The Real Battle Lines in The Incredibles 2

This one was written by Jeremiah Lawson. Spoilers ahead! Brad Bird’s films may be some […]

Guest Contributor / 6.22.18

This one was written by Jeremiah Lawson. Spoilers ahead!

Brad Bird’s films may be some of the most misunderstood animated films released under the name of Disney/Pixar, thanks to film critics who, over against any of Bird’s own public statements, insist that he embraces and endorses an Ayn-Rand-style objectivism. There have been inevitable attempts to read Bird’s new film The Incredibles 2 as a state of the union film. There have also been reviews proposing that Bird’s new film is trying to say so many things it may not be saying anything; or that the politics of the film seem hard to parse.

While The Incredibles 2 is a film that is concerned with politics and community, it is not a parable about the era of Trump, nor does it read as any kind of Randian parable of how truly exceptional people should be allowed to shine brighter than ordinary people. If it were the latter, then why do Bob and Helen Parr want to be public servants rather than industrialists? Why are they so eager to collaborate with law enforcement (if law enforcement will let them)? If these were heroes in a truly Randian mold, wouldn’t Bob and Helen Parr be more like the industrialists and inventors they fight in these movies, villains like Syndrome in The Incredibles and Screenslaver in The Incredibles 2?

In the first film, Mr. Incredible’s self-appointed nemesis was a former fan. A boy named Buddy nominated himself to be Incrediboy, Mr. Incredible’s ward. Bob Parr, preferring to work alone, rebuffs Buddy—and rebuffs him more sternly when his incompetence threatens to increase the collateral damage of Mr. Incredible’s mission. Bitter toward his former idol, Buddy dedicates his life to proving that he can accomplish as an inventor anything Mr. Incredible could do with his superpowers.

Buddy becomes Syndrome, an arms dealer who invents the Omnidroid, a sentient combat droid designed to kill Mr. Incredible. Syndrome’s ultimate plan was to wipe out the supers and to pose as a super himself, using his technology to win over the world via ruse and then, after he’d had his fun, to sell all his inventions so that the whole world would be “super.” Syndrome says that “when everyone is super, no one will be”—but that isn’t the full weight of his endgame. Ultimately, he wants to live in a world in which the only way anyone can be “super” is through buying his technology. Thus Syndrome reveals he’s an authoritarian technocrat. Bob’s response is to ask, “You mean you killed real heroes just so you can pretend to be one?!”

Neither Syndrome nor Mr. Incredible map readily in a Randian parable once we understand their motivations. Bob Parr is a conventionally altruistic if egotistical superhero; Syndrome is an authoritarian technocrat who intends to replace the aristocracy of a physical “super” elite with the aristocracy of a cognitive/corporate elite. The battle lines drawn in The Incredibles were between the humanitarian idealism of the Parrs’ and Syndrome’s authoritarian technocracy. That battle replays in the new film but with new levels of irony.

In The Incredibles 2, Helen Parr (Elastigirl) is recruited by a billionaire telecommunications mogul to advocate for the legalization of supers. Funded and aided by a brother-sister team of Winston and Evelyn Deavor, Elastigirl becomes a public advocate for the supers while, of course, fighting crime. As Elastigirl and the Deavors work to win public support, a new authoritarian technocrat, the Screenslaver, begins sabotaging the public. In contrast to Syndrome’s plan to sell technology replicating super-powers, the Screenslaver condemns people for living vicariously through their media and uses screens to hypnotize people and enslave them. As Elastigirl works to reach out to the public, Screenslaver threatens to harm a pro-super ambassador visiting the city. Elastigirl manages to save the ambassador but, as she vents to the Deavors, so long as Screenslaver gets to play the game, he’s winning by setting the terms of engagement.

