Incredibles 2: She-power

Incredibles 2 gets an A for effort, but it falls short of being a truly transgressive message about casting off stereotypical gender roles.

Incredibles 2: She-power

As promised, this begins The Pixar Project, where I’m going to review all of the Pixar films in the run-up to the Dec. 25 release of Soul. If you know a friend or relative or Pixar aficionado who’d enjoy this project, please pass it along.


Incredibles 2 was the first Pixar film after I’d made the big career change decision that sent me back to graduate school. I remember seeing this movie in Columbia, Missouri. It’s a jam-packed, action thrill-ride of a film, but one of the more convoluted in terms of the plot. And I don’t even really mean convoluted in terms of hard to follow, but it definitely is layered and complex and perhaps builds on the Incredibles brand by doubling down on Pixar films for adults.

The plot, in its briefest form, is still not brief. The action picked up immediately where the first film ended, with the Parr family taking on the Underminer. A slick-talking businessman sees them out in public, and he wants to bring them into his company while he tries to make superheroes legal again.  His solution is to begin the public charm offensive by putting Elastigirl front and center, much to the obvious chagrin of her husband, Mr. Incredible. She goes off to work on missions and drum up positive publicity, and Mr. Incredible is now a single parent at home, watching over a moody teenage daughter, a rambunctious son, and a baby coming into his numerous superpowers.

Things turn out to be too good to be true for Elastigirl; the opportunity is being sabotaged by slick-talker’s sister, who hates her brother’s (and late father’s) insistence on the need for and greatness of superheroes. Her evil plot revolves around hypnotizing the supers and getting them to do her bidding. The Parr children end up saving their parents, and together with the help of Frozone and other supers, they defeat the evil sister and superheroes are once again legal and heroic in the eyes of the public and government.

Feminism and a conscious uncoupling of stereotypical gender roles is one of the most noticeable aspects of the film; in fact, it’s a bit navel-gazey about it at times. It represents an honest condition where men, for numerous reasons, are uncomfortable taking a backseat to their female spouses, and there’s an argument to be made that a truly transgressive stance would have seen Mr. Incredible not only welcomes his wife’s ascendancy but suggested her for it in the first place. It would have been empowering to see it happen with so little thought given by the macho male lead character, and by extension, the lesson communicated to younger generations that is and rightfully should be the way of the world.

But the film dwells a lot on Bob’s coping with and adjusting to his new reality, his secondary importance, and it’s never explicitly stated by him that his wife is impressive “for a woman,” all of the subtext of male dominance and importance is practically made text and thereby defeats the feminist intent of the film by a degree.

I give the film credit in this regard though: It was true to its characters. The first film introduced us to how much Bob loved being a superhero, crime-fighting and all that goes along with it. It was him sneaking around and returning to his old superhero ways without his family’s knowledge, not the other way around. When viewed through the lens of his character, his actions and responses seem less gendered and more simply self-centered. His wife’s superiority or inferiority as a superhero doesn’t play into his assessment or his feelings; he simply wants what she’s been given the privilege of doing.

Through deep character-building, the film has earned that benefit of the doubt. It just doesn’t do itself any favors by foregrounding its desire to be taken seriously as a progressive film, which undercuts some genuinely moving character development. Bob grows as a father, and it’s left unsaid (because it so slavishly hews to tired old gender roles), but he develops a greater level of respect and appreciation for how talented his wife is at running their household smoothly. The best moment of this development is when Bob, exhausted beyond belief, apologizes to Violet for meddling in her love life and trying to fix things after he’d already messed them up. It seemed as if he’d come to grips with the limits of his power, of his own incredibleness, and in many ways, learned he wasn’t as tough as he thought. The earnestness of the scene, when Violet sees the efforts of her father laid bare before her is truly touching.

Elastigirl doesn’t need to have any lightbulb moment; she’s given the opportunity to kick ass, and she seizes it. She proves worthy of the faith and confidence of others; she proves herself by handling herself and not really making a big deal of it.

That’s where the fully transgressive messaging misstep is obvious; she gets to act with full confidence of her abilities and never doubts herself for a second, but Bob doesn’t seem capable to do that just yet. He gets there. He shows a valuable lesson to men in relationships with women more important and valuable than they are. He shows what it means to strive to succeed at home so a partner can succeed at work. Ultimately, that proves to be self-centered (because if she succeeds, then superheroes come back and he gets to be super again, he tells Frozone in a confessional moment). But it models an ultimately healthy relationship dynamic, and it also presents a character reckoning with feelings that perhaps he knows he shouldn’t feel but can’t help himself from such ugly feelings as jealousy and resentment and self-importance. He doesn’t remain enslaved by those things, and he grows from his attempt to cope, which is never a bad message to present to audiences.


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