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July 31, 2007

Filed under: movies»commentary»superhero

Soon We Will Be Invincible

If you bring up superheroes outside of comics, sooner or later someone will mention The Incredibles. It happened to me lately. And much like Harry Potter, you're not supposed to dislike The Incredibles. It's a Pixar film, after all. What are you, some sort of hateful hater, filled to the brim with more hate, and living on 101 Hate Lane? How could you feel that way about The Incredibles?

The answer "because it's fascist propaganda" is probably not the most tactful response, in case you wondered.

In order to understand this, you have to separate the story of the movie, which is crafted with Pixar's typical care and humor, from its message, which is abhorrent. Ignore the villain's desire to conquer the world, and ignore his ruthless demeanor. Pay no attention to the charming way that the Parr family reacts to each other, and actually listen to what each character is saying:

Mr. Incredible: You mean you killed off real heroes so that you could *pretend* to be one?
Syndrome: Oh, I'm real. Real enough to defeat you! And I did it without your precious gifts, your oh-so-special powers. I'll give them heroics. I'll give them the most spectacular heroics the world has ever seen! And when I'm old and I've had my fun, I'll sell my inventions so that *everyone* can have powers. *Everyone* can be Super! And when everyone's Super...
[chuckles evilly]
Syndrome: No one will be.
That's not an isolated line, either. The theme of "if everyone's special, no-one is special" gets parroted by several characters, although the emphasis changes--family brat Dash clearly stands in for the audience when he despises this philosophy, since it's the rationale his parents use to keep him from using his superspeed, while Syndrome just as clearly thinks it's a great e-e-e-evil plan.

One is forced to wonder, frankly, why this is supposed to be such an evil plan. We don't wonder why Syndrome is a villain, naturally--he makes that perfectly clear by using heroes as guinea pigs for his doom machines, and planning to manipulate the populace for his own benefit. But these don't follow directly from the "special" sentiment. They're standard bad-guy plots, which have been applied to a strawman philosophy in order to demonize it. The same thing happens with the Parr family: they're undercover to keep from being sued, which may be a shame but doesn't have anything to do with some mythical "everyone's special" point of view.

And of course, we have no reason to believe that if everyone were special in some way, that everyone would be devalued, apart from the way that The Incredibles stacks the deck. Surely everyone can have their own special gifts in their own way. It's ridiculous to think that if Syndrome could sell everyone a pair of jet boots, all of a sudden we would be plunged into a world of mediocrity. Why should it be a bad thing that everyone could reap the benefits of superpowers? Wouldn't you like to have a pair of jetboots? I would. The only possible way that you could see this in a negative light would be if your worldview is divided into two groups: those who have inborn powers (the Supers), and those who don't (and are therefore inferior mediocrities). There's something of this viewpoint evident in the contempt shown by the "natural" heroes and villains for Syndrome, who dares to work hard and build his own super powers, thus artificially crossing over from unter- to ubermensch.

I am not, by the way, the only person to have noticed this. Search Google for "the incredibles and ayn rand" and you will find many critics who have noticed its... unusual subtext.

In the film's defense, as with so many other lovingly-rendered details (the montage of cape-related disasters, the references to "monologuing,") this philosophy is true to the comic source. As a friend of mine has pointed out when we were discussing this problem, superheroes are the ultimate fantasy of agency by the powerless. They ask, "what would you do if you had amazing powers and no-one could stop you?" Dramatically, I agree that it's a fun thought experiment, and it's made for some great pop cultural moments. But it's a terrible basis for a moral or ethical message, because it by definition puts the wants and needs of other people secondary. It always assumes that the majority of people are only either A) targets to be protected, B) collateral damage, or C) barriers to the hero's progress. In almost all cases, the hero must work from outside (or even against) the system put into place by and for normal people--a point of view that's often held by fanatics and radicals, both conservative and liberal.

Both in terms of comics and their adaptation, this radical perspective is jarring when extracted from its customary position because it's so far from the usual message of American feel-good entertainment. We're used to Saturday morning fare and kids' movies (or many times, even films targeted at adults) that remind us that everyone has something of which they can be proud, or that hard work can take a person far. At times, especially for cynics, the clumsy moralizing of these plotlines may seem cloying or heavy-handed, but consider the alternative. It's hard to imagine a cartoon subtly arguing that "some people have gifts, and they are better people, who should not be restricted by society," but that's exactly what The Incredibles does. Viewers may dilute this message on their own by believing that they, too, are part of the special group, but it doesn't change the caricature of the masses oppressing their betters--shades of John Galt!

The reason that many reviews of The Incredibles mention its agenda but forgive it anyway is that the movie is honestly an amazing work of art. It's filled with clever homage, underhanded references, and witty dialogue. It's funny, and fun to watch. I admit that, but I also believe that good art and bad reasoning are not mutually exclusive. There are good reasons that Triumph of the Will is still shown to film and media criticism classes to this day--which is not to say that Pixar is on the same level as Riefenstahl. I only wish that its ideology--one shared with several genres of popular fiction--saw a little more critical awareness. We may not always want to admit it, but superheroes are a significant influence on American culture, from Spiderman to Batman, Captain America to the Tick. It would be nice if there were a little more discussion on what that ethically implies.

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