Sat
Jun 16 2012 1:00pm

The Most Emotionally Realistic Superhero Movie Ever: The Incredibles

Pixar’s The Incredibles

I knew I was going to like The Incredibles for the second I saw the first teaser. For those who don’t remember: it features Mr. Incredible attempting in vain to squeeze the buckle of his super-suit belt over his gut while the bombastic horns from the James Bond film On Her Majesty’s Secret Service provide soundtrack. This let me know the people making this movie were my people. The Incredibles is easily my favorite Pixar film mostly because it’s soooo cool. And by cool I mean, cool like super-spy, death ray, badass, slick cars, everything-has-awesome-names, cool.

But, in a universe of superhero movies trying to depict what being a superhero would really be like by injecting emotional realism into the situations, the Incredibles beats them all.

When the Pixar thing was still new and somewhat novel, it was almost subversive how their stories stepped out of the regular boundaries of kid’s cartoon movies. It was as though by using only computer animation, as opposed to traditional techniques, the themes of the stories were also going against old school form. Simply, the Pixar movies truly became something the whole family could enjoy. These euphemisms previously meant, “these movies don’t totally suck.” But thanks to Toy Story, Finding Nemo, and the others, it means they became events that adults truly look forward to.

With The Incredibles, they made a movie the whole family could enjoy, that I still believe was specifically aimed at me. I love almost everything about it. I’m not saying I’m a massive comic book fan who can explain to all the various continuities of the DC and Marvel universes. (Though I do work with some nice people who can.) Nor am I someone who gets all pitter-patter when thinking about the Golden Age Comic book aesthetic. Instead, when it comes to superheroes, my childhood self liked stuff I considered “cool. “And I really, really, really liked James Bond.

More than just being a send-up of superheroes, The Incredibles is also a nifty pastiche of 60s Bond-style spy flicks. Even though the aforementioned Propelleherheads version of John Barry’s Bond composition “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service” is not heard in the film itself, composer Michael Giacchino does channel this musical style for the entire score. When Mr. Incredible’s car transforms and those awesome horns blare, it gives me chills. The music in this movie is like the alternate universe version of Johnny Quest, where the show isn’t terrible. This works because the film suggests that the glory days of superheroes were sometime in the 1950s-1960s and the “present day “of the film is sometime in the 1970s. Brass was in throughout all those periods!

Pixar’s The Incredibles

If you haven’t seen the movie, here’s the premise, briefly. Once there were a lot of superheroes, but then they had to go into hiding because public opinion turned on them. Now, two previously famous superheroes Mr. Incredible (Craig T. Nelson) and Elasti-Girl (Holly Hunter) are married and live under their real names Bob and Helen Parr. They have three children, pre-teen Violet (Sarah Vowell), young Dash (Spencer Fox), and an infant; Jack-Jack. Bob’s superpower is super-strength and agility, making him more like Captain America or early incarnations of Superman. (Initially, Superman could just “leap tall buildings in a single bound,” not fly!) Helen is like a way better version of Plastic Man and Mr. Fantastic: she can extend and contort her shape in all sorts of ways. It’s awesome. The children have powers too: Violet can turn invisible and generate force fields, while Dash is a child version of the Flash, he’s super quick. I won’t tell you what Jack-Jack’s power is because it’s not a big part of the movie and it’s kind of a spoiler at the end. There are also a bunch of other superheroes either referenced or involved with the plot, with the most relevant one being Bob’s best friend, Frozone (Samuel L. Jackson) who is a sort of cross between the Silver Surfer and a good version of Mr. Freeze.

Eventually, through a lot of twits and turns, they have to do battle with Syndrome (Jason Lee) who was once know as Buddy, a childhood fan of Mr. Incredible. It’s here where the movie is truly brilliant: the villain is a comic book fan gone bad. After Mr. Incredible tells child Buddy to leave him alone, the kid goes on to become an insane super-geek. I suppose some elements of fandom could take this as an affront, but I think it serves more as a cautionary point.

Sure, one could make the agruement that The Incredibles presents the “good guys” as people who are “special” and the “bad guys” was people who are “normal.” But, I think this is thematically addressed when Dash bickers with his mother about showing off his powers at school.  “Everyone’s special,” she says. “Which is another way of saying no one is,” he replies. I feel like here the movie says to anyone in the audience: what’s wrong with wanting to be a little incredible?

With this, the film truly succeeds at feeling more legit than another superhero movie because it has a lot more heart. People talk endlessly about how to render-larger than life super-heroes as real people. Should Batman brood? Should Thor doubt himself? Should Cyclops have serious problems with his student loans?

Brad Bird, writer and director of this film makes it look easy: put the superheroes in hiding and make the story about a family. Could you possibly conceive of a better idea for a superhero movie? I certainly can’t. The biggest tragedy of The Incredibles is it can never be done again. (Though I’m really bummed a sequel was never made.) Truly.  

