I finally got around to seeing The Incredibles. I went into it with some prejudice.
First of all, I was irked by all the people who said that the Fantastic Four movie was ripping
off The Incredibles — the movie may have come out later, but the Fantastic
Four still predates The Incredibles by a good 43 years. Accuse Lee and Kirby of ripping
off the JLA if you like. They weren't ripping off Brad Bird when he was four years old.
Then I made the mistake of reading Slate and came across an article on
Watchmen by one Tom Shone. His article, titled "Fighting Evil,
Quoting Nietzsche: Did the comic book really need to grow up?", compares the book to "a math
savant at a party" and concludes, "No adult has time for aesthetic 'difficulty' or
'self-consciousness.' Life is too short. Frankly, we'd much rather be watching The
Incredibles." I am trying to think of a more obnoxious combination of 21.2 words
and am failing. The smug, self-satisfied anti-intellectualism on display is frankly breathtaking.
So if Tom Shone liked The Incredibles, I figured, then ad hominem fallacy be damned,
it must suck ass.
And so it does. First off, there's the animation. I remember that when Toy Story came
out, people hailed it as a brilliant way to get around the fact that computer animation couldn't
create polygon meshes that looked like people — making the characters toys that were
supposed to have smooth, plasticky faces allowed the medium to hide its Achilles's heel.
Well, a decade later it is apparently no better at this. As The Daily Show pointed out,
Pixar has moved from Toy Story to Toy Story 2 to Toy Story 3 Monster Edition
to Underwater Toy Story to this, Super Toy Story. The Incredibles is really
ugly. A minute ago I wondered, "Hmm, is it as bad as I remember?" and pulled up some screen shots.
It's not as bad as I remember — it's worse. I guess after half an hour or so of watching
these grotesque, distorted balloons bouncing around the screen I got used to them. That's a
scary thought in and of itself.
As a story, The Incredibles is no great shakes either. As a spoof, it could hardly be
more tired; I don't think I laughed once. Superheroes are not exactly a fresh target. Stan
Lee himself was poking holes in the superhero mythos with Fantastic Four as early as
1962, delving into issues like how the FF managed (or didn't manage) to pay the rent on their
headquarters, showing them reading their fan mail, and so forth. Even a lot of the specific
bits from The Incredibles have already been done to death. The sequence about the capes,
for instance, was just a warmed-over version of what Alan Moore did with Dollar Bill twenty
years ago — only Moore's version was actually much funnier for not trying to clown it up.
There's a lesson here. When was The Incredibles at least watchable? When it
was delivering a straightforward Fantastic Four adventure. Superhero stories can be
fun — they can even be comedic — but superhero spoofs really can't. Taking
something that's inherently serious and making it ridiculous can lead to a great result (and
I'll be covering Dr. Strangelove in a few weeks); taking something that's inherently
ridiculous and making it work can lead to a great result (and this is what the best superhero
stories do); but taking something that's inherently ridiculous and saying "ha ha, look how
ridiculous" is pointless.
The reason the superhero genre has succeeded despite some of the silly trappings that have
become associated with it, like colorful costumes and violence and "saving the world," can be
summed up in a word: powers. There is something that is just achingly wonderful about
watching people do miraculous things. The best superhero stories take advantage of this: it
would seem that there couldn't really be anything more mundane, especially to someone who's
read thousands of comics, than watching Superman fly around, yet in All-Star Superman
Morrison and Quitely somehow manage to pull off sequences that make you think, "Oh my god, that's
a man, FLYING." When The Incredibles focuses on this — when Violet
starts tossing around opalescent force bubbles and her brother asks, "How are you doing
that?" — it becomes something more than just another lame parody.
One criticism that has been leveled at The Incredibles in certain circles is that its
message is unabashedly elitist. When young Dash claims that "our powers make us special" and
his mother sighs, "Everyone's special," he grumbles that this is just "another way of saying
no one is" — and the film takes his side. Some claim that Ayn Rand could have written
this, but I don't agree; much as I despise Rand, she was a plutocrat, not an aristocrat. Rand
would have been on the side of the movie's bad guy, Syndrome, who through his boundless ambition
and ruthlessness manages to turn himself into the Incredibles' arch-nemesis despite having no
powers of his own. To the creators of The Incredibles, however, Syndrome is nouveau-riche
and should know his place. As Elasti-Girl contends, being superhuman "is in your blood." You
know, like nobility. Worst of all is when Syndrome announces his evil plan — to give
everyone superpowers. "Everyone can be superheroes! Everyone can be super! And when
everyone's super... muha muha muha... no one will be." That's right: here's a movie
that considers it the height of evil to empower the masses, because what fun is it being
powerful if you aren't surrounded by throngs of the powerless?
That said, narratively, it is true that the wonder of superpowers tends to be flattened
when they are not unusual. This is one of the problems with Sky High — as in
Alan Moore's Top Ten, every single character in the story has superpowers of some sort,
at least by the end. Even with the miraculous made commonplace, though, there's still a little
thrill in, say, seeing a girl casually make a tree grow to lift her to the roof of a house, or
a guy set his hands aflame and toss fireballs around. It also helps that the film is funnier
than the The Incredibles. What's more, it is better-looking. This is not because of the
special effects, which are often extremely hokey and appear to be deliberately so. It's weird,
because others are pretty good — I'm not sure I understand the mix-n-match approach. But
no, the main reason it's better-looking is the casting. The nature girl is very cute. The
technopath girl is also very cute. Kelly Preston, at least when she's wearing her glasses, can
clear my body thetans anytime. And while I am on record as being completely unable to predict
which guys women will find attractive, I swear, if the guy who plays Warren Peace isn't one of
them, what is wrong with you people? I mean, holy smokes. That dude is a fucking hottie.
The soundtrack, on the other hand, is unremittingly awful. Not only are the musical cues so
clumsy they made me wince, but the songs are all bad, bowdlerized covers of 80s songs. "Moving
forward, using all my breath / Making friends with you was never second best." I'm guessing
that when the sequel comes out in a few years, the big song at the finish will declare, "I want
to hug you like an animal / My whole existence is nice / You get me closer to gosh."
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