Incredibles 2: 14 Years Too Late?
—by Nathan on June 17, 2018—
On some winter day one winter week 14 years ago, my parents dropped my sisters, then 6 and almost 1, off at my aunt’s and uncle’s house and took me to see Pixar’s latest flick: The Incredibles. The studio, having tackled toys, monsters, bugs, and fish in their previous films, now entered the superhero realm, four years before the Marvel Cinematic Universe debuted. While I have vague memories of that initial showing—a scene where Dash runs on water to escape henchman of the evil Syndrome is most vivid in my mind—it’s the countless rewatches that stand out. My dad bought a 2-disk DVD the day the movie came out, and I’ve seen in numerous times since then. I can’t recall how many times I’ve watched it, but it’s been apparently enough that Anna and I can say lines at random and, as showcased by a recent viewing this past Friday, quote several lines along with the characters. Everything from a random cop going “Yeah, you’re the best” to Mr. Incredible, to Dash’s “I’m not gonna leave the cave,” to the instantly classic “Where is my super-suit?” scene with Frozen and his wife Honey…we can just spit the lines as they keep coming. It’s a testament, I think, to our love of the film. The Incredibles is, absolutely, my favorite Pixar film yet and one of my favorite movies of all time, right up there with The Dark Knight, Logan, The Avengers, and Unbreakable. In my mind, you have an animated film that can hold its own against the culmination of Marvel’s Phase 1, Fox’s gritty and final Wolverine story, and Christopher Nolan’s utterly phenomenal second Batman film.
Part of it is nostalgia. No, sorry, a lot of it is nostalgia. Watching it Friday, I experienced the same joy I had the previous times I’d viewed it. Every time, I see the fantastic storytelling, the great characterization, the fun action sequences, and the painstaking effort Pixar put into animating this thing. Sure, it’s fourteen years old—the animation is a bit choppier at moments, a little less defined than today’s standards, a little rough in patches, but that’s a minor guff. The story is still a heckuva lotta fun, the themes and lessons are still as powerful today as they were several years ago, and my longstanding infatuation with this movie only makes me respect it more each time I watch it. But enough gushing. Point is: this movie’s great. And, thanks to the 2-disk special edition we own, we’ve gotten to experience other great little tidbits—such as an animated short staring Jack-Jack and babysitter Kari and a cheesy-looking 2D “cartoon” starring Mr. Incredible and Frozone—there’s even more to love about it.
And, for me, it was enough. Though the ending teased a potential sequel, a video game tie-in called “Rise of the Underminer” was enough to give me an answer to what happened after John Ratzenberger’s Not-Mole Man rose aboveground to declare war on “peace and happiness.” It’s kind of a dorky game, one I haven’t played in over ten years, but it was fun at the time (and, while we’re on the subject, the tie-in game for the actual Incredibles movie is actually really, really fun). But as far as “epilogues” or “sequels” went for the story, it was fine. The story of the Incredibles was as complete as it needed to be: Bob had learned his lesson, Dash was finally competing, Violet had her date with Tony, and Jack-Jack’s powers were emerging…you got left with the sense that, yes, these characters had finished one chapter of life and were starting a new one. A good ending overall.
Then rumors came about the sequel, followed by confirmation of said sequel, followed by more rumors speculating what that film would be about: it would take place in several years’ time; the kids would be older; Dash would be the villain. Inevitably, we saw trailers and confirmed various details—the focus would be on Elastigirl, a new villain called the Screenslaver would appear, Bob would take care of the kids and handle Jack-Jack’s burgeoning new power set. And, of course, various questions lingered in my mind from the previous film: which characters would return? Which characters would grow?
Then, June 15, 2018, we were finally given the long-awaited sequel to my personal favorite Pixar film. This dang film, released over a decade later, finally, finally came out. On the outside, I’d been more ecstatic about films such as The Dark Knight Rises and Avengers: Infinity War. But on the inside, this meant a lot. Between the first and second Incredibles films, I’d grown up from a snot-nosed nine-year-old kid to a twenty three-year-old college graduate who just started his first full-time job three months earlier. I’d gone from a kid who could totally identify with a dude like Dash, what with the bickering siblings, immature nature, and self-proclaimed precocious fourth-grader attitude, to a young man who about doubled the character in age. These kids, these heroes, these animated characters…they were my everyman. In some ways, they were me, cause that’s how characters work. And, now, years later…Dash is still Dash, but nine-year-old me is gone. Time has passed, I have changed, but my love for the film remains intact, so what was I supposed to be but wait in hand-wringing anticipation?
Surprisingly…the sequel doesn’t totally stack up to the original.
