a superhero and even his family lives under the persistent threat of being uprooted again as the government attempts to erase the existence of the Supers.

Another theme that is featured heavily in the film is that of Conformity vs. Non-conformity. The film's antagonist, Syndrome, sums up this issue beautifully when he finally reveals his master plot--- ...When everyone is super, no one will be... Whereas Mr. Incredible champions the push to be more, whether it is in serving insurance claimants or using his powers to help humanity, Syndrome seeks to have everyone kowtow to the status quo. Interestingly, he seeks to go about achieving this goal by going the completely opposite direction the government takes. Instead of coercing the supers to suppress their abilities he seeks to give non-supers that which he most dearly desires, superhuman abilities care of his clever inventions.

This theme is also present in the daily struggles of Mr. Parr/Mr. Incredible's school-age kids, Violet and Dash. Violet is the proponent of conformity. She is terribly insecure about the fact that she has supernatural powers and distances herself from her peers perhaps out fear of being found out as a super. Ironically her super-power manifests itself in her ability to become invisible ala Invisible Girl of The Fantastic Four which comes in very handy for a young woman who'd like nothing better than to disappear into nothingness rather than have her super-powers become known to the general public.

Her younger brother, Dash, on the other hand can barely contain his disdain for the need to appear normal. He constantly flaunts his disregard for school rules and authorities, playing pranks on his teacher and getting away with it because of his super-human speed. He feels that these rules, especially the need to seem like a normal human, is an affront to his true nature as a super. Dash, unlike his sister, longs to show the world how special he is; he longs to show the world how wonderful it is to be able to run faster than any man, or machine could...if only the general populace would approve.

The dynamic of the entire film in fact always results from two clashing dichotomies---super versus normal, hero versus victim, etc. It's almost as if to say that the two identities/two mindsets cannot co-exist peacefully and will most certainly come to a violent confrontation but one thing is certain and the film states that pretty clearly: the world will always need heroes and the world will always have room for the avant-garde. The world will always need people who aren't afraid to stand up to tyranny, whether it's a super-powered bully or a normal human manager who enjoys kicking a man when he's down and the world will always make room for one who is not afraid to shine when he has the full capacity to shine brighter than everyone else.

Review:

Yes, it's a Disney movie. Yes, it's a kiddie movie...sort of. But the premise is intelligent and I enjoyed the obvious homage to the golden age of comic book heroes.

It's more intelligent than it looks and if you want you can actually shelf this alongside say The Watchmen because of its similar superheroes-operating-within-parameters-of-what-we-know-as-reality train of thought.

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