As a preview of our recent publication, The Gospel According To Pixar, we thought we’d post a portion of The Incredibles chapter, “(Secret) Identity And The Problem of Being ‘Super'”. My personal favorite of the Pixar oeuvre, we look primarily at the subject of Identity in Brad Bird’s masterpiece, and what follows is the Syndrome section. I prefer the Mr. and Mrs. Incredible material, as their identities are considerably more multi-dimensional and mediated, but unfortunately those clips aren’t on youtube… yet:

Plot Synopsis: Bob Parr and his wife Helen used to be among the world’s greatest crime fighters, saving lives and battling evil on a daily basis, Mr. Incredible and Elastigirl. Fifteen years later, they have been forced to adopt civilian identities and retreat to the suburbs where they live “normal” lives with their three kids. Itching to get back into action, Bob gets his chance when a mysterious communication summons him to a remote island for a top-secret assignment. [Spoiler alert] His new employer turns out to be none other than his former fan-club president Buddy, now operating under the name ‘Syndrome’. As a boy, Buddy had begged Mr. Incredible to let him serve as his side-kick, an offer which Mr. Incredible had adamantly turned down out of concern for the boy’s safety.

Growing up, Buddy wanted nothing more than the approval and love of his hero Mr. Incredible. He believed, on some deep level, that in order to be of value he must be ‘super’. When he didn’t receive that approval – when he was rejected – he interpreted it as a sign that he is ‘not good enough’. Who he is, sans superpowers, is insufficient. For Buddy, the correlation between his identity and his ability is direct. Ring any bells?

The insecurity has provided him with ample fuel and purpose. It drives the Buddy-train, if you will. He will do whatever it takes to prove himself, to prove that he is not only worthy of Mr. Incredible’s approval, but that he is in fact superior to him. That this not-good-enough-ness is based as much on fiction (!) as reality is beside the point. It is the feeling that matters – not the facts – and he indulges that feeling. Or rather, he is completely at its mercy.  So Buddy re-creates himself (usurping the Creator), inventing gadgets and weapons as substitutes for superpowers, and taking the ominous name ‘Syndrome’. He lives a life of vindictive self-reliance, of deluded works righteousness, and it is lonely and tortuous. “You can’t rely on anyone!”

Clearly Syndrome’s not-good-enough-ness will not be satisfied by defeating Mr. Incredible. Yes, he is thwarted in the film, but more than that, we see that the feeling of accusation cannot and will not be abated on its own terms. It won’t be bargained with or leveraged. The ‘not-good-enough-ness’ will never be anything other than what it is. Martin Luther rightly claimed, “The remedy for curing desire does not lie in satisfying it, but in extinguishing it.” How much more money, Mr. Rockefeller?

As an aside, it is worth noting that in The Incredibles, the command to be a certain way, issued in the form external legislation (Mr. and Mrs. Incredible) or an internal accusation (Syndrome), however well-founded, does not produce the goodness it mandates. It produces deceit and depression in one case, control and fear in another and straight-up evil in the last (Romans 5:20). Ahem.

Syndrome is a great illustration of the human propensity for defining oneself according to one’s abilities/attributes. A dead-end street if ever there was one, not to mention an illusion of the most harmful kind, yet one to which we all cling, do we not? Sadly, Syndrome does not experience the same sort of end-of-the-rope, disillusioning “giving up” moment that precedes the transformation (and re-definition) of both Mr. Incredible and Elastigirl. The tragic consequences of not-good-enough-ness-fueled identity formation only catch up to him in death.

The great insight of the Bible, echoed in The Incredibles, is that identity comes from without, from God, not from within (G. Harrison in reverse). It is bestowed, not earned. Just read the story of the conversion of Saul/Paul in Acts chapter 9 – as if to emphasize the freedom from self-created identity that is the Gospel (Philippians 3:3-11), Jesus gives Saul a new name. There is no more trying, no more approval left to attain; self-reliance and self-congratulation have no place. We are good enough because God is good enough, because Christ is good enough. End of story. It’s incredible. (Couldn’t resist…)

P.S. The Mr. Incredible section of the talk revolves in part around the montage earlier in the film where Bob Parr is reborn through the affirmation of his (secret) identity. Love issues in new energy, good deeds, creativity, and more love. As opposed to the partially justified judgment of city hall and cruel strictures of the insurance company. Of course, the affirmation turns out to be a smoke screen – highly circumstantial and therefore able to be used against him. But his rebirth does provide a glimpse of the dynamic we love to talk about. Brad Bird is a genius.

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