Review: Incredibles 2 (Brad Bird, 2018)
The Hollywood landscape into which Pixar’s twentieth computer-animated feature Incredibles 2 (Brad Bird, 2018) now sits is very different to the filmmaking climate of the original. Back in 2004 when audiences first glimpsed the superheroic exploits of the Parr family – Bob/Mr. Incredible and Helen/Elastigirl, alongside their three children Violet, Dash and Jack-Jack – the resurrection of contemporary superhero cinema was still very much in its infancy. Based on the Marvel comic book character, Blade (Stephen Norrington, 1998) would go on to light the blue touch paper for an intensive first wave of Hollywood superhero cinema throughout the early- to mid-2000s that included, of course, Pixar’s then-sixth film The Incredibles (Brad Bird, 2004). The highs, lows and missteps of the genre were soon marked by the quickfire release of two trilogies – with two more entries in the horror fantasy Blade franchise (1998–2004) and then Fox’s X-Men series (2000–2006) – as well as a multitude of other outings in the immediate post-9/11 period. These included Sam Raimi’s three Spiderman films (2002-2007), Daredevil (Mark Steven Johnson, 2003) and spin-off Elektra (Rob Bowman, 2005), Hulk (Ang Lee, 2003), The Punisher (Jonathan Hensleigh, 2004), Catwoman (Pitof, 2004) and the two Fantastic Four films (2005–2007), as well as Christopher Nolan’s darker reboot of Gotham’s finest in Batman Begins (2005). However, times have changed, and this time around Incredibles 2 writer/director Brad Bird must now face-off against other adversaries. The ongoing box-office clout of Marvel Cinematic Universe – which began exactly a decade ago with Iron Man (Jon Favreau, 2008) – alongside the emergence of the young pretenders at the DC Extended Universe, have created a new generation of moviegoers well-versed in the codes, conventions and characterisations of superhero cinema. Amid this fight for commercial and critical supremacy, Bird’s film happily comes off a worthy winner, and is a fabulous entry into what has been a relatively uneven Pixar feature film canon of late.
Unusual perhaps for a sequel, Incredibles 2 takes the bold step of having its opening sequence unfold only a few seconds after the climactic events of the first film. This strategy immediately grounds the film and places it on a secure footing, while offering spectators a comfortable re-entry into the stylish 1950s/1960s populuxe world of Metroville. The main narrative premise involves, as in the original, the trials and tribulations of the Superhero Relocation Program, and in particular growing governmental concerns over the collateral damage caused by the Parr family and their contemporaries (including Frozone, voiced once again by Samuel L. Jackson) as they battle The Underminer in the film's bombastic opening sequence. Struggling to make ends meet and now holed up in a motel (and with finances low), the Parr family are approached by Winston Deavor and his sister Evelyn, owners of the DevTech telecommunications corporation, who want to use the Parrs to regain the public's waning trust in superheroes. As part of the deal, the Deavors set up the Parr family in a lavish new home, and with Helen chosen to spearhead the pro-supers campaign, it is left to stay-at-home parent Bob to manage breakfast feeding time, sibling squabbles, teen relationships and Math homework. However, no sooner has Helen returned to action than a mysterious supervillain by the name of the Screenslaver begins to project hypnotic images through television screens, using these shady transmissions to control superheroes as a way of presenting them as a public threat and thereby tarnishing their reputation forever.
Incredibles 2 is a very good film. Incredible, you might say. Deviating not too far from the original, Bird offers us an adventure with a secret identity all of its own, namely that its superhero narrative isn’t really about superheroes at all. The family-centredness of The Incredibles is rightly maintained here as the sequel’s emotional core, with Bob's relationships with Violet and Jack-Jack placed centre stage. Yet it is Helen who garners the most screen time, and her hiring by Devtech provides an ulterior space in which she can fully test her impressive bodily flexibility. The power of thrilling female action that lies at the heart of Incredibles 2 has certainly drawn critics' attention to its gender politics. A recent piece published by Anna Smith in The Guardian, for example, champions the film’s progressive portrayal of Helen (interestingly positioning it in a line of "fantasy animation" media no less!). Smith's piece identifies Bird's film as a "feminist triumph [...] that bucked tired gender cliches even more than the first film," and that it comes as part of "a gradual shift towards complex female characters at the centre of animated movies – and very successful ones." In the wake of the Harvey Weinstein scandal, and the seismic rallying cries of the #MeToo and #TimesUp international movements that continue to give magnitude to persistent and troubling gender inequalities, it is imperative that female-oriented animations like Incredibles 2 are no longer considered the exceptions that prove the rule. Despite positive signs, the representational possibilities opened up within the last 5 years or so by Frozen (Jennifer Lee & Chris Buck, 2013), The Lego Movie (Phil Lord & Christopher Miller, 2014) and Moana (Ron Clements & John Musker, 2016) for women to be explorers, builders, leaders and heroes (and, dare I say it, even animated film directors...), have yet to be fully realised by mainstream cartoon cinema. But we deserve a Hollywood animation industry that works to galvanize these social movements as they continue to gain momentum, and do their duty by offering audiences of all genders the kind of characters that can successfully carry feminist messages and effectively challenge societal definitions of gender in these inspiring times.
