A Look Back at the Magic of ‘The Incredibles’

Since the moment The Incredibles debuted in 2004, fans have been asking for a sequel. Instead of getting their wishes in a timely manner, the public sat through Toy Story and Finding Nemo sequels, a Monster’s Inc.prequel, and not one, but two Cars sequels. Those movies aren’t bad, but it left audiences wondering when their favorite superhero family would don their masks again. With the release of this long-anticipated follow-up, it seems like the right time to take a look back at what made the first film so special.

Grounded in Reality

Many cite Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins as the impetus of dark, gritty superhero movies, but I think it starts with a tiny thread of darkness in The Incredibles. Gritty might be too strong a word, but this movie is certainly more realistic than one might expect from an animation about superheroes. We meet the Parr Family on the brink of collapse, shortly after the banning of all “Supers”. Bob is deep in the middle of mid-life crisis mode. He hates his desk job because it’s beneath him and he can’t help people the way that he wants to. This is causing tension at home.  He’s disengaged from his family, leaving Helen to parent the kids by herself. The kids are not exempt from frustration. They’ve both grown up in a world where they’ve had to keep their powers hidden for fear of another relocation. Dash desperately needs an outlet for his incredible speed, but his mom won’t let him try out for any sports because of his unfair advantage. Dash resorts to pranks which land him in the principal’s office. Violet is on the opposite spectrum. She wants to be a normal teenager and has no desire to use her powers to gain popularity. Her powers are a source of ire and insecurity. The only happy family member is baby Jack-Jack. While things are quite bleak on the surface, they are also a refreshing portrayal of what might happen in real life. At some point or another, we all pine for our glory days. When we can’t achieve the same success as we once had, it makes us upset with ourselves and our station in life. Bob is so fixated on past glories he can’t live a fulfilling life in the present. When the entire family uses their powers as a team, it’s remarkable to see them collaborate to save the day.

Powers and Personalities

One of the most interesting elements of the movie is the way that each person’s superpower is also a commentary on their personality. It’s not our main protagonist who serves as the best example of this, but his family. Violet is a typical shy teen who can become invisible and create protective force fields. Nolan Dean of Stories As Lessons said it best, “[Violet is a] perfect metaphor of how teenagers can feel invisible in society and put up shields when faced with confrontation.” Not only does Violet feel invisible, but often times she wants to be invisible, for instance, when awkward moments crop up at school. Her powers help her shield herself from what she doesn’t want to deal with.

Her brother Dash’s name also fits his power and personality set. He’s impatient, and he doesn’t understand why the world must be the way it is. As with many young boys, he can sometimes act before he thinks. It’s this part of him that keeps landing in trouble at school because he hasn’t figured out how to express his pent-up energy in a productive manner.

Jack-Jack doesn’t seem to have any powers at first, but a few manifest at the end of the movie. He can turn into a demonic creature, combust into a ball of flames, and turn himself to lead. Most babies are boundless balls of energy, but they don’t have the skills to process the world like an older child can. Outbursts can manifest themselves in many different ways, as evidenced by Jack-Jack’s nascent power set. Joe Davis, my partner over at Geek to My Nerd and  Screen Mayhem also had an interesting insight. He states, that “Jack-Jack as a young baby represents limitless potential and the possibilities of the future.”

Moving to the parents, mom Helen can stretch her body to nearly unlimited distances and feats. With Bob mired in the malaise of civilian life, Helen has to take care of the family, pretty much on her own. Helen literally has to stretch herself to discipline the kids, and when they’re in danger later on after they’ve stowed away on the plane, she has to stretch in a different way to rescue them. That brings us to Mr. Incredible, who has super strength. A father in the typical nuclear family of Mid-Century America is the cornerstone, so he too must be “strong.” He’s the breadwinner, working hard all day so his wife and kids are taken care of. He can’t show any kind of weakness or his manliness could come into question. We see this pressure in Bob’s behavior. Even when his job is crushing his soul every day, he must remain strong for his family. It’s very telling near the end of the movie when he wants Helen to stay behind, saying “I can’t lose you again.” He learns that there are different ways to be strong, one way is letting your family help you.

