Disappointing: The Incredibles 2

The Incredibles is one of the most highly regarded Disney animated films of all time, garnering approval from critics and audiences alike. Its appeal was broad, featuring superheroes that both parents and children could enjoy. At its core, the movie featured a superhero family including father Mr. Incredible, mother Elastigirl, oldest daughter Violet, younger son Dash, and infant son Jack-Jack.

Elastigirl (Elen), Mr. Incredible (Bob), Violet, Dash, and Jack-Jack.
The titular Incredible family. Elastigirl (Elen), Mr. Incredible (Bob), Violet, Dash, and Jack-Jack.

Mr. Incredible was written with the traditional superhero strength of a Superman while Elastigirl could stretch and bend to incredible proportions. Violet could turn invisible or create force fields while Dash was lightning fast. Together, this superhero family formed an immediate core of protagonists that anyone could identify with. Some people gravitated to the incredible power of Mr. Incredible while others wanted Violet’s impressive invisibility skills. The story gave each family member their own time to shine as the movie unfolded.

The writing, while funny, was also poignant and reflective on larger themes. As the film progresses, the superficial superhero facade is pulled away, revealing a film that touches on marital problems, midlife crises, and the struggle of managing a family. In the words of the ogre Shrek, this movie “has layers.”

Yet The Incredibles 2 lacks the same punch of the first. This is a feeling others seem to have shared, since the film just lost to Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse in the Oscar category of Best Animated Feature. In truth, the themes of the second movie seem to be almost identical to the first, except more poorly written and executed.

The Incredible family gets ready to fight.
The family’s back in action. Not as good, but still fun.

The theme of midlife crisis, for example, is almost perfectly written into the first film. Taking place during a period when superheroes have been illegalized, Mr. Incredible finds himself in a dull, repetitive job where he’s unable to put his strength on display to the fullest.  As his wife, Elastigirl, takes care of the home, Mr. Incredible spirals into a funk because he can no longer be what he was when he was young: a superhero.

Mr. Incredible’s arc is all the more noteworthy because of the repeated hints that he cheated on her at some point. The writers, understanding that they’re still creating a movie primarily aimed at children, misdirect the audience and play it all off as a misunderstanding in the end. But Mr. Incredible’s unusually sumptuous and luxurious dinner with secondary villain Mirage (a Bond-esque woman in a slinky dress), is the first hint of something being ‘off.’

Several scenes have the two alone together with just enough subtext to make the audience suspicious. Elastigirl even confides to a family friend  that she’s scared she’s losing her husband, culminating in a moment where Elastigirl finds Mr. Incredible and Mirage together, embracing, after Mirage saves his life. It’s a fantastic example of writers walking the line tightly enough to signal to children that there’s a problem while writing in a subtext that the marriage may be collapsing partly due to Mr. Incredible’s mid-life crisis and attraction to another woman.

Mirage and Mr Incredible after a hug.
The awkward wave you make when you’re caught in an affair.

That’s not the end of the amazing topics The Incredibles touches. The kids are busy learning how to accept who the are, the writers penning in an amazing metaphor for the importance of teens learning to believe in who they are. The villain, Syndrome, is yet another allusion to the difficulties of teenhood. In his youth, Syndrome wanted to be Mr. Incredible’s sidekick but was rejected. That wound festered over years, leading him to develop technology so formidable that it threatened the lives of the Incredible family. It pointed to the fact that childhood traumas can have lifelong effects. Syndrome, essentially, was a wounded young man who wanted to feel special, nad that desire turned toxic.

If it sounds as if there’s much to be praised about The Incredibles, it’s because there is. This piece, however, is about The Incredibles 2. However, it’s impossible to illustrate where the second film went wrong while the first film went right. The biggest issue plaguing the second film is one of familiarity. The themes the movie tackles aren’t new or novel.

In the second film, Elastigirl gets called off to become the center of a new media campaign to promote superheroes and make them legal again. Mr. Incredible is left at home, taking care of the kids. It’s a wound to his pride, and once again, it sets Mr. Incredible down the road of having a mid-life crisis. However, in the sequel, the stakes never reach the same level as in the first movie. In the first film, Mr. Incredible’s mid-life crisis fed naturally into his attraction to another woman and the skillfully woven subtext that an affair may be occurring. In the sequel, Mr. Incredible just . . . mopes. His entire character arc in the second film is that of simply sitting around, feeling depressed that he has to stay at home while Elastigirl becomes a publicly acclaimed hero.