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the standout, possibly best part of this movie. Back in the good-old-days, the supers had to have their costumes designed by someone. Enter Edna Mode (voiced by Brad Bird!), a diminutive, hilarious fashion designer who is like an insane cross between Dr. No and Vogue editor Anna Wintour. The scenes with her, punctuated by her excessive “darlings” and cocky declarative statements, make the movie super special. When she’s standing on the table lecturing Helen about what do with her life, she says perhaps the best line in the movie.

“Fight!" and then she turns to face Helen with an insane grin on her face and two tiny hands go over her head,

“Win!”


Ryan Britt is the staff writer for Tor.com. He always liked capes until the saw this movie. No capes!

29 comments
David Kilman
1. DaveAK
Agreed, this is one of the best superhero movies ever made. But I disagree about being, "bummed a sequel was never made." Most likely a sequel would have been disappointing. It is probably best that they quit while they were ahead.
James Davis Nicoll
2. James Davis Nicoll
What I learned from The Incredibles was no matter how posh the theatre, they will not let you watch the film once the theatre has caught fire.
JS Bangs
3. jaspax
IMGO, The Incredibles is Pixar's masterpiece, the high point of their oevre. It works on every level: as an action film, as a film about a man's midlife crisis, as a film about power and responsibility (way better than Spiderman on that score), and as a film about family. I cry every time I watch it. It is my second favorite movie ever, narrowly coming in behind The Princess Bride.
James Davis Nicoll
4. JasonD
One nitpick: Frozone was more closely modelled after Iceman from the X-Men, except for the full-body ice form.

That aside, not only is The Incredibles a great superhero flick, and a great family story, it's also a by-the-numbers midlife crisis story. Without the superhero trappings, Helen asking Bob "is this... rubble?" when he comes home from secret crimefighting could have just as easily been "is this... lipstick?"
James Davis Nicoll
5. JasonD
Jaspax @3 had the same idea I did, just typed it faster. ;)
j p
6. sps49
I can mostly agree with your intent, except you did NOT just call Jonny Quest terrible!
James Davis Nicoll
7. sjwood
Couldn't agree more. Absolutely love it. My favourite scene has to be the one where Elastigirl is flying in to save Mr. Incredible with her kids as stow aways and they're about to be shot down. The tension, the emotion, the protective instincts - gets me every time. Amazing movie.
James Davis Nicoll
8. Abalfour
Helen's awesome, I won't question that, but how does being able to do the exact same things Mr. Fantastic and Plastic Man do make her a "better version" of them?
James Davis Nicoll
9. politeruin
I'm love the incredibles as well, feel that it is one of their most under-appreciated films. You can obviously see they are fans of bond with all the slick tech and villains in hollowed out volcanoes but there's also a big nod towards watchmen. You've got a version of the keene act to ban supes and give them new identities, a bad guy bumping off supes and of course the "no capes!" bit which would reference dollar bill's cape getting caught on a door. That's what you get from pixar though, a sense that they only make films with themes that genuinely interest them rather than what's the zeitgeist with drek like shrek.
James Davis Nicoll
10. Lektu
This one, and WALL·E, are easily the best animation movies ever made (with my respect to the few first minutes of Up).

Favorite bit of dialogue:
Lucius: You tell me where my suit is, woman! We are talking about the greater good!
Honey: 'Greater good?' I am your wife! I'm the greatest *good* you are ever gonna get!
Ashe Armstrong
11. AsheSaoirse
@10: I never get tired of hearing Sam Jackson say, "You tell me where my suit is, woman!"

This movie, oooooh this movie. Pixar, just...words...arg...so many. Outside of Cars, which wasn't awful, just, IMO, not up to the Pixar standard, I love all their movies intensely. Wall*E is one of my top favorite movies EVER because of the total design of it. That movie is 85% sound design and I love it. And the credits...anyways, I could gush, I won't.

The Incredibles does everything right for what it is and I would love a sequel but I really wonder if it would work. I think they could get away with it if they focused on the kids as high schoolers, maybe.
James Davis Nicoll
12. AlBrown
I am a lifelong comic fan, and this movie punched so many buttons (in a good way), I couldn't help but love it. It took the world of superheroes, secret identities, and such, and looked at it in a whole different way. Before Marvel had its Civil War, the Incredibles was looking at the backlash that superpowers might create.
The way the family interacted felt so real, and was so heartwarming. All the cliches of the comic books were there, but presented in a way that no longer seemed cliched. This one "had me at hello," but kept me for the whole ride!
One of my favorite Pixar movies, and a contender for my personal top ten movie list.
Autumn Greenley
13. NoQuestions
Absolutely adore this movie. I really liked Syndrome as a villain. His line, an echo of the conversation between Dash and Helen, really stuck with me. 'When everyone's super, no one will be'.
Bruce Cohen
14. SpeakerToManagers
Completely agreed; this is one of the finest feature-length animations ever, and easily the best superhero film of all. Yes, it's the heart and soul of the characters that make it so great, but there are so many other great things going on in the film that it would easily take up several hour-long lectures to deal with them even superficially.