The Nostalgic Space Age Setting

Everything about the setting feels like it came out of Silver Age comic book or a 1960s action/adventure/spy-thriller television show. Doubling down on the comic book references, the town names Municberg and Metroville harken to classic DC universe settings like Metropolis and Smallville. Those names support the feeling that the movie could be set anywhere in America. The most dated reference is Frozone’s aftershave choice, Hai Karate. That detail helps sell this movie as a place that exists outside of our current era, but it’s familiar enough that it doesn’t have to do a lot of world building. The style used throughout the movie is a Space Age architectural esthetic known as Googie. This style allows the movie to feel both retro and timeless because it’s grounded in the familiar. The movie instantly places you in mid-century America with news footage of superhero interviews and old-style newsreel film. Because the aesthetic forgoes most modern-day references, this movie lives in a state of perpetual agelessness. It’s free from references that would have dated it on release.

Jazz Orchestra Score

Michael Giacchino’s score also harkens back to many 1960s themes, especially John Barry’s James Bond and Henry Mancini’s Pink Panther. The music in this movie is great from top to bottom, but a few themes stand out. Mr. Incredible’s introductory theme features swelling trumpets that punctuate intense moments. It sets the audience up for an exciting adventure. Another great theme happens when Elastigirl enters the scene. The horns quiet and give way to lighter strings that hint at the romantic tension between the two heroes. Flutes create an air of mystery when Mr. Incredible learns about a secret project. These sounds help to build up tension and allude to exciting opportunities as they reprise his theme at the scene’s end. A smooth jazz theme plays as he arrives on Nomanisan Island, then lulls the audience into a false sense of security before he faces Syndrome for the first time. The lengths that Giacchino went to capture the quality of music from the era should have earned them an Oscar nomination. The score certainly enhanced the overall quality of the movie.

The Villain, Syndrome

Like many of the best villains in superhero history, Syndrome’s making was an offshoot of the creation of his arch rival. He doesn’t have superpowers like the Parr family, instead Syndrome’s gifts lie within his brain. He’s both intelligent and mechanically-inclined. What he wasn’t granted by genetics he invented through science and technology. He put in the effort because he wanted revenge on the person he looked up to most. His fanboy tendencies remain with him into adulthood, showing that even though we all grow up, the hurt remains deep down. Syndrome flips out when Mr. Incredible dares to call him Buddy. In another scene, he’s practically fawning over how clever his nemesis is. His chosen moniker and ideals reflect a real-life condition, Munchausen Syndrome. Typically, people with this affliction will fake illness to garner sympathy. The afflicted will go to great lengths to fake their conditions. Our Syndrome’s condition manifests as hero masquerade. In order to earn praise, he creates problems that only he can defeat. Sometimes we call his condition Hero Syndrome, but that’s not a medical term. Either way, his name has a double meaning. Ironically, his own invention leads to his eventual destruction. He’s an exceptional villain because of his layered motivations. He doesn’t want to simply conquer, then rule, the world, he wants to provide tools that put everyone on equal footing.

Social Commentary

All films have social commentary, some more subtle than others. The Incredibles does a great job of keeping this balanced. The commentary brings the nostalgic setting in line with the current moment without feeling out of place. One important social message is about being special. As stated earlier, Syndrome’s MO is to make everyone equal. Early on in the film, Helen remarks to Dash, “Everyone is special,” to which he replies, “If everyone is special than no one is.” It’s often the youngest voices that are the most insightful. Dash is right, special means that you have a unique gift. If everyone in the world woke up one day with superpowers, we would need to redefine what it means to be special. Later in the film, we learn Bob’s perspective on the matter when he frustrates Helen because he doesn’t want to attend Dash’s “graduation.” In reality, the ceremony is celebrating a promotion from the fourth to the fifth grade. Bob comments that society has developed, “New ways to celebrate mediocrity.” Again, as harsh as it may sound on the surface, he’s not wrong. I’m surprised they didn’t throw in an “everyone gets a trophy” remark to send that message home. There are other messages throughout, but this one stood out to me.

The Incredibles is a remarkable film. It captured the spirit of the Silver Age better than most other comic book adaptations of the era, and fans still call it the best Fantastic Four film in existence. The sequel has big shoes to fill, but I have faith that Brad Bird and crew can live up to our high expectations.

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