In this vein, Incredibles 2 provides a role-reversal narrative that throws Helen headlong into some astounding action sequences ,while Bob is left literally holding the baby as his wife takes full command (Fig. 3). If Pixar’s historical resistance towards a female protagonist was finally broken by Princess Merida in Brave (Mark Andrews & Brenda Chapman, 2012), and then continued in both Inside Out (Peter Docter, 2015) and Finding Dory (Andrew Stanton, 2016), then here we finally have a fearless female protagonist exploited for more than just superheroic hi-jinks. Helen really take the reins in the sequel, a move that is much-needed especially given her enforced domesticity that framed much of the character's story arc in the original film. It is also refreshing to see Incredibles 2 raise questions about the construction of animated worlds seemingly devoid of sexism. It questions whether female accomplishments in animated features be partnered with – or at least framed by – troubling gender politics and a visible struggle against patriarchy onscreen, or if such worlds should efface these struggles to present a gender-equal narrative space. Can female characters in animation be shown to overcome sexism if it isn’t made overt in the film’s narrative to start with? Gender (in)equality has the potential to take many forms, and as The Guardian piece makes clear, it is vital that a film like Incredibles 2 is able to incite these kinds of feminist and post-feminist debates within the context of mainstream animation. Perhaps the film’s biggest strength, then, is that it directly folds misogyny back into the Bob/Helen relationship. Indeed, an indication of Bob’s sexist behaviour comes to the fore when he is irked at Devtech wanting his wife (heaven forbid!) rather than him as the face of superheroes to improve their public perception. His squirming facial contortions as he deals with professional rejection, and later his happiness-through-gritted-teeth response to Helen’s euphoria of saving a monorail with “no casualties,” provide intriguing moments of Bob's male jealousy that lies behind his mask. Such sequences, though fleeting and perhaps setting up character qualities that are not fully resolved, indicate exactly the kinds of challenges Helen faces as a woman, not just from a public sceptical at superheroes, but from her husband who seems to hold clear reservations about his wife's ability to do her job (and, crucially, as well as him). By showing clearly gender inequality through the traits of one of its key protagonists, Incredibles 2 frames Helen's public and private achievements as all the more remarkable in the face of Bob's lack of conviction that his wife is even capable of saving the world in the way that he most definitely could.
My only criticism of Incredibles 2 is that there is something nigglingly second generation about the action and characters onscreen. Maybe this is a function of the larger self-similarity of computer-animated films within Hollywood’s well-oiled animation machine. Or, perhaps, it's just that Incredibles 2 is now Pixar’s fifth film to become a franchise following recent sequels to Toy Story (John Lasseter, 1995), Cars (John Lasseter, 2005), Monsters, Inc. (Pete Docter, 2001), and Finding Nemo (Andrew Stanton, 2003). The fact that Incredibles 2 also begins an upcoming run of consecutive sequels from both Disney and Pixar, such as Ralph Breaks the Internet (Rich Moore & Phil Johnston, 2018) and Frozen 2 (Jennifer Lee & Chris Buck, 2019), as well as another Toy Story film due for release in June 2019, suggests a greater reliance on recycled pleasures. But there are other factors at play here too that suggest Incredibles 2 is raking over somewhat familiar ground. As many online discussion forums (and even Google autocomplete) have noted, Evelyn holds more than a passing resemblance to the design of newsreporter Roxanne Ritchi from DreamWorks’ Megamind (Tom McGrath, 2010) (Fig. 4). Similarly, Incredibles 2’s narrative organisation is (*mild spoiler alert*) also predicated on the surprise of duplicitous heroism and a twist involving a nefarious villain previously championed as a trustworthy character. This is, of course, a template we've seen many times already – and recently too – in Pixar's last film Coco (Lee Unkrich, 2017), as well as in Up (Pete Docter, 2009) and Toy Story 3 (Lee Unkrich, 2010) before it, and again in each of Disney’s last four hit films Wreck-It Ralph, Frozen, Big Hero 6 (Don Hall & Chris Williams, 2014) and Zootopia (Byron Howard & Rich Moore, 2016). Finally, even Incredibles 2’s standout opening set-piece in which the Parr family fight The Underminer while simultaneously shirking babysitting duties, seems to bear the trace of the hyperkinetic egg chase from Pliocene comedy The Croods (Kirk DeMicco & Chris Sanders, 2013) (see below). Given the history of the Pixar vs. DreamWorks rivalry, it is difficult not to also see Jack Jack’s playful scrap with an impish raccoon midway through the film as a playful nod to R.J. the raccoon from DreamWorks’ Over the Hedge (Tim Johnson & Karey Kirkpatrick, 2006). Unsurprisingly, in Incredibles 2 it is Jack-Jack (and, therefore, Pixar) who comes out on top.
But if Incredibles 2 resembles anything then it is Bird's 2004 original, and this is no bad thing. The sequel maintains all the successful elements of the first film and, in some cases, improves on them, including a genius turn by superlative fashion designer Edna Mode (voiced by Bird himself) and a nice array of supporting superheroes that allows the narrative to explore parental responsibility, disillusionment, outsiderdom, and morality beyond the members of the Parr family. Incredibles 2 is ultimately up there with Pixar's best, if not fully able to wrestle the crown from their earlier highlights (including the original and a particular favourite of mine, Bird's other Pixar film as director Ratatouille ). With summer blockbuster season now in full swing (I'm looking at you, Skyscraper [Rawson Marshall Thurber, 2018] and Mission Impossible: Fallout [Christopher McQuarrie, 2018]), Incredibles 2 provides a welcome return to old friends within a spectacular new mission that nicely politicises the superheroes' flaws, failures and fortunes. The Parrs are a complex family of action and adventure, and it's certainly nice to have them back.