The latest superhero sequel of the year continues the 2018 theme of franchises not being content to leave well enough alone.
The Incredibles 2
Director and Writer: Brad Bird
Starring: Craig T. Nelson, Holly Hunter, Sarah Vowell, etc.
Music By: Michael Giacchino
Rated: PG (for more of the same superhero violence and adult themes found in the first movie)
This sequel picks up right where its 14-year-old predecessor left off. The Parr family has just saved the day from Syndrome’s schemes, but that isn’t enough to convince the government to legalise hero work. After the family is forced underground again, a pair of tech company executives offer Elastigirl an opportunity to advocate for superhero rights by attaching a camera to her suit while she performs public acts of heroism. Mr. Incredible stays home with the kids, which turns out to be a more difficult assignment than he expected when baby Jack-Jack’s plethora of powers start to emerge. Meanwhile, Elastigirl’s activities draw the attention of a new, mind-control wielding supervillain called the Screenslaver. It’ll take a whole family of supers (plus Frozone and a few new allies) to foil their tech-savvy foe’s plans.
The Incredibles was the first superhero movie I saw in a theatre, and even though it was intended as a deconstruction of the genre, it did more to spark my love of cape-and-cowl fiction than anything else from my childhood (except maybe the original Spider-Man trilogy). I still think it’s one of the smartest, most consistently entertaining superhero films out there, even in today’s golden age of comic book movies. It’s also a very complete movie, especially for its genre. Every plot thread and character arc is wrapped up in the end, with no loose ends demanding a sequel. I’ve heard Brad Bird quoted as saying he didn’t want to make a sequel unless he was sure it could be as good as the first movie. So this film, coming well over a decade after its predecessor, had a lot to live up to.
And it definitely does a lot of things right. It’s nice to hear all the original voice actors return (with the exception of Dash, who was recast by necessity), and Giacchino’s soundtrack is as jazzy and cool as ever. The animation definitely showcases the technological advancements that have been made since the first Incredibles. It’s actually a bit jarring to see the super-stylised characters from the last movie moving so much more smoothly, and with so much more detail in their faces and backdrops.
But it definitely helps with the action scenes. The action in this movie is as exciting and fun as it was in the first instalment, and if anything, it shows more creativity on the part of Brad Bird and his animation team. Some highlights include a train vs. motorcycle chase scene involving Elastigirl, a climactic fight involving a character who creates portals, and absolutely every scene in which Jack-Jack appears. After the hints we got in the last movie regarding Jack-Jack’s many powers, I was excited to see him use them in this movie, and he did not disappoint. An uber-powerful baby with no control over his abilities may be a parent’s nightmare, but he completely stole the show for the me.
Another thing I enjoy about both Incredibles movies is seeing the family work together. When you have a bunch of superheroes with different abilities fighting the same villain, it can be difficult to make them work together in a believable way without resolving the conflict too quickly or giving one superhero more to do than the others (see the end of Justice League for an example of this being done badly). But unless they’re having trouble communicating in-universe, the Incredibles always manage to do the teamwork thing really well: for example, in one scene Mr. Incredible is steering a giant machine away from some buildings while Frozone slows it down with ice and Elastigirl fights the baddie controlling it. Everybody has something to do and does it well, which is always one of my favourite things to see in a superhero team-up movie.
Another thing I appreciate about The Incredibles 2 is that it managed to maintain the same tone as its predecessor. Like that movie, this feels like a superhero film aimed at adults, which also happens to be suitable for kids, rather than the other way round. It doesn’t shy away from death, violence, or complex concepts like the role of technology in our lives. And the setting revels in its retro-futuristic style as much as ever.
But as much fun as I had with this movie, it didn’t even come close to leaving the same impression on me as the first one did. Granted, I’m much older and far more inundated with superheroes than I was when The Incredibles came out, but I also think this movie fell a bit short in some of the areas that made its predecessor so special.
First, there’s the villain. Screenslaver has a creepy design and an intimidating power, and, at first, seems poised to bring an interesting philosophical question about superheroes to the fore, just like Syndrome did. The villain’s first couple monologues (no, the baddies still haven’t learned their lesson about monologuing) argue that superheroes should stay underground because their heroics make normal people weak and dependent. It’s a valid point that Lex Luthor and other supervillains have explored before to great effect. But this movie does disappointingly little with the idea, and I think it’s partly because Screenslaver isn’t as compelling a villain as Syndrome was.
Unlike Syndrome, Screenslaver has neither a personal connection to the Parr family nor an onscreen backstory. Screenslaver’s identity is also kept secret for half the movie and treated like a major twist when it’s revealed, which I think was a bad idea. First, it relegates our villain’s motivations to one monologue and a 30-second flashback, instead of allowing the audience to see things from their point of view like we did with Syndrome. And the surprise element didn’t even work for me. There were only two possible candidates for Screenslaver’s true identity, and I figured out which one it was about five minutes after they were introduced. Surprise villain reveals are a lot more fun when they’re, y’know, surprising.
This movie also falls short of its predecessor in terms of its character arcs. In the first movie, every member of the Parr family learns a lesson or grows as a person by the end. In this movie, most of the family has everything figured out from the beginning. Bob switches roles with Helen and has to figure out how to be a better dad (kind of like he did in the first movie…), and Violet has a minor subplot where she learns to appreciate hero work and accept her role in the family crime-fighting team (kind of like she did in the first movie…), but Helen, who takes the spotlight for the most part, really has nothing to learn. Her part of the story is all about stopping the bad guy, which is fine–I love watching Elastigirl rubber-punch things. But apart from a few fleeting moments where she gets worried about leaving her family at home, she doesn’t really have an internal conflict to resolve or a flaw to overcome. It almost feels like Brad Bird was afraid to give his super-mom any weaknesses, which is a shame, because it makes her story less interesting than Bob’s was in the first movie.
But that’s about it for character arcs. Dash contributes practically nothing to the story, and although Jack-Jack goes through some changes (literally), he’s still more of an unpredictable prop than a character. We’re introduced to some new supers, but they don’t have much to do except help out in a big fight at the end.
Would I care about any of this if I hadn’t grown up with the first movie? Probably not. On its own merits, The Incredibles 2 is a fine movie that I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend to any family with children. But I’m picky about sequels, especially when they come after classics like The Incredibles. In order for me to love a sequel, it has to do at least one of three things: continue a storyline left hanging in the first movie, develop the first movie’s characters in new and interesting ways, or take the first movie’s concept and do something totally unique with it. The Incredibles 2 doesn’t do any of those things particularly well.
But then, what did I expect? The Incredibles is about as close to a perfect superhero movie as we’re ever going to get. It has everything: suspenseful hero action, likable characters, quotable dialogue, an interesting setting, and a bunch of challenging messages designed to make the audience think. It’s basically a smarter X-Men or a less depressing Watchmen. Any sequel was doomed to pale in comparison. In a way, I’m glad the standards have been lowered a bit. Now it might be possible for future Incredibles movies to pleasantly surprise me.
Still, if you haven’t done so already, I highly recommend seeing this movie in the theatre–if only to make sure you see Bao, the short film that precedes it. It’s the oddest, most surprising cinematic experience I’ve had in quite some time. I won’t say anything else for fear of spoiling it, but just like Piper before Finding Dory, it’s a short that rather outshines its feature film.
Then again, The Incredibles 2 has Jack-Jack fighting a raccoon. That counts for something.