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Atlas leans back everywhere.

You’ve seen it by now, I hope? —At the very least, you’ve seen the preview, and I bet you giggled at the bit where Frozone’s looking for his longjohns, which goes a little something like this:

FROZONE:
Honey—where’s my super-suit?
HIS WIFE:
Your what?
FROZONE:
Where’s my super-suit?
HIS WIFE:
Why do you need to know?
A helicopter explodes.
FROZONE:
We’re talking about the greater good!
HIS WIFE:
I am your wife! I am all the greater good you need!

Frozone, of course, gets his super-suit, and saves as much of the day as a sidekick can, with some stylin’ speedskating moves: the great power that necessitates the great responsibility he feels. (Well, that, and the adrenaline rush.) —Hooray for the greater good!

Now, there are some folks tut-tutting this flick for being excessively Randian. The Incredibles is ‘brilliantly engaging,’ [Stuart] Klawans says—which makes it ‘more worrisome, if you lack blind faith in the writings of Ayn Rand.’” —Which reminds me of a minor strain of Trekkiedom that insists Spock’s bloodless Vulcan logic must in its particulars resemble Rand’s Objectivism, because, y’know, Vulcan logic is logical, and Objectivism is logical, so hey presto. Not entirely sure what those Trekkies do with the image of Spock slumped on the floor, his green Vulcan blood smeared melodramatically along the glass wall, huskily telling Kirk with maddening imperturbability that “it is logical: the needs of the many outweigh—”

Then, it’s not really my problem, is it?

Nor am I entirely sure how to apply a Randian reading to a superhero flick in which the superheroes end up right back in the obscurity from which they came, danger their only reward for pulling on the tights—okay, danger, and some small government help in dodging the occasional catastrophic insurance claim and class-action suit. And their pictures on the covers of magazines. And free bullet-proof supersuits. And the adulation of millions. —But aside from all that.

As with any superhero work, there are echoes and resonances, responses and repudiations of Rand and Nietzsche. That stuff’s built in, like the secret identities and the underwear on the outside: even if you try not to do them, you have to take the time to let the audience know you’re not doing them, which means you end up doing them. Whoops. —So, yes: there’s a there there in The Incredibles, sure, but mostly because it is what it is. Brad Bird wanted to tell a story with superheroes in it; along with that genre comes certain baggage; that he hauls it about without complaint does not mean he’s crafted a candy-colored piece of crypto-Randian propaganda.

For instance: to read the conflict with Syndrome, the villain, as a “class war” of Übermenschen v. Lumpen is to miss the whole point of his costume, his tropical island, his lava curtain, his expendable henchpeople, his Heat Miser hair, his zero-point energy gauntlets. Syndrome doesn’t want super powers. He’s had super powers ever since he was a wee tot: he’s the mad inventor, the kid genius, the gadgeteer: a super-powered archetype with a long and pulpy pedigree. What it is that Syndrome wants is to be a superhero—without, y’know, the pesky bother of all those superheroics. He doesn’t get the altruistic end of the stick; he just wants to shortcut straight to the adulation.

So Syndrome isn’t an unpowered drone with delusions of acting above his station. Syndrome’s an asshole.

Okay, how about when Bob Parr, née Incredible, bursts out with “They’re constantly finding ways to celebrate mediocrity!” Classic Ü v. L, right? —Except he’s griping about Dash’s “graduation ceremony”—for moving from fourth grade to fifth grade. It’s not the people, powered or un-, that are mediocre; it’s the experience. Bob’s railing at the insidious successorized insistence that every moment be special, everything be wonderful, that we’re always happy, no matter what, always game, always up for it, always closing, that we’re always safe and satisfied and sound: the awful logic that actually believes nine hours a day in a fluorescently buzzing cubicle end-running legitimate insurance claims really is a rewarding position that utilizes your talents and skillset in a meaningful fashion that best satisfies your life-goals.

(“If everyone’s special,” sneers Syndrome, whines Dash, “then no one will be.” —Yes, yes. I never said this was a slam-dunk.)

And then there’s the somewhat more grounded criticism of the family’s superpowers, and how they mimic and mirror and reinforce white-bread patriarchal family values, ew, ick: Dad’s hella strong; Mom stretches herself thin to keep up with everyone; the adolescent daughter just wants to disappear; tweener son’s a hyperactive blur—

Bird’s biggest achievement in The Incredibles is to have inflated family stereotypes to parade-balloon size. His failing is that, in so doing, he also confirmed these stereotypes, and worse. Helen mouths one or two semi-feminist wisecracks but readily gives up her career for a house and kids; women are like that.

