In the last 40 years, American theaters have received around 70 superhero movies with lead characters recognized and known by audiences who’ve never even picked up a comic book. Their rate of release has gone from 4 openings a decade in the 1980s to 5 or more a year since 2016. The question for many studios seeking to make their mark on the genre is how to distinguish themselves in such a market. The original Superman told an earnest story with heart and inspiration, while Marvel’s latest episodes deliver functional stories with well crafted action and humor. In 2004, Brad Bird’s The Incredibles gave us both in its exploration of the dichotomy between hero life and daily life, a curious and earthy subject that was mostly swept under the rug after Iron Man revealed his secret identity in 2008.
Now, 14 years after its predecessor, Incredibles 2 has finally arrived, beginning on the heels of the first film and following a similar, but enjoyable plot. Mr. Incredible (Craig T. Nelson), a hulking father with extraordinary strength, becomes a stay-at-home dad so that his fittingly named wife, Elastigirl (Holly Hunter), can do glamorous superhero work and overturn aggressive anti-super legislation. Mr. Incredible struggles to keep his WMD-level superhero baby in check and help his kids with issues of math and dating.
The main conflict surrounds an unsettling series of cyber attacks that hypnotize victims through screens and can strike anywhere in an almost nightmarish distortion of normal world order. There are some truly creepy scenes, in which friendly faces turn blank to reciting ominous manifestos and security teams are infiltrated by guards whose minds have been hijacked. Unfortunately, the seemingly transcendent power and meticulously devised plan of the villain is downplayed in the final act, in favor of a more straightforward, action set piece.
That being said, the action is truly spectacular. The fights are fast paced, clever, and always a desperate struggle, tooth and nail for the protagonists. In the climactic sequence, a massive, speeding cruise ship is about to run aground into a densely populated city. For a casual viewer, the scene can be watched passively, knowing that tropes dictate the heroes will stop the ship right before it rams into a skyscraper. But for the attentive audience member, who’s acutely aware of the physics of the scene and the abilities of the heroes, it’s nail bitingly tense. We’ve seen Elastigirl barely stop a small train, Mr. Incredible punch through walls, and several other characters use powers strong enough for something the size of a small car, but it’s clear that none of these elements, even combined, have the force to halt a ship this large, at this speed, this close to the city. The music pounds, the editing cuts fast, the characters don’t stop moving, and the fate of the city is uncertain until the very last moment, at which my tensed body relaxed and I breathed easy again. With force fields, portals, and mind control in the mix, every action scene becomes a lightning fast chess game of unpredictable moves and distortion of reality.
There’s talk going around of various worldviews expressed through dialogue in Incredibles 2, as though the medium of film argued through words and not story. The villain accuses viewers of being passive consumers and there’s a verbal debate on whether it’s ok to break bad laws, but neither have much bearing on the movie as an experience. They may be little tidbits of undeveloped thought, but the story’s thematic meat lies in how the heroes overcome their challenges.
For Mr. Incredible, it’s overcoming pride and asking for help with the kids. For Elastigirl, it’s receiving help from her family and others to save the day. The kids can’t win a large scale fight on their own, but can serve as support for their parents. Everyone has unique abilities, but none of them can make it the whole way alone. In the last fight sequence, much like the one found in the first Incredibles, it’s all hands on deck.
Perhaps it may seem derivative and a lesser experience than the original, but another movie so earnestly dedicated to such a noble virtue as family is commendable, if flawed. And Incredibles 2 might not break new thematic ground, but it does provide fresh ground in which to plant old, timeless ideas.