Retro Reviews: The Incredibles

While every other site offers you reviews of the most current movies in theaters, someone needs to step in to review the movies that came out 10+ years ago. So hop on into Doc Brown’s Delorean with me, and let’s see what cinema has already offered…

A few weeks ago, Pixar announced plans for The Incredibles 2, with writer/director Brad Bird back at the helm. I have been uncharacteristically silent on this subject, as I’ve really just been waiting for the penny to drop, and Disney to reveal that this was just an April Fool’s Day prank that some intern accidentally pulled the trigger on 13 days early. But all evidence so far seems to suggest that we are, at long last, getting a sequel to one of the best superhero movies ever.

With that in mind, let’s take a look back at the original, 2004’s The Incredibles.

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Unlike most of the superhero movies I talk about on this blog (with the exception of Unbreakable), The Incredibles is about a group of original superheroes. Most films that feature original superheroes are meant to be parodies of the genre; Hancock, Sky HighMystery Men and The Tick come to mind, and the latter two were actually both adaptations of obscure comics. The Incredibles, on the other hand, is an incredibly loving homage – and sometimes, sure, biting satire – of the superhero tropes. This movie basically invented the term “monologuing,” or at least directly tied it to supervillain exposition scenes, and the fact that the term “monologuing” so quickly entered the public consciousness – it has since been used regularly and unironically in superhero comics – says a lot about the impact of this film.

Another interesting thing about the film, and probably why it has such staying power, is that it has the exact same plot as Watchmen.

In the 80s, Watchmen was released as a comic that featured original superhero characters (though each were very clearly patterned off of existing characters) and turned them on their head. One of them was impotent, one of them was an emotionless prick, one of them was a dangerous sociopath, and another was a different kind of dangerous sociopath. And it was shocking and startling, and a very powerful commentary on superheroes, and on the Cold War era. But the plot is about superheroes coming out of retirement when they discover that someone is killing off retired superheroes. Which is exactly what happens in The Incredibles.

There’s even a scene in Watchmen that makes an offhand reference to a hero who got his cape stuck in a revolving door and ended up getting gunned down by robbers, and it’s hard to read that without picturing Edna Mode shouting “No capes!”

Edna Mode - Greatest Character Find of 2004
Edna Mode – Greatest Character Find of 2004
But in reality, all of that is just gravy, and only a part of why this film is one of the strongest superhero movies ever. The real secret is the character work.

It’s not just the fact that the characters feel like members of a real family – though they totally do; the arguments don’t feel artificial, they feel organic and genuine, and each character goes beyond their superficial archetype to the point where you can see a well-developed personality for each one.

It’s not even that they’re superheroes with mundane problems – though they totally are, and it’s fantastic; the scene where Bob and Helen bicker about directions while speeding down the highway trying to get to the epic robot fight is one of my all-time favorites.

What always sticks out to me about the film is that the characters never know what they really want.

The film opens with a series of interviews with each hero, back in the Golden Days, talking about what they want out of life. Frozone doesn’t seem interested in hooking up with anyone who isn’t a super, Elastigirl isn’t interested in retiring, and Mr. Incredible would some day like to hang up his tights and live a normal family life. But 15 years later, Frozone / Lucius is married to a regular woman, Elastigirl / Helen is happily retired and raising kids, and Mr. Incredible / Bob is GOING NUTS in his civilian life. He was absolutely wrong. Retirement is the last thing he wants.

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That’s part of what makes those characters interesting, and that’s what makes their arguments throughout the film feel so genuine. I hold up the arguments between Bob and Helen throughout the film – but especially the one at the end of the first act – as some of the best-written arguments in film. They’re not the neat presentation of bullet points that usually happen when a writer writes an argument – the scenes are messy, and the characters change subjects while always talking about the same thing. The fact that Bob goes from defending his moonlight superhero antics to complaining about his son’s school curriculum and the fact that he can’t compete for sports actually reflects how real arguments work – because we as an audience (and Helen as his wife) know that he’s still talking about himself and his problems through that entire scene.

One more thing – most superhero movies have to tone down the weirdness of superhero comics. As much as I enjoy movies like The Dark Knight or The Avengers, they don’t even touch the zanyness of the actual comics (like how Batman is always fighting an immortal ninja, or how Iron Man’s armor used to fold up like a business suit he could carry in his briefcase, and also used to have roller skates in the boots).

The Incredibles, meanwhile, opens with Mr. Incredible fighting a French mime-themed bomber named Bomb Voyage, and ends with a Mole Man-esque villain called The Underminer bellowing, “I am always beneath you, but nothing is beneath me!”

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The fact that it took 10 years to get a sequel to this film greenlit is baffling to me.

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