The Incredibles is one of my favorite films. Between a strong cast, beautiful animation, and dynamic and inventive fights, what’s not to like? Well… maybe the message.
I’m not talking about the plot. The plot of The Incredibles is well told. The family is broken (not seriously, but a little below the surface) by their past and their secrets. They (Mr. Incredible and ElastiGirl) each have different opinions about how things ought to be run, and how to raise the kids – all normal family stuff amplified by their incredible powers. The film handles this conflict with insight and heart – both Mr. and Mrs. Incredible concede a little to each other’s point of view, because that’s how a family should work, and because they both have valid points.
But the message of the movie is… more problematic, and bizarrely the film uses its villain to articulate it. When Syndrome attacks the city, he tells Mr. Incredible: “when everyone’s super, no one will be.”
It’s a weird sentiment, but even weirder is the movie’s refusal to back away from it. First, a concession: there’s nothing wrong with this sentiment in theory. It’s a quote I loved when I watched the movie the first time, something about it really resonated with me. It’s true, I figured, that people could not all be super, because that would simply make the bar for excellence higher. We must operate only in relationship to each other. Our idea of the quality of life, for example, has been raised significantly across the board since the 1600s, but that doesn’t mean that everyone is living what we’d consider a “super” life because the metric has changed. So in that way, the quote made sense to me.
But I’ve changed my thinking in a lot of ways personally since then, and reassessed what the movie actually means when it says this.
First, personally: there is a great Albert Einstein quote (or at least a quote attributed to him, but knowing the internet it’s probably not truly his): “Everyone is a genius. But if you judge a fish by it’s ability to climb a tree, it will live it’s whole life believing it is stupid.” It’s a sort of schmaltzy quote, sure, but it gets at something true. What does being super really mean? Some sort of physical prowess? If being super is how fast you can run, Dash can beat Mr. Incredible, but so too can a whole lot of “non-supers”. To argue that the Incredibles were not born with some innate physical gifts would be untrue, but that isn’t the only metric for super.
A second personal change: is “super” really a gradient like I believed, in which the metric or standard can change? In some ways, you can measure “superness”. There is an objective component to it – Mr. Incredible objectively has greater strength than your average joe. The standard of living has objectively risen in general from, say, the stone age, and that did raise the bar in regards to what having a “super” life means. But there is also a subjectivity which that stance ignores. Assuming you meet the standard for modern living, is the more “super life” the life with the most means, or with the kindest heart, or the greatest brain, or the most friends? How can we call any book or movie more super than another any more than we can rank our friends or peers from best to worst. There is no way, because there is no agreed metric.
Using those new criteria, let’s assess how the movie actually addresses “superness”. First off, The Incredibles treats the threat as very real – aka the movie behaves that if everyone is super, that’d be bad, because we need some people who are “better” than other people. Both Mr. Incredible and Syndrome agree on this point: Syndrome wants to level the playing field, and Mr. Incredible doesn’t, but for either of those goals to exist both characters (and the film by extension) has to begin with the thesis that some people are objectively better than others.
That is where the problems begin. Superhero movies presuppose their heroes are honestly “super” – they must be better than others. But there are, as said above, two ways to distinguish super: as a gradient, or as something more subjective. The Incredibles falls totally into the gradient thesis. The final scene sees Dash purposely losing a race, because he is better than everyone but needs to hide it so as not to upset people. Really, he should be in a different league. Hiding what makes you special because people you view as mediocre will be offended is an awful take-away. We should celebrate what makes him impressive while acknowledging other people’s achievements, and that Dash had a bit of a leg up to begin with.
It’s not the worst message in the world. Certainly there are films and media in general with worse ones. But it’s also not a message I agree with, one that I think is at least partially problematic (Brad Bird’s other movies have reinforced his sometimes dangerous take on elitism). So what do we do with that? Do we need to agree with the movies that we like? Does that matter? Can good art transcend our moral convictions? I’d say no, and while The Incredibles isn’t the most problematic pieces of art I’ve ever run across it’s one of the more challenging ones because I adore it so much. In the future, should I show my kids a children’s movie I love but which may teach them lessons I disagree with?