Elastigirl gets ready to ride her motorcycle.
Elastigirl gets all the bet scenes in Incredibles 2.

Now, in the first film, the roles were reversed. Elastigirl was left at home while Mr. Incredible went on adventure. So, why doesn’t this setup work in the second film? First, the tension is never as high. Elastigirl is, at best, annoyed by her husband. Mr. Incredible, at his worst, still tries to support his wife emotionally while going crazy at home. There’s never a through line suggesting the two may be on the verge of splitting apart like there was in the first film.

In fact, much of the problem can be traced to Mr. Incredible’s storyline, which can best be described as “spinning his wheels.” Elastigirl is busy adventuring, developing the lore and world of the story. She engages with interesting characters that are suggestive of a diverse world. We won’t be the first to write that the junior superhero, Voyd, carries with her a lesbian subtext, from her general appearance to the way she completely freaks out about meeting Elastigirl. Then there’s Evelyn, a woman that Elastigirl works with as part of her superhero campaign. Not that anyone should read into stereotypes too heavily, but in appearance, tone, and interactions with Elastigirl, Evelyn generates a queer vibe. Superficially, the two can be read as a growing friendship, but the subtleties of the interactions, including their body language, suggests some degree of romance on Everlyn’s part at the very least.

Voyd meets Elastigirl.
Voyd meeting her hero. It’s nothing short of cute.

And through all this . . . Mr. Incredible is just sitting at home, arguing with his distanced daughter, and putting up with Jack-jack gaining super powers. The problem that arises is that in the first film, Elastigirl’s conflict with her husband led to a culminating moment in which they resolved their distance. At the same time Mr. Incredible was being a superhero and putting his marriage at risk, Elastigirl was taking care of the home while her storyline naturally took her toward resolving her issues with her husband. The two storylines naturally meet in the middle. Mr. Incredible is hugging a supervillain, it looks scandalous to Elastigirl, but now the two can resolve their issues and face their enemy together.

That never happens in The Incredibles 2. Not only are the same themes redone, but the tension is lacking because there just isn’t the same believability that the marriage will split. The two storylines never naturally climax at the middle. Mr. Incredible is only called in to help his wife when the villain goes out of her way to attack the family, creating an incident that requires the two to team up. You never get that one incredible moment of saying “oh, no” that you do in the first film, when the two storylines reach the climactic moment of Elastigirl finding her husband in the arms of another woman.

Elastigirl and Evelyn having girl time.
Note Evelyn’s subtle, affectionate grab of Elastigirl’s wrist.

This is as good a time as any to note that Syndrome was a better villain than Screenslaver. The villain of the second is bitter because . . . superheroes weren’t able to save her father in time. So, instead of becoming angry at the villains, she became angry . . . at the heroes? Syndrome’s story was more organic, written as a young man constantly facing rejection by his heroes, which embittered him toward those heroes. In contrast, Screenslaver’s origin story comes across as a boring twist on the old “murdered parents” trope that would typically make a person become a hero, although in this case it made her a villain.

Previously on Stories in Media, we discussed how Ghostbusters 2 suffers from sequelitis. This is a pattern in which a sequel tries to retread too much ground from the first. The Incredibles 2 is guilty of that and ends up serving an incredibly bland storyline for Mr. Incredible. Elastigirl’s story is much more vibrant, but the writers never manage to bring the two storylines together in a way that feels natural. Young writers need to take into account the danger of retreading the same themes time and again in their work. When they do, the stakes need to be at least as equally high. Simultaneously, it’s important to bring together divergent storylines to a natural climax, and to make both storylines feel important. The Incredibles 2 failed to do so, making it a less triumphant film than its predecessor.

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Jason Luthor is the author of the science fiction and dystopian horror, FLOOR 21.

Bonus! Enjoy Elastigirl walking in on Mr. Incredible and Mirage!

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