The Incredibles, Pixar’s 2004 superhero flick, is not renowned for its originality. Nearly every superhero trope is reused. The main characters are essentially the Fantastic Four plus the Flash. But ideologically, this film is far more convoluted than I expected. It is a film concerned with society and how to improve it. I think it is fair to claim that this film is concerned with not only improved society, but also perfect, happy society. Utopian society.
Utopia is a strong word with two relevant meanings to this discussion. Many writers have constructed hypothetical Utopias, which are societies that are organized differently than our own and designed to maximize happiness. This genre is instructional; it is impersonal. On the other hand there is the will to Utopia. People possess an innate desire to improve society, and a desire to experience that massively better (how it is better is open to interpretation) society. The will manifests itself in many areas of life, but can be recognized clearly through film and cinema. Which brings us back to The Incredibles: not only does this film attempt to present a Utopia, it also presents characters’ individual wills for Utopia.
Let’s start with Mr. Incredible and Mrs. Incredible, the main protagonists of the film. Forced into hiding for being “Supers,” humans with extraordinary powers and abilities, Mr. and Mrs. Incredible (now with the adopted surname “Parr”) have settled down and moved to the suburbs. The movie begins to hammer home a dichotomy between ordinary and extraordinary. Mr. Incredible is forced to contain his bulk between a tiny desk and an office cubicle at his job, frowning the whole time. Dash, the Incredibles’ second child who has the ability to run faster than anybody else, is refused the privilege to “go out for sports” by his parents as that would make his peers unhappy and draw unnecessary attention to himself. Mrs. Incredible’s most joyous moment in the first act is announcing that the Parr’s are “officially moved in” as she has finally unpacked the last box from their move three years prior.
The situations our heroes are in are not only subduing, they are repressive. The repression of Supers has made them incredibly unhappy. Unable to realize their full potentials, and limited to the capacities of their non-special neighbors, Supers are stuck in our dull world. And it’s not only Supers who are hurt either: regular citizens are impacted as well. In the movies opening scenes, a pre-ban world is shown. Supers are happy, as they can fulfill their desires and help people, but so are regular citizens who benefit from the Supers. They smile and laugh. After the ban, this all changes. Not one regular citizen is laughing or smiling in this world. The brief encounters with non-Supers tell this story: Dash’s teacher fills time trying to catch Dash putting tacks on his chair and Mr. Incredible’s boss lives in constant fear of the shareholders in his company.
The worst part, as the movie would have you think, is that regular citizens’ unhappiness is their own fault. After Mr. Incredible saved a suicide jumper, the jumper sued Mr. Incredible for “ruining his death.” Soon after, nearly all Supers were involved in legal cases. The government was forced to put them into hiding, with one spokeswomen announcing, “it’s time for their secret identities to be their only identity.”
To recap, the unextrodinary masses, and the oppressive capitalist systems, have forced our special heroes into submission, mediocrity, and dejection. The viewer sees an unhappy society, not entirely unlike the one the viewer inhabits. Let’s return to Mr. Incredible, and his will for Utopia. His solution is to “bring back the good old days.” Important to note is that he is not selfish: Mr. Incredible is truly concerned with the stakes of society, rather than only his own life. Repeatedly we see him demonstrate this desire: going the extra mile to help an elderly lady file an insurance claim, attempting to help a man being mugged while Incredible’s boss threatens to sack him, and even resuming illegal hero work to save a family from a burning building. It seems Mr. Incredible wishes for a world where Supers regain their power.
This Utopian world is ideologically aligned with the Nietzschaen superman. Put simply, Pixar is implying that “we are all created equal, but some of us are more equal than others.” (Booker 93) Those who are not special are treated “contemptuously … as a crowd of ignorant rabble.” (Booker 93) Mr. Incredible, and all Supers, are supermen in this sense. Their frustrations are a result of their inability to self actualize because of the constraints of the masses.
The Incredibles seems to follow this ideological base. The efficacy of non-supers to achieve anything meaningful is laughable. Towards the end of the movie, the army attempts to destroy antagonist Syndrome’s robot. Their actions are meaningless, and they are obliterated almost instantly. This ideological view is also supported by the way death is treated. To test his Omnidroid, Syndrome baits various Supers into fighting it. When Mr. Incredible discovers this fact, he freaks out, shocked to find so many Supers have died. This informs the viewer that great emotional weight is placed on the Supers’ deaths. Yet, as the Omnidroid rampages through the city, destroying cars and buildings, not one death is shown. Yes, this is a children’s movie; however, it is important to realize that the “contentious rabble” do not receive even a polite nod when they die. The division between Super and regular is reinforced. Therefore, the Nietzschean Utopia is clearly distinguishes between supermen and regular people. The supermen should be allowed to behave and act without restriction by the rabble.
