It’s an odd thing when a movie opens up with a pre-packaged little clip of its actors and director apologizing to the viewer for taking so long to make a sequel, but that’s how Incredibles 2 started up in my theater.
This is a bit of an odd thing, given that it’s an upfront acknowledgement that the world and the entire genre have effectively moved past Brad Bird’s 2004 classic in a bevy of ways, but it’s a bit of a clue to how the movie operates. It’s a direct sequel, picking up literally minutes after after the first one ended, and with that setting and Bird’s stated goal of “timelessness,” you wouldn’t be wrong to wonder if you’ve stumbled into a rep theater showing highlights from a programmed series called “Rebirth of the Superhero Movie: 2000-2012.” That’s the movie’s greatest asset and also its greatest flaw. It allows Bird to do his shit the way he wants to do it and to preserve his original art-deco style, and on the other hand, it makes the entire enterprise feel wholly out of touch with the modern genre as we know it, and different people will find that compelling or not. Regardless, it is more of the same, and if more of the same is what you wanted from this sequel, you’ll probably enjoy it, even if it should have come out in 2006.
Here’s a plot summary for your asses: Remember The Incredibles? So does Disney/Pixar, given how that movie made them a massive amount of ca$h money back in the day. So it’s basically the first film all over again, with one key exception: It’s time for Elasti-Girl (Holly Hunter) to have a mid-life crisis, with a motorcycle and a new logo that looks like the Green Bay Packers’ to boot. She’s recruited by a well-meaning billionaire (Bob Odenkirk) and his secretive Laurie Anderson-lookalike sister (Catherine Keener) in order to give superheroes — still illegal in this universe — a much-needed P.R. overhaul. She’s sent out in the field to battle a new villain, the Screensaver, who basically echoes Bird’s views on how television and social media is replacing actual experience but does so in a mean fashion, and a lot of kids in the audience are going to discover that they have epilepsy this weekend, given how strobe lights figure heavily in his presentation. While all of this is happening in a city far away, Mr. Incredible (Craig T. Nelson), along with his best friend Frozone (Samuel L. Jackson), is back home with his kids, telepath Violet (Sarah Vowell), speedster Dash (Huck Milner), and superbaby Jack-Jack, doing a Mr. Mom riff that features all the “dumb dad” tropes that you’d expect from a former writer on The Simpsons. Twists happen (but not in the way initially teased), and the film builds to a smash-bang climax that can’t help but feel underwhelming compared to the first.
That sums up the entire ethos of Incredibles 2: The first, but worse. Sure, it’s all fine, with the standard polish that you’d expect from a Pixar production and some reasonable wit, and some decent examination of the consequences of super-heroism,but it’s missing the heart that so adequately defined the first film. You can tell, though, that nobody in the production really wanted to be making this movie, out of all the possible things they could be doing, but they give it their all. That goes doubly so for Bird. As such, a friend pointed out to me the other day that Pixar sequels have become a sort of director jail for the Disney staple: It’s where filmmakers go after they make a big-budget live action film that flops at the box office, perhaps because they’re weak enough at that particular point to agree to anything. We saw this with Finding Dory, where Andrew Stanton returned to the Pixar stable after striking out with John Carter, and now Bird has returned after the half-baked Tomorrowland went over like a lead balloon with audiences everywhere (does this mean that Ron Howard is going to direct A Bug’s Life sequel?).
He’s shutting up and playing the hits, indulging his audiences with what is basically an animated rendition of “Free Bird” to sate the small group of hecklers who only kind of sort of want to hear it in the first place. His direction feels stiff, even when he’s having fun ratcheting up the action sequences near the end, but his characters have rarely been this free of growth. Every character in this film is in the same position that they began the film in, though the hopeful subtext of the first film’s ending is totally codified in reality (which is a bit of a bummer, honestly), and all of it just makes it feel totally unnecessary. In fact, the only character given the space to truly grow is Jack-Jack, whose family discovers that he actually has powers (even though the audience and the babysitter and the villain from the previous film all knew about it), and we get to see Edna Mode react to that fact, which, I know, you’ve all been holding your breath for these past fourteen years. The slapstick involving Jack-Jack is the best aspect of this new film, and his goofy, cartoonish battle with a critter midway through the film is perhaps the funniest example of animal abuse put to film since a vengeful God decided to take out his aggression on a prehistoric squirrel in the Ice Age movies.
I can’t speak to the truth of Bird’s take on parenting (look to people like Matt Singer at Screencrush for a take like that), but I can speak to how it feels within its genre. Years of superhero movies made in the interval have soften the impact of some of Incredibles 2’s new additions, a group of superheroes recruited by Odenkirk and Keener to help Elasti-Girl in her pursuits, all who have powers that have been put to film before in ways both sillier and stronger in the years before this one’s release. Even the best of these, the lava-vomiting old man known as Reflux, was preempted by Bill Skarsgard in Deadpool 2 last month, not to mention how Bird utterly misses the mark with his portrayal of a portal-creating superhero. It’s rare that I can say the X-Men films have done anything better than another member of their genre, but good lord, even Days of Future Past had something up on this one. Let’s not forget that part of the novelty of the first Incredibles was seeing powers we’d read — elasticity, speed — about brought to life on screen.
The Randian subtext of Bird’s work — of which one could credibly accuse the entire genre of possessing — has successfully been diluted by other films, including one that features the literal representation of our country’s values that somehow manages to eschew simple nationalism and jingoism, but not here. Odenkirk wants to “Make Supers Legal Again,” and if I’m right, at some point he actually does say that he wants to Make Supers Great Again as well, by being a maverick billionaire who simply just wants to shake things up in order to live up to his father’s legacy. Sound familiar? And he’s an honest-to-god good guy! Politicians, on the lookout for their constituents from, say, accidentally being killed by a would-be vigilante trying to stop a robbery, are leeches who the supers “make life easy for,” in the words of Elasti-Girl. I never gave much credence to the original criticisms of Bird’s work as objectivist, and now I’d love to go back and check it out. Because for all the lampshading about “grim and gritty” superheroes, add some Hans Zimmer, lightning and slow-ramped action, and you have yourself a film ideologically similar to Zack Snyder’s DCEU output.
So Incredibles 2 will probably scratch that itch for people who have been clamoring for more of this story for the past 14 years, and it’ll probably bring a whole new group of kids into the fold who’ll be excited to learn what more that they can about this world and its characters. But those looking for something different, or looking to have the characters and concepts from the first film explored in any depth will be entertained but unfulfilled. You’ve got to wonder what Bird could have done if he’d just allowed himself to innovate, or to compete with the others in a genre that he truly helped elevate when it was on the precipice of evolution. It’s not a bad film, but it is most definitely a missed opportunity, and let’s hope that Pixar frees itself soon from the sequel trap that Disney shareholders have laid for them.
I just wish we could have seen his unproduced 1906 before he returned to this well once again for a victory lap. That might have been something truly super.