This Is Where I Start Monologuing
It’s hard to make a sequel better than an initial release. Off the top of my head, I can list The Dark Knight, Logan, Toy Story 3, and Star Wars: The Last Jedi as some of the best sequels I’ve seen. But then you got your classic films, like Jurassic Park, Home Alone, or the original Iron Man or Avengers, that just can’t be topped, in my opinion. Sequels tend to either deviate too much from the original (Iron Man 3, for example) or stay too close to the first film (like the second Jurassic Park movie) rather than make itself unique. It’s a fine line. You don’t want a carbon copy of the first, but you also don’t want to make something totally foreign and alien either.
In that way, Incredibles 2 matches up. It’s an original story, which springs naturally and literally from the ending of the first film, and continues several threads established in the previous movie. The Underminer attack, Jack-Jack’s powers, Violet’s relationship with Tony, and the legality of superheroics all have a role to play as they did in the first film. You also get the return of several characters, including Rick Dicker, Frozone, and Edna Mode. And then come all the new plot points, such as new characters, new villain the Screenslaver, new locations, and new action sequences. So it’s a nice blend of old and new. Add in scads of fun humor (the fight between Jack-Jack and the raccoon is hilarious), the family dynamic, and better animation (which honestly threw me a bit at first, conditioned as I was to the first film, but then grew on me as I observed all the intense details throughout), and you’ve got Pixar’s winning recipe down to a science.
And, honestly, that’s probably the biggest problem with the film.
It’s not as good as the original. It's close, but ultimately, it doesn't reach the mark. If this were a standalone superhero film without any previous continuity holding it back, it would be a better movie, probably. But the fact that it is tethered so tightly to a film I love so much ultimately predestined this movie to fail a little bit. In and of itself, Incredibles 2 is a lot of fun. I was laughing a lot and enjoying the action. And I enjoyed it even more at a second viewing on Saturday, being able to delve more into character details and personalities. Dash’s plucky attitude resonated more this time around, as did Violet’s mopey “adolescence” and Bob Parr’s dazed-and-confused stay-at-home-parent act. Brad Bird’s excellent character direction, dialogue, and humor all find their way solidly in this movie, rivaling those same qualities of the first.
You Either Die a Perfect Movie...
Incredibles 2 straddles the line. It does that very well, almost too well. At moments, it unfortunately becomes a little too foreign to me in places, and I have to remind myself it’s a sequel. Villain the Screenslaver, in my opinion, is not nearly the threat that Syndrome was: while said villain, like Syndrome, has an intriguing origin story based on personal tragedy and plot twist reveal, this new opponent just cannot hold a candle to the original foe. I will say I like Screenslaver’s philosophical tirade in the middle of the film, of society’s reliance on ease and disregard to risk and adventure; if this theme had continued on, it would have worked really well. There’s something to be said about villains who, really, have honest, sometimes brutal, sometimes truthful commentary about mankind; their actions may be scummy, but their intentions and aspirations are grounded in a twisted truth. But that idea fades as the film goes on (and my second viewing seemed to confirm this philosophical rant was more of a smokescreen to the villain’s actual machinations), and Screenslaver’s intentions are revealed to be more personal in the end. Again, it’s a good motivator, but the two messages seem a bit jumbled. Syndrome was, at least, consistent in his hatred towards Mr. Incredible and his slow ramping up of pitting his Omnidroid against various other heroes to prepare it for Bob Parr’s alter ego. Screenslaver, for all their talk and gusto, becomes another monologuing jerk in a mask, the very kind of villain Brad Bird openly disdained in the first film. In a way, Screenslaver becomes the villain Symdrome parodied 14 years ago.
Likewise, the tone of the movie doesn’t feel as comfortable with me as the first. Most likely due to the huge popularity of big-budget superhero flicks, such as those in the MCU and DCEU, that have gone into overdrive in the past several years since the first Incredibles’ release, this sequel makes me feel like it had the need to compete. Hence the fast-paced action sequences such as Elastigirl stopping a train on her motorcycle, or Elastigirl rescuing an ambassador from a hijacked plane, or the kids being ambushed in their home by a group of mind-controlled superheroes. The influence of other superhero movies pervades this one, and instead of feeling like a parody of some of those aspects, Incredibles 2 decides to go with the flow. The first film didn’t do this. Action sequences were made to influence the structure of the story: Dash and Violet’s rumble in the jungle with Syndrome’s goons was meant to showcase their powers; the initial fight between Mr. Incredible and the Omnidroid helped set up the movie’s final fight sequence; even that final battle was five people using their powers against one giant robot, leading up to a confrontation with villain Syndrome that ended in a way other than people in costumes duking it out. Your generic battle/chase sequences were largely absent from the film and, if used, made real sense to the story. I just feel like, for the sequel, Brad Bird wanted to go the “bigger, badder” route. And he did. And not that the action sequences, again, aren’t a lot of fun…I just think some of the original film’s uniqueness gets toned down for this movie.
