On the comic riffing of Brad Bird, Incredibles 2's familiar ground, and how an infant found himself an arch nemesis
Incredibles 2 Walt Disney Studios
Director: Brad Bird
Screenplay: Brad Bird
Starring: Holly Hunter, Craig T. Nelson, Sarah Vowell, Bob Odenkirk, Catherine Keener, Samuel L. Jackson, Huck Milner, Eli Fucile, Sophia Bush and Brad Bird
Rated PG / 1 hour, 58 minutes / 2.35:1
June 15, 2018
(out of four)
For more than a decade, Brad Bird kept being asked the same question, and he kept answering the same way. The question was when - even if - his revered The Incredibles would get the sequel that fans had been practically demanding since 2004. And the answer was that it would have to wait until he could find the right story. One that would justify making a sequel in the first place. Now that the long-rumored followup is finally here, we have a surprising resolution about the elusive perfect story Brad long sought: He ... kinda never found it?
Don't get me wrong - Incredibles 2 is an outstanding work in its own right. But if you're looking for a new, distinct narrative angle, there isn't one. The first movie revolved around the legal status of superheroes - a world in which they were outlawed, and a family secretly defying that law to prove they were still needed. Here in the sequel ... we're still litigating the same dilemma. Superheroes are still illegal, the film's villain is intent on keeping it that way, and the Parr family (and their allies) are fighting for their rights. The details are different but the central idea is identical.
This is not to say the construction of the movie is careless. Far from it. There's a discipline and purpose to every narrative beat and immaculate execution of the overall framework, such as it is. It's just that Bird seems a lot more interested in the scenarios he concocts within that story than in any beginning-to-end arc. Because, well, the beginning-to-end arc isn't much of one. The whole of this movie supports the parts instead of the other way around.
Watching Incredibles 2 is like watching the creative process in action, one bit of inspiration after the next. It's fitting that the beloved character Edna Mode is voiced by Bird himself; she is completely uninterested in baby Jack-Jack when Bob/Mr. Incredible (Craig T. Nelson) first brings him over. But once she's informed that he's developed a whole host of superpowers, her mind immediately starts racing and Jack-Jack is her new prized experiment - her toy and her toy alone, until her creativity has been satiated. The attitude seems familiar. After all, once you've done a superhero movie where the superheroes overcome what they overcome and save the day, what more is there to do? Just ... do it again, I suppose. But with that template more or less locked in, the movie seems like the filmmaker's attempt to occupy himself, challenge himself, play around with the endless possibilities such a physically open-ended genre opens up for him. And so this isn't so much a necessary continuation, or even a necessary story at all, but a dazzling brainstorming session playing out before our eyes. A series of great setpieces and visual gags worked inside a template that Bird knows has pretty obvious beats and a pretty obvious destination.
Which returns us to Jack-Jack, who epitomizes that very compulsion of imagination. The end of the previous film teased his burgeoning superpowers (unbeknownst to his family), but that ball-of-fire act was only the tip of the iceberg. Turns out the kid's a prodigy. One after another, faster than anyone can keep up with, a new superpower manifests itself in the cheerfully unfazed Jack-Jack, to the alternating delight, consternation and horror of the erstwhile Mr. Incredible, who's on stay-at-home-dad duty. The baby shape-shifts, walks through walls, multiplies himself, shoots lasers from his eyes; you name it, he's probably got a version of it, or eventually will. This is introduced in what will probably (and rightly) go down as the most popular scene in either Incredibles movie, if not every Pixar movie, a fight scene between Jack-Jack and a raccoon, in which one power after another is reflexively deployed in a brilliant piece of self-contained fantastical slapstick. Regardless of anything and anyone else in the film, Jack-Jack is a single experimental entity through which Bird and Co. can try out as many ideas as they can. The ideas that didn't make the final version are no doubt better than the best ideas from most other action movies.
Bird has been one of the best action directors in the business since long before Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol got everyone to take notice, and in Incredibles 2 he provides himself endless opportunities to prove that fact - from Elastigirl (Holly Hunter) chasing a runaway bullet train, to the subjective brilliance of (again) Elastigirl hunting down a mysterious villain across rooftops and then chasing him in a hallucinatory fog through a series of hallways and stairwells, to a segment of the extended climax that deploys Jack-Jack's collection of superpowers with manic absurdity. Working in a genre that defies gravity as a matter of obligation, Bird shows a knack (as he so memorably did during Ghost Protocol's Burj Khalifa sequence) for evoking gravity as a real physical force. His heights and speeds feel like heights and speeds.
The film retains some of the jet-setting 007 styling of its predecessor - a luxurious remote-controlled house owned by a secret benefactor, a remote-controlled car that can also fly and swim, an extended action climax set on a yacht AND a jet - while also repeating the main plot point. Only this time, it's Mrs. Parr who gets to set out on a secret superhero gig while Mr. Parr takes care of the kids. This gives the plotting a fresh angle, but it also dovetails with the film's preoccupation with media as a social and political tool, one of great power and great vulnerability. Mrs. Parr/Elastigirl landed the job in the first place because she, essentially, tested better with audiences - she's more likable, and she causes less physical destruction during her crimefighting than does her husband. That combination makes her an ideal candidate to Winston Deavor (Bob Odenkirk, putting his Saul-like salesmanship chops to great use), who is using his telecommunications juggernaut to convince the public that superheroes should be reinstated. Meanwhile, the film's villain, Screenslaver, routinely hijacks telecom transmissions to get his message across and hypnotize his viewers into doing his bidding. This optically induced mind control eventually takes the form of goggles systematically distributed to superheroes themselves - including a bunch of new ones whose abilities and name/costume choices give Brad another opportunity to riff and bounce ideas around - in order to ultimately frame them on national television as dangerous threats to the general public.
The idea of superheroes in this world as both social symbols and political pawns is a fruitful one, but ultimately it's a pretext for an exploration of superheroes coming to terms with who they are - a through-line best exemplified by the Parrs' mercurial teen daughter Violet (Sarah Vowell). The plot concern is one of global implication, but it ultimately serves more personal objectives. Incredibles 2 shows as much care with its characters as did the original, and after some wobbly early scenes in which characters long-windedly talk through the issues that will eventually be put to the test in action anyway, this thing really takes off, with Bird's considerable action chops doing much of the heavy lifting. He's surely well aware of the expectations that awaited him - the film even includes a PSA from the cast and crew apologizing for the 14-year wait - and he responded by making a film that constantly challenges itself, an increasingly elaborate comic juggling act that rarely drops a ball. There's little doubt there will be a third movie in this series, but whether or not there's a decade-and-a-half gap next time, we should consider ourselves lucky that - unlike, say, the comparatively rote Cars sequels - such thoughtful care was given to the question of this movie's very existence, to say nothing of its terrific execution.