That said, one of the things I like a great deal about it that hasn't been mentioned here except in passing is the visual style. Remember that this movie was made using standard (well, actually leading-edge for the time) 3D computer animation tools, and that it was wildly successful in using those tools to create a style that was an homage to the comic books of the 1970s and the 2D cel animations of the period. That's not easy to do; CGI really wants to be photorealistic, and the Pixar technical staff had to develop a lot of new techniques in what was then a very new field of non-realistic rendering, and make sure the artists had the tools to manage those techniques.
James Davis Nicoll
15. prometheus
Loved this movie. I laughed, I cried, I was on the edge of my seat. It had absolutely everything. (And I love the greatest good line - so funny....)
James Davis Nicoll
16. sjwood
Definately my favourite Pixar movie, with Toy Story 3 bringing up a close 2nd. Just wanna say that there have been a lot of comments in this thread about how Pixar equals quality and that used to be so true, but after Cars 2 - a movie that no one wanted (except for the toy manufacturers after the surprise windfall those little toy cars brought in) - their rep has been forever tarnished in my eyes. Because as much as the first movie wasn't great (still not bad), they were still genuinely trying to make a great movie. That was not the case with the second one. That was made for the express purpose of selling more toy cars. A real shame.
James Davis Nicoll
17. Eugene R.
Edna Mode is likely to be an homage to legendary Hollywood costume designer Edith Head (same signature round glasses, hairstyle, no-nonsense personality), though Brad Bird will neither confirm nor deny the connection. Ms. Head won 8 Oscars for costume designs, with 35 nominations.
James Davis Nicoll
18. Wizard Clip
I have to echo sps49's comment. Ryan, surely you cannot be talking about the original Jonny Quest.

As for The Incredibles, among the many things it does well, it's an extremely effective critique of the everyone - gets - a- medal - just - for -showing - up cult of self-esteem. As someone wo regularly deals with college freshmen, I think it should be required viewing at every college orientation.
James Davis Nicoll
19. Wizard Clip
Make that "As someone who..."
Ashe Armstrong
20. AsheSaoirse
@sjwood: Even Pixar's gotta do some stupid stuff to pay the bills from time to time, sadly. You'd think they'd have earned being above that but unfortunately, that was not the case. Besides, everyone's allowed to screw up sometimes haha. I'd say that hardly tarnished their rep, especially if you pretend it doesn't exist.
Lisamarie LiGreci-Newton
21. Lisamarie
This is my favorite of the Pixar movies, partially because of the way it blends the family dynamic/identity crisis with the superhero story. And I do think it is an interesting critique of some of the philosophies going around, nowadays (basically, that we settle for mediocrity). I also think almost all of Pixar movies have a touch of darkness to them - not in a cynical way, but just that everything is not always hunky dory (for example, in Toy Story you know the toys will get outgrown, movies like Finding Nemo and Up deal with real loss, etc). And I also felt like this was, in some ways, a lighter version of Watchmen (no capes!). Not to mention that the villain dies in a jet turbine, the mooks are willing to kill children and this movie has (reportedly) the highest death count of any other Disney/Pixar film (especially if you count the montage of caped supers and the supers killed by the omnidroid). There are also some interesting essays claiming it has objectivist values, although Word of God has denied that. I think it is interesting though.
James Davis Nicoll
22. Lektu
@21 Lisamarie:

IIRC, Finding Nemo starts with the title character losing his soulmate and 399 eggs. That's hard to top.
James Davis Nicoll
23. Harkirat
@sjwood that is the part that leads to my favourite part of the movie... when Helen tell her daughter how it is ok to fail... BEST. MOVIE. EVER.
Scott Silver
24. hihosilver28
The moment in the movie that always sticks out to me is when Dash is running from the copters and sees the lake in front of him, winces, then when he looks down and realizes he's running on water he lets out this giggle that always puts a huge grin on my face. Basically because that would be my reaction to a T if I was in that situation.
Chris Hawks
25. SaltManZ
I always lose it at Mr. Incredible's "I'm not strong enough."
Chuk Goodin
26. Chuk
Definitely both my favourite animated movie and my favourite super-hero movie. I love all the moments previous posters pointed out, as well as one of the shorts on the DVD and the end of the movie.
I think Pixar has a good track record with sequels (Toy Story 2 and 3 were at least as good as if not better than the originals, so that's only Cars 2 as the worst Pixar ever, I'd take a chance on 2 out of 3), but I think maybe The Incredibles is stronger as a stand alone.
(I could go on for days about all the call-outs to other supers stuff -- seriously, it's like what Astro City does sometimes.)
James Davis Nicoll
27. Dennis McDonald
As I mentioned on Google+ I love THE INCREDIBLES as well. The DVD set with all the extras is fantastic. My only current complaint is that I can't just buy a Blu-Ray edition of The Incredibles - I have to buy some multi-disc package with another DVD and duplicates of the extras, which I don't need.
James Davis Nicoll
28. Halcyal
The airplane scene, where Mrs. Incredible is on the com and Mr. Incredible has to listen: that sequence still hits me hard (as much if not more so than the Up montage). It's an absolutely fantastic example of emotionally fraught writing and film.
Alan Stallings
29. astacvi

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