In a way, it’s a decision that makes sense for Bird. It’s been over a decade since the original movie’s release, and since then, both Marvel and DC have showered audiences with their big-budget blockbusters, dependent as they are on CGI-infused chases, rampages, fight scenes, and costumes. But the point of the original Incredibles, surely, was to be a mirror of other superhero films of the day. You’ve got Frozone and Mr. Incredible joking about the stereotypical supervillain trait of monologuing; later, you have Syndrome realizing he’s fallen into the same trap; you get the unique question of “what happens when a hero doesn’t accept a sidekick?”; you have the interesting political/secret identity perspective that infused real world elements into the story a whole two years before Marvel would take a similar approach with their “Civil War” comic. In terms of superhero storytelling, the original Incredibles was ahead of the curve. It twisted the genre in surprising ways.
Pixar’s known for that kind of storytelling. Check out Monsters, Inc. for another great twist on the whole “monster in the closet” trope in fiction. It’s what makes the films unique. But the problem is this: for both sequels of the aforementioned films—in this case, Monsters University and Incredibles 2—Pixar believes returning to the worlds they crafted is what can get them by. And, admittedly, it can do that, by and large. Like the second Incredibles film, Monsters University is a fun adventure…but it can’t beat the original film. Some of the uniqueness gets a little lost under the sheen of “bigger and badder.” I enjoy both movies and like the writing and characters, but it’s nostalgia for the first films that powers the core of the second outings. For younger me, it would be enough to just spend a few more hours in a word I’d grown to love. It’s why I thought Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 2 and 3 were both excellent forays back into Peter Parker’s world. And then I grew older and thought about it, just as I’m thinking about it now, and I’ve come to realization it just isn’t good enough. Admittedly, my second viewing of Incredibles 2 has altered that perspective somewhat, showing me it’s more of the story that was a bit lacking than anything. Watching this family of heroes on screen, their vivid personalities developing in relation to each other, was almost as fun this second time around as any previous viewing of the first film. Almost.
Use the Force, Brad
As a continuation of the franchise, I give the sequel a big thumbs up. As a quality Pixar movie/sequel, I applaud it. And as I watch it more often, I’ll hopefully grow to enjoy it and quote it almost as much as the original. But that’s just a hope. It probably won’t happen, for one good reason.
Let me use another example to illustrate: Logan. Wolverine’s third solo film far, far outshines its predecessors in terms of quality storytelling. Now, I’ve always had a soft spot for “X-Men Origins: Wolverine” and its sequel “The Wolverine.” But, at the end of the day, they both fall into the “mindless action movie” stable of superhero films. Nothing really sets them apart, and the former was severely held back by fan backlash over its CGI and treatment of Deadpool. But “Logan” takes the cake as a superior film—it plays with the story of Wolverine, setting it in the future, and yet incorporates characters and tropes that are familiar to us. Nevertheless, the themes that it wrestles with—loss, family, pain, redemption—are core to the film in its entirety and integral to its emotional conclusion.
At the end of the day, that’s where Incredibles 2 falls short. Yeah, it’s an insanely wacky movie with cool action, interesting subplots, good writing, and fun characters. It’s awesome to finally return to the universe Bird crafted years ago and watch him build upon it. It’s an effective film in that regard. However, the shortcomings show themselves in how the movie fails to be as unique as its predecessor: it exchanges one of animation’s greatest villains with a great emotional arc and fantastic plot twist for a slightly mediocre baddie with a foreseeable twist and jumbled intentions; it exchanges the first Incredibles’ parodying instinct for several sequences based in the comfortable familiarity of crazy, explosive shenanigans we’ve learned from recent superhero blockbusters; it tacks on the tried-and-true Pixar formula to what could’ve been a far more unique storyline. Like I said, it just fails to be as unique as the first Incredibles film has always been and continues to be. As fun as it’s been the times I’ve seen it already, and while I will grow to enjoy it more over the years, I just cannot see myself devoting the time, concentration, and passion to the sequel as I did the first Incredibles. And I don’t necessarily need to, that’s for certain, but it still means a certain level of love will never be reached.
To finish up, I should add that while there’s nothing wrong with Pixar’s formula itself, the recent standings of sequels seems to indicate they’re creeping up to the “We’re Pixar, we can’t do anything wrong” point of bravado and arrogance which has felled many filmmaking giants before (we’re looking at you, late-1990s/early-2000s George Lucas). It worked with Toy Story 3, in my opinion, because that movie told a well-crafted, original story that felt familiar and unique at the same time with some really great heart-wrenching emotion drizzled on top for those with Kleenex in the audience. But with more recent sequels like Monsters University, Finding Dory, and now Incredibles 2, you get the feeling that Pixar is pairing nostalgia and decent storytelling rather than emotion and fantastic storytelling.
And while there’s nothing inherently wrong with that, per se, we’ve seen this happen before to bitterly bad effects. Again, I’ll invoke the spirit of Prequel Trilogy-era George Lucas to lead you down that path. Let his conscience be your guide.