Last night, I watched The Incredibles. It is a feature length animated film about a family of super heroes. Think: Fantastic Four meets Roseanne. It was written and directed by Brad Bird, and like most of his work, it is a hell of a lot of fun. The first half of the film is a parody of the super hero genre. And as such it is brilliant. The second half of the film is straight super hero genre, but still works pretty well. I think it is a mistake to think of The Incredibles as anything other than a romp. But there is a thematic schizophrenia in the film that I can’t help but discuss.
In the first half of the film, the guiding idea is that people ought to be allowed to be who they are. What happens is that Mr Incredible (voiced by Craig T Nelson) hurts a man who he saves from suicide. The man sues him and this opens the floodgates for lawsuits against the “supers” who do have a tendency to cause a lot of damage in their crime fighting activities. The government passes a law granting them all immunity, but they have to stop being super heroes. So 15 years later, we find Mr Incredible working in an insurance company under a very annoying boss (voiced by Wallace Shawn) who is also offensively short.
But as the film progresses, it stops being about the oppression of those who are different. It becomes instead about the limitations placed on the great. At one point, Edna, the fashion designer who once made the fabulous costumes for the supers, laments, “I used to design for gods!” And indeed, as I’ve written about before, the modern action genre is nothing so much as demigod mythologizing. Bruce Willis and Sylvester Stallone don’t play humans, they play gods. And this has been a problem for our society where true heroism is devalued at the expense cinematic action that would kill any real man. At least the super heroes are demigods, unlike the Johns McClane and Rambo.
So, much of the second half of the film involves Mr Incredible grousing about the fact that greatness isn’t valued. For example, in an argument about their son Dash (!) whose super power is that he runs really fast, Mr Incredible says, “People keep coming up with new ways to celebrate mediocrity, but if someone is genuinely exceptional…” And then he proposes to his wife (the humorously sexist Elastigirl, voiced by Holly Hunter), “You want to do something for Dash? Well, let him actually compete! Let him go out for sports!” By the end of the film, he gets to do just that.
This brings up a fundamental problem, however. Dash may look like a little human boy, but he isn’t. He is a super or a demigod. Having other boys run a race against him is like having them run a race against a cheetah. (Note: I believe a human would beat a cheetah in a marathon.) After the race, father says to son, “I’m proud of you.” For what?! When Dash was born, he could run a hundred times faster than the fastest man on the planet. Is Mr Incredible proud that he just happened to be born with that ability?
That gets to the issue of free will. We are, all of us, the products of our genes and our environments. We are exactly whatever we were programmed to be. Now I understand that a society needs to pretend that this is not the case in order to provide an environment in which people will make the best of their lives. But we also shouldn’t lose perspective. The fact that I’m smart and knowledgeable is not something that I should give myself credit for. It is something that I should be grateful for. And so should Dash be grateful for his ability to run really fast.
The Incredibles gets confused about this. But it doesn’t matter. It is a fun and silly movie with a lot of laughs and action. And if you take it seriously, you are doing it wrong. Because it leaves a lot of unanswered plot questions. For example: when the super heroes retired, why did the super villains retire? But no one should care—not when we get to hear Wallace Shawn and Holly Hunter yell at Craig “No one helped me when I was on food stamps and welfare” Nelson. I suspect you will be having too much fun to notice any of these things. Regardless, you have no choice; you have no free will.