Klawans again, and again he’s missing a point that superhero aficionados know in their bones—but, more shockingly, one that’s right there on the screen, one of the major themes of the movie, one he checks himself in the very next sentence: “they chafe at their confinement, like Ayn Rand railing against enforced mediocrity.” —Hell, Bill got it, even if he did crib it from Jules Feiffer:

When Superman wakes up in the morning, he is Superman. His alter ego is Clark Kent. His outfit with the big red S is the blanket he was wrapped in as a baby, when the Kents found him. Those are his clothes. What Kent wears, the glasses, the business suit, that’s the costume. That’s the costume Superman wears to blend in with us. Clark Kent is how Superman views us. And what are the characteristics of Clark Kent? He’s weak, unsure of himself… he’s a coward. Clark Kent is Superman’s critique on the whole human race, sort of like Beatrix Kiddo and Mrs. Tommy Plumpton.

Helen Parr doesn’t give up her career for a house and kids because women are like that; she gives it up because a spate of lawsuits drives the supers into hiding, and so she tries to live up to the normal idea of what women are like—and it fails, miserably. Bob’s miserable when he tries to carry the weight of his family on his back alone. Violet blossoms when she’s able to take direct action to save and protect her parents. Dash—well, let’s give Dash props; he knows what he wants all along, and when he finally gets it, it’s a blast of sheer, unadulterated joy that leaves you whooping and hollering and forgetting for the moment the distressing bodycount. The triumph of the movie is seeing the family set aside its constraining, restraining roles and work together to get something done: rather less patriarchal than the good Dr. Dobson might want, I should think.

Of course, at the end of the movie, the status quo is mostly resumed: the Incredibles return to incognito, and though Dash gets to run track, he can’t do it full-out, y’know? Rational, egotistical Objectivism is not followed to its seemingly logical conclusion: they don’t end up living in their supersuits, imposing the super-powered diktatoriat that is their Nietzschean due. —Their secret identities are lies, yes, but not lies to be repudiated: they’re roles, to be put on and taken off as needed—necessary compromises we all must negotiate with the expectations of the world around us. The Parrs’ mistake was to think that the Breadwinner or the Homemaker were somehow more real and true than the supersuits.

No, if you want to read The Incredibles as some sort of Randian parable, then it becomes a tragedy. Syndrome is our protagonist: the genius inventor whose fabulous wealth was created—rationally, egotistically—by the focussed application of his singular talents. He dreams of a world in which cheap, zero-point energy puts the mythic powers of a select few within the reach of us all—the ecstatic epiphany of Flex Mentallo;Harrison Bergeron” run in reverse, like some madcap technicolor dream. —But here come the Incredibles, representatives of that select few, who destroy his wealth and smash his dream and grind him back into the dust, hogging the glory all to themselves: call it Incredible Planetary, if you like.

“If everyone were special.” —There are some problems it might be fun to have. Y’know?

  1. Chris Baldwin    Nov 21, 09:24 AM    #
    Nice analysis to a movie worthy of critique. :)

    And whether from Bill or Feiffer, "he’s a coward. Clark Kent is Superman’s critique on the whole human race" will keep me thinking for days.

  2. Dylan Meconis    Nov 21, 04:16 PM    #
    Well, Rand would chafe at the apparent altruism of the Incredibles and their ilk (they don't do it for the accolades, they do it because they feel it is right, and that they are best suited and even morally obligated to perform heroic duty), and ultimately Syndrome is a bad candidate for Randian hero because he buys into the adulation gambit; and because he's interested in reducing the genius of the few and diluting it to the many. He's not elitist enough, really. If only the Incredibles could get over their desire to help the weak, and instead focussed their powers on grander schemes, she might approve.

  3. kimberley    Nov 22, 05:58 AM    #
    freud said that sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. maybe sometimes a movie is just a movie. my boys would certainly like to think so. can't it be? just this once?

  4. Kevin Moore    Nov 22, 08:38 AM    #
    Freud spent a lot of time with his, ahem, cigar.

    But a movie is never "just a movie." A painting of a tree is not the tree itself, but a comment on that tree. A work of art as complex as The Incredibles has an awful lot to say that is worth listening to and responding to. It pays more respect to all the work the animators, writers and actors put into making it to take it seriously (and the movie is worth taking seriously) than to write it off as "just a movie."

  5. --k.    Nov 22, 09:18 AM    #
    Chris: Will Shetterly has some things to say to Bill (and Feiffer).

