What 'Incredibles 2' Can Teach Marvel and DC

Incredibles 2 Publicity - H 2018
Courtesy of Pixar/Disney
Brad Bird's action sequences should make live-action superhero filmmakers envious.

When The Incredibles opened in 2004, it was a risk for Disney and Pixar Animation Studios in more ways than one. Pixar had not made a film yet that was predominantly about humans, in part because computer-animation technology hadn’t been able to design human characters that didn’t look somewhat off-putting. Most importantly, Disney and Pixar hadn’t made a superhero film yet, from a subgenre that hadn’t yet become ubiquitous in popular culture. True, 2004 was the year of the excellent Spider-Man 2, but it was also the year of Catwoman. Whatever legitimacy superhero films have now did not yet exist in 2004. Nearly 15 years later, Pixar is releasing the long-anticipated sequel, Incredibles 2, which may not be on the forefront of the subgenre but never feels old hat.

There was so much intelligence brimming in the original Incredibles that writer/director Brad Bird was able to tell an exciting story of a super-powered family finally uniting as a group by embracing their inner strength. You didn’t have to be a superhero super-fan to appreciate how the supers in the film would roll their eyes about a bad guy who “starts monologuing.” And you didn’t have to be a die-hard fan of the subgenre to appreciate the action setpieces, precise fight choreography and other superhero trappings. Now that we have the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the DC Extended Universe and more, it’s not so much that Incredibles 2 has a higher bar to clear thanks to competition. It’s that Incredibles 2 proves how much further live-action fare has to go to reach its level.

Incredibles 2, to be clear, isn’t as good as its predecessor. Some of the subplots, while thought-provoking and more daring than what accounts for subplots in the MCU or DCEU, feel slightly less natural to the characters as we know them as much as they feel like various ideas Bird simply wanted to get off his chest. The villain in the film, the Screenslaver, derides people for being obsessed with screen-based technology and is able to utilize that obsession to his advantage. However, Incredibles 2, like its predecessor, clearly takes place in the 1960s, an era before smartphones or tablets or HDTVs; the notion that screens were that prevalent 50 years ago doesn’t hold up. There’s also some retrograde gender dynamics at play: When Bob Parr is forced to stay at home to watch the kids while his wife Helen gets to save the world, it both leads to various funny setpieces with Bob struggling to be a dad and also feels antiquated regarding how a husband treats a wife who wants to rejoin the workplace. (Especially since Bob didn’t seem too bothered about Helen donning her Elastigirl costume in the original film.)

But what Incredibles 2 does well, it does well enough that live-action superhero filmmakers ought to be ashamed of themselves. The action sequences are top-notch, not just for Pixar but in general. The opening setpiece, in which the Parrs face off against the Underminer as he tries to destroy the city center of Municiberg, is as fast-paced, clever and tense as anything Bird did in the original Incredibles. And a mid-film setpiece in which Helen, as Elastigirl, is tasked with saving a runaway hover-train is right up there with the Burj Khalifa sequence in Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol in terms of Bird’s filmography. If the action sequences here can be executed so well, what is it about live-action superhero films, which utilize computer effects aplenty, that they can’t measure up?

Incredibles 2’s comic setpieces are also consistently hilarious. Though Bob’s reaction to Helen being chosen to represent the Parr family, if not superheroes on the whole, is frustrating, his exploits back home are largely clever. Specifically, Bob and his older kids, along with their friend Frozone, learn something we all found out at the end of the original Incredibles: Baby Jack-Jack has powers. Lots of powers. Jack-Jack first gets to show them off when he squares off against, of all things, a vicious-looking raccoon in the backyard of the house where the Parrs are staying temporarily. The fight — and it is a fight, even if one of the combatants is a baby — is intense enough that it allows Jack-Jack to turn himself on fire, shoot lasers from his eyes and do even more. As intense as the fight scenes with adults are, Jack-Jack’s ostensible coming-out party to show off his powers is a true highlight.

Incredibles 2 could easily have felt stale and fusty in a time when superhero movies are so frequent that you sometimes get more than one in a single month. (This summer alone, we’re averaging one new superhero pic every three to four weeks, this film included.) But Bird uses his innate intelligence as a storyteller as well as his gifts as an action filmmaker to make Incredibles 2 feel just as urgent and distinctive as its predecessor. Again, this movie isn’t as good as the original, in part because some of the novelty is gone, but it’s still light-years better than most other superhero movies of the last few years.