But the movie’s conclusion offers an alternative interpretation. At the end of the movie, after Syndrome is defeated, the Incredible family are still in their regular clothes – fitting in with society. Dash is allowed to compete in a track race, but he is only allowed to match the speed of his competitors. The family is allowed to resume hero work, but the aspect of full self actualization is absent. Supers still split time between being Super and being normal. This is not the Nietzschean Utopia where the great are unimpeded. The Utopia here is the Utopia Mr. Incredible dreamed for. It seems that this careful limitation of excellence is what the movie strives for. (Anton 227)
To fully describe Mr. Incredible’s, and the movie’s, Utopia I have to incorporate one aspect of the movie that I have mostly ignored until now: the story and character arc of Buddy, who later becomes Syndrome. Buddy is not a Super and has constructed devices and technology that mimics superpowers. Buddy also has a will for Utopia, contrasting to Mr. Incredible’s. Buddy wants everybody to be Super (of course, this is only after he can be super on his own for a few years), and he claims he will share his inventions with the world. The result of his evil: “when everybody is Super, no one will be.”
Buddy’s Utopia is far more egalitarian than Mr. Incredible’s. Buddy wishes for everyone to be equal and elevated to the same power level as the Supers. The movie has made a powerful statement in opposing this point of view, and the movie has opposed this view. At the end of the movie, Mr. Incredible’s Utopia, not Buddy’s, is realized. Ironically, the audience is cheering for the Utopia which least benefits them. The movie makes it clear that being a Super means being born a Super. This is true of the audience as well; none of us are supers. Our idol should be Buddy: he is the person who can empower us. Yet the movie has us cheer for a situation that makes us dependent on the powers and wills of other people.
That scenario is not what I would imagine most Americans envision for their Utopia. It is American, in a traditional sense, to be responsible for yourself, to achieve by yourself. The Incredibles has attempted to convince audiences that the Utopia where they are better off is one where we are less powerful than the institutions surrounding us. It seems like the movie describes our world, but it does not. Instead, The Incredibles is saying that a massively better world is one governed by religion.
It has to be religion too. The government was the primary tool with which Supers were repressed. This implies that the government is not one of the higher powers we should adhere to and, in fact, the government limits the higher power. Capitalism and corporate power is not the solution for much the same reason. That leaves one major institution that fits the description we have. Most religions require a belief in a higher power. Often times, this higher power has smaller deities which do its bidding. Most religions require submission to this higher power, and acceptance of your place below it. These traits are all correlated with behaviors encouraged by The Incredibles.
In particular, Catholicism seems to match better than other religions. All requirements of power, submission, and sainthood are represented. People are not powerful and can never be as powerful as the deities they worship. Regular people should submit to the Supers who will protect them if they do so. Supers are essentially saints: they demonstrate incredible selflessness and capacity to help and are endowed with “otherworldly” power.
The correlation is not perfect. There are ways to become priests, bishops, and the Pope but not Super. But the power dynamics and message remains the same. The movie encourages acceptance of your place in reference to power in a Utopian context. The movie says that if you and everybody else accept religion, the world will be massively better. On impulse, I disagree with this Utopia. But how can I argue, when I just saw how much better off I would be if I let Pope Incredible save me.
Adurey Anton. “The Nietzschean Influence in The Incredibles and the Sidekick Revolt.” The Amazing, Transforming, Superhero: Essays on the Revision of Characters in Comic Books, Film, and Television. Ed. Terrence R. Wandtke. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2007. Print.
Booker, M. Keith. Disney, Pixar, and the Hidden Messages of Children’s Films. Praeger, 2010. 25 Nov. 2009.
Bloch, Ernst. The Principle of Hope. Trans. Neville Plaice, Stephen Plaice, and Paul Knight. 3rd Vol. 1. Cambridge, MA: MIT, 1996.
The Incredibles. Dir. Brad Bird. By Brad Bird. Walt Disney Pictures, 2004. Online.