    Dylan: Wow. My best attempt at a Randian supervillain is rejected because his dangerously utopian schemes are too altruistic. Just, y'know. Wow.

    kimberley: Much as cigars, criticism is an acquired taste, one that not all children ever end up acquiring. I'd no more dream of telling your boys not to enjoy the film on whatever terms they like than you would, I'm sure, tell me to put out the cigar I'm smoking on my own back porch.

    Kevin: What I just said, so simmer down. And anyway: is that a critical theory of your own about the Incredibles in your pocket? Or are you just happy to see mine?

  6. Kevin Moore    Nov 22, 09:38 AM    #
    Sorry if I came off more, um, "simmered up" than I meant to; tone control ain't so easy on the Interweb. Being the parental figure to a six-year-old myself, I wouldn't expect Kimberley's boys to do more than enjoy the wonderful animation and silly jokes. But if my niece Katie started reading between the lines, so to speak, I'd certainly encourage that, too. Half the fun of art is interpretation.

    And, yes, I am quite happy to see your cigar burning so bright, Kip—stinky though it is. :)

  7. Robert    Nov 22, 12:11 PM    #
    I saw this movie with my seven-year-old son,
    who is . . . obsessed is not too strong a word,
    obsessed with SPEED and STRENGTH. His totem animals are the Cheetah and the Peregrine Falcon.

    To my intense surprise, he did not come home from the movie babbling about Dash. My husband thinks that's because he believes he's the REAL Dash, and the kid in the movie is just an actor. Heh.

    But to the 'critical' point - I'm much more comfortable with elitism than my husband is. With the kid, we try to sing the same melody, albeit in different keys - e.g., some people are better at X, Y or Z than other people, but that doesn't make them _better_ people, what makes you better is how you behave, how you treat others, the choices you make. Daddy is good at math and music, Papa is good at science and history. He (the kid) is good at math and swimming and being kind to littler kids, etc. None of that makes us good or bad, except for the kind to kids part.

    One thing he DID get from the movie is one of the big lessons we don't have to teach him - mean people s**k. Syndrome could have used his superscience inventiveness to become a quasi-Batman, and show all the 'supers' how a non-super (with the aid of superior intelligence and vast wealth) could do as good as they could. But he made a different choice, and _that's_ what made him a bad guy.

    The bit about how the whole family had to work together to defeat Syndrome went over his head a bit, but I feel sure we'll see this movie more than a few times in years to come.

  8. Kevin Moore    Nov 23, 07:35 AM    #
    To my intense surprise, he did not come home from the movie babbling about Dash. My husband thinks that's because he believes he's the REAL Dash, and the kid in the movie is just an actor. Heh.

    This reminds me that after seeing the movie with my six-yr-old niece Katie, she spent the rest of the evening pretending that she was Dash, running around and calling herself by that name. "I'm a lot like him," she kept telling me. Which goes to show that kids can cross gender roles much more easily than adults—like, say, the otherwise astute Stuart Klawans.

    His contention that traditional family roles are reinforced is correct only up to the point where fan-based reinterpretation takes over; that is, when kids appropriate the elements of a story they most identify with or idealize. As a kid full of energy that she can barely contain, Katie can relate far more with Dash than with the mopey teenage Violet. Maybe over time that will change, when Katie becomes a mopey teenager no one understands writing "my room is a tomb" poetry and sneaking clove cigarettes. (I hope not to facillitate this development, but to some extent, it seems inevitable.) Until then, Dash's joi de vivre will serve her needs better.

    And about Syndrome: Has any commentor noticed that he's such the obnoxious fanboy?

  9. belle waring    Nov 25, 08:38 PM    #
    relevantly, why does the eponymous "teenage queen" in the Johnny Cash song have to sell her house and her fancy cars in order to marry the boy next door? also, my youngest daughter is named Violet, and not so long ago I wrote a self-congratulatory post on how the name was declining in popularity in the SS rankings, unlike the newly too-popular Zoë. the perils of hipsterdom.

  10. Opiniatrety    Nov 28, 07:19 PM    #
    The Incredibles
    Kip Manley has some interesting stuff up about the politics of The Incredibles. Well, we don't spoil our enjoyment of culture worrying about political correctness, do we? No. So, it's very entertaining, I wouldn't say great of all time or...

  11. Josh    Nov 30, 02:30 PM    #
    I'm inclined to think that comics are among the things Klawans doesn't get --he's the one who complained that the X-Men movie trivialized the Holocaust.

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