At 12-years-old, the release of Pixar’s original Incredibles hit me right between the eyes. Young enough for cartoons, yet old enough to understand some deeper implications of the story, I imagine I was at the center of their target audience. Certainly the question of Syndrome, the piece’s villain, was one I was beginning to ask myself as a budding teenager: if everyone is special, isn’t it true that no one is? How can I be uniquely valuable in a world where everyone is also uniquely valuable? It is a legitimate question, not just for children, and Pixar’s answer rang loud and true: value does not come from being unique or from what you do, but from particular relationships – from who you are to those who love you.
Now, 14 years later, Pixar has again used the Incredibles franchise to face a legitimate and piercing question: how will the revolutionary technology of our day impact the next generation? Interestingly enough, as a young adult heading toward 30, I believe they still had me in mind as their target audience.
After picking up the story where it left off with a quick defeat of the Underminer, Incredibles 2 introduces us to the next major villain the Parrs must tackle. Instead of coming from the sky or beneath the earth, this time the threat comes over the airwaves as the Screenslaver attempts to manipulate minds by hijacking everyone’s screen-based devices. Too bad this threat is not a fear we can relate to in the real world, right?
The moral landscape of this second story, however, is more subtly shaded than in the first installment. For example, the mysterious villain’s justification for his evil work lies in a legitimate problem he has identified in society. He has perceived that technological advances (and superheroes) have created a world in which no one is self-reliant. Personal strength and skill diminish as all become slaves to outside forces. No one is thinking or living for themselves anymore.
If you do not join me in responding with a resounding “huzzah!,” you will at least probably find yourself uncomfortable with how much you agree with the film’s proclaimed “bad guy.” Here I am, a millennial who grew up and watched my family’s dial-up AOL rapidly transform into the iPhone sitting beside me right now. That iPhone is currently tempting my attention away from this work toward the mindless world of Facebook, where I am liable to be influenced by whatever ads the algorithm puts in front of me today. Wouldn’t it be wonderful, then, if Screenslaver had his way, forcing our society to retreat back to Wendell Berry’s idyllic, unplugged world? Why is my favorite cartoon superhero family attempting to stop this good work?
One possibility is that Pixar wants society to remain enslaved so that we will continue forking over our hard-earned dollars to the Disney empire. Usually I’d be cynical enough to buy this one, but I’m going to reject it out of hand because I believe Brad Bird to be far too thoughtful and warm-hearted to be this subversive. Besides, the Screenslaver is too articulate in correctly identifying the problems of our technological world; there must be something deeper going on.
Another possibility is that we are supposed to agree with the Screenslaver and it is only the abusive path to achieving his goal we are to take issue with. Yet, while an attractive interpretation, this simply doesn’t ring true in context with the rest of the story. Technology itself is a major factor in fighting the villain. And the Screenslaver is then defeated roundly and soundly; none of his principles are adopted by the Incredible family. In fact, the closing scene portrays Violet finally getting to go on her movie date with Tony, albeit accompanied by the rest of her family, where they will all sit in front of a giant screen for a couple hours like I had just done myself in watching this film.
So what is going on here? Why hasn’t Bird given us a villain whose defeat we can safely cheer? Why is the classic black and white, good versus evil superhero story so very gray by the end in this case?
We may begin to get a glimpse of our answer if we pay closer attention to the cutesy, little switcheroo the storywriters pull in this sequel. While last time it was Mr. Incredible who left his family to fend for themselves while he took care of saving the world, now the task is given to Elastigirl and Mr. Incredible must hold down the fort at home. In place of the father, the source of security and identity for the Parr family, we are this time given the mother. And while Bob does a very respectable job of tackling domestic duties and making sure no one dies during Helen’s absence, it’s fair to say the family feels her absence pretty dramatically. It turns out that no one can comfort a broken heart or put out the flaming baby demon quite as well as mom.
For whatever reason, the storywriters believed this villain called for a sensitive, maternal hero. They pit the Screenslaver against a woman who is not fazed by the antics of her moody daughter, rambunctious son, and shape-shifting infant. We can assume that Helen Parr, like many mothers, is intimately acquainted with the particular sins that can only be experienced in the day-to-day of at-home life. Her strength lies in her ability to love those little sinners in spite of themselves.
Of course, I’m painting in broad strokes here. Fathers have this strength as well and mothers are a source of security and identity for their children. But symbolically speaking, the choice of mother as hero in this instance is an interesting one. Elastigirl’s struggle to destroy the Screenslaver is one of undeserved mercy for the world. The villain is not wrong; these people would not be affected by the attack if they were not addicted to their screens in the first place. They would not need saving by superheroes if they could defend themselves. Yet the Incredible family comes to save the day anyway, with no demands and no questions asked. The Supers save the people of Metroville, even in their fault and weakness, because humanity is worth saving.
Throughout the film we see that Bob and Helen’s son, Dash, loves him some Saturday morning cartoons. There is nothing moderate in his desire to sprint away from the dinner table to the nearest screen and flip on Johnny Quest. I was the same. Back in the day no one could stand between me and Recess or Animaniacs. Yet by the end of the movie, we get the feeling that even so, in the arms of his Incredible family, Dash will be okay. I imagine the same could be said of me and my digital generation.
Wendell Berry will have to accept my apologies, because I do not regret a moment that I spent watching Pinky and the Brain. And I wouldn’t be receiving a paycheck right now if it were not for my iPhone. Like all things, technology has its strengths and weaknesses. And, as is always the case, humanity will fail in their stewardship of this new tool. But the takeaway of Incredibles 2 is worth adding to our ongoing conversation about the dangers of the digital era: just as it is not our doing that saves us in any other area of our lives, our successes in moderating our consumption of technology will not save us either. We require otherworldly, super(natural) assistance.