A lot has happened in the past fourteen years. No one had a smartphone in 2004. Our country was enmeshed in the Iraq War. I still had hair. Fourteen years ago is also when The Incredibles premiered. It was the heyday of Pixar, when they could no wrong. More importantly, the superhero genre did not yet dominate the pop culture landscape. This was before The Dark Knight, The Avengers, and cinematic universes. An original superhero film still had novelty, which part of what made The Incredibles such a delight. Now we have Incredibles 2, released months after Avengers: Infinity War. This sequel continues the story as nothing has changed in the past fourteen years. That is to the film’s credit, and also its detriment.
You may recall that The Incredibles are a family of superheroes. Mr. Incredible (Craig T. Nelson) has super-strength, while his wife Elastigirl (Holly Hunter) can stretch her body. Their son Dash (Huck Milner) can run really fast, while Violet (Sarah Powell) can make herself invisible. Incredibles 2 picks up right where the first film leaves off, with The Underminer (John Ratzenberger) threatening the city with a giant drill. The Incredibles stop him, albeit at great cost, so politicians want superheroes not using their powers. An ambitious industrialist (Bob Odenkirk) and his tech-savvy sister (Catherine Keener) approach the family with an idea: they’re going to launch a PR campaign to bring superheroes back into the mainstream. The campaign only has room for Elastigirl, though, leaving Mr. Incredible as a stay-at-home dad.
Compared to Pixar’s other output, this franchise is not as ambitious or accomplished. Incredibles 2 is not like Inside Out or Coco, two great films that hit their audience “right in the feels.” This one is more like a cartoon, with wacky action as its highpoint. Unlike most superhero films, these animated characters can contort their bodies in outrageous ways, so the thrill of Incredibles 2 is how the heroes adapt their powers to any situation. Eliastigirl has a terrific chase sequence where she stops a runaway train. Some of the action sequences are unique: there is a fight scene set in a small space, with throbbing LED lights illuminating the movement. It is an ambitious choice, in terms of cinematography, to the point that the other action sequences are dimmer in comparison (pun intended).
For all its slingshot physics and improbable movement, it is difficult to shake that Incredibles 2 is essentially a remake of the first film. Once again, Brad Bird is in the writer’s and director’s chair, with him redoing the same basic premise: one superhero does hero stuff, while their spouse serves as a homemaker. There are some good gags with Mr. Incredible as a schlubby father, including a subplot where cannot figure Dash’s math homework. Jack Jack, the youngest Incredible with all sorts of strange powers, is the source of all the best jokes (a highlight is an inventive, hilarious fight scene with a cute critter). Still, there is too much familiarity to it, right down to the bait-and-switch over the villain. I’m not asking for twists or surprises, especially from a film primarily marketed to children. The issue is Incredibles 2 hits all the same character beats, right down to the anxiety of using powers in public.
One curious thing about The Incredibles is the Ayn Rand influence over its themes. Brad Bird has adamantly denied being an objectivist – I don’t think anyone is saying that he is – yet the core of her ideas fits neatly into his superhero framework. If you recall, the original film is about how the government forces people with extraordinary gifts to deny who they are. The film also includes the line, “If everyone is special, then no one is.” Incredibles 2 has hints of that philosophy, although they are not nearly as pronounced. Bird is keeping the narrative tight, without characters representing any larger ideas. That streamlines the storytelling – this is a sequel with a tight narrative – albeit at the sacrifice of any ambition.
The Incredibles is arguably the best superhero film ever made. It has strong characters, fluid action, and gorgeous colors. Most importantly, it had something to say. Incredibles 2 will not even fit into the top tier of great superhero films released this year. Brad Bird, the voice actors, and the animators have made something that looks great, sounds great, and really moves. The pity is that this film runs into the classic sequel problem. It has the same beats as the original, without expanding its world in a meaningful way.