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Regardless of how fond you may be of 1980s aesthetics or Michael Keaton, the humor of the 1983 film Mr. Mom hasn’t aged particularly well. It’s 90 minutes of jokes that rely on the novelty of seeing a man doing “women’s stuff.” Look, a man doing laundry! Struggling with a vacuum cleaner! Failing at cooking! Hahaha, isn’t that funny?
Some present-day families follow the pattern seen in 1950s sitcoms — dad works, mom stays at home and attends to more or less all domestic duties and childcare — but others don’t. The needless gendering of responsibilities both inside and outside the home is something from which we as a society are slowly but surely moving on. Seeing a man use a washing machine is no longer like seeing a dog walk on its hind legs. A father clueless to the basics of caring for his own children isn’t funny, it’s sad.
Incredibles 2 manages to utilize the same basic premise of the outdated ’80s comedy — dad becomes primary caregiver to the children after mom gets a job opportunity — without succumbing to the same fate. The film pulls both drama and humor from how Bob “Mr. Incredible” and Helen “Elastigirl” Parr (Craig T. Nelson and Holly Hunter) face their new situations in ways that deal with the specifics of their personalities as opposed to making it a “boy vs. girl thing.” On more than one occasion in Incredibles 2, characters discuss concepts connected to patriarchy or feminism, not with the aim of bestowing the film with a cohesive argument regarding gender dynamics so much as to underscore the film’s ultimate neutrality on the subject. For better or worse, the film isn’t trying to make any sociopolitical statements — it’s just trying to tell an entertaining story about a family of superheroes while trying to be mindful of not stepping on anyone’s toes.
Though utilizing a Mr. Mom-style plot, Incredibles 2 knows how to find humor in Bob’s new role as primary caregiver while avoiding gags that rely on the supposed novelty of a man doing household work — for the most part. A tired laundry joke about a red sock turning the whites pink is awkwardly thrown into the film’s third act (do color catchers not exist in movies?), but beyond that, the film shows considerable restraint. The humor found in Bob’s misadventures in parenting — reading a book intended to lull a baby to sleep and succumbing to its allure instead, the frustration of dealing with convoluted textbook logic — isn’t about him being clueless regarding basic household chores or child rearing. The humor comes from exploring widely relatable situations and frustrations.
While Incredibles 2 might feature some novelty-based slapstick, it’s the genuine novelty of a multi-super-powered baby, not the “novelty” of a man taking care of his kids. While Bob struggles with jealousy as he watches Helen’s alter-ego Elastigirl propelled into the spotlight with the help of rich new backers — sibling duo Winston and Evelyn Deavor (Bob Odenkirk and Catherine Keener) — it’s not because he’s a man and she’s a woman, or because he doesn’t love his kids. It’s because he’s a ham and likes the spotlight. Instead of being a commentary on gender dynamics or connecting to some ingrained notions of masculinity, Bob’s mixed feelings about becoming “Mr. Mom” trace back to aspects of his personality.
The Incredibles 2 manages to safely navigate what could have easily fallen into tired jokes based on outdated stereotypes, and ultimately avoids taking any real stance on gender dynamics or divisions of parental responsibilities save one: saving a city and raising a family are heroic endeavors that require a team effort.
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