Meanwhile, Bob Parr is struggling to manage family life. His daughter Violet discovers that the boy she has a crush on doesn’t remember who she is because field agent Rick Dicker has wiped the boy’s memory. Bob’s son Dash is struggling with math, and baby Jack-Jack is manifesting dozens of super-powers that he has no control over. In sleep-deprived desperation, Bob takes Jack-Jack to the inventor and fashion designer Edna Mode. Edna babysits Jack-Jack and develops a special suit for him to ensure his safety. She gives Bob a tracking device so he can know where his baby is as Jack-Jack slips in and out of dimensions.

As funny as all of Edna’s scenes are, they are also key to understanding both Incredibles movies as a battle between humanitarian idealists and authoritarian technocrats. Where Screenslaver uses telecommunications technology to subjugate and brainwash, Edna tailors her inventions to serve the Parrs and help them negotiate family needs and crime-fighting alike.

Meanwhile, Screenslaver seems to be captured after a battle with Elastigirl. Helen complains to Evelyn Deavor that the whole thing seemed too…easy. The man who everyone thought was the Screenslaver is just a pizza delivery boy who has no idea what’s happened to him. The dramatic spoiler for this film is that Evelyn Deavor turns out to be the real Screenslaver, nursing a vendetta against all supers for the death of her father. Evelyn’s plan is to brainwash the supers into perpetrating acts of terrorism that will make them illegal across the world.

Once Elastigirl discovers the truth, Evelyn Deavor tells her that she invented the Screenslaver to pander to the fears of the masses. She also admits her idealistic brother Winston has no idea what’s going on. She tells Elastigirl she wants to use her technology to teach people a lesson about how to rely on it less.

There are many ironies about Evelyn Deavor. She’s pandered to the fears she imagines the public has even though she’s sequestered herself in her telecommunications empire. Evelyn doesn’t want to have to deal with people if she doesn’t have to, and she confesses to Elastigirl that she doesn’t understand people or know what they want. Arguably, she also doesn’t care what people want, either. Preferring to wield power behind the scenes—or behind the mind-controlling goggles she puts on her proxies—Evelyn Deavor is the embodiment of the enslaving technology that, as Screenslaver, she claims to protest. She believes the masses embrace a simulation of life and the illusion of freedom while not seeing that she has lived her own life vicariously through people she can control, or at least influence.

Evelyn Deavor is an authoritarian technocrat who is even more contemptuous toward the human condition than Syndrome ever was. She tells Helen Parr that people will always choose ease and comfort over real accomplishment. The Screenslaver scoffs at the conformity and laziness of people who don’t talk to each other but watch talkshows; who don’t play games but instead watch gameshows; who are content to live in the simulation of life so they don’t have to realize how empty and stupid their own lives really are. The irony of a villain monologuing to this end in a film distributed by Disney could reach all kinds of meta levels.

One of those levels of irony is that without the corporate empire she has built with her brother Winston, Evelyn Deavor wouldn’t have the power and resources to be the Screenslaver to begin with. Her inventions are cameras and recording equipment and media tools of the sort that are most useful in precisely the mass media entertainment she condemns her victims for enjoying. What is more, as powerful as the Screenslaver seems to be she clearly can’t control people through every screen, because the Parr family regularly watches television at the borrowed mansion of Winston Deavor, and also make use of the tracking device (with screen) Edna Mode made for them. Evelyn Deavor seems powerful as the Screenslaver but her power is limited to technology and contexts available within the telecommunications empire she and her brother built together.

Another irony is that her plan to make supers illegal depends on destroying the democratic process and manipulating the human agency of supers and political leaders. But without both the supers and the media-consuming masses, Evelyn’s plan can’t possibly work. And like Syndrome before her, the Screenslaver’s plan falls apart once the nature of her manipulation is dragged into the light.

That Bird’s films pit humanist idealists against mercenary technocrats can be seen as the theme that illuminates the final act of Ratatouille. In a simple but shrewd feint, Bird presents the critic Anton Ego as a brutal and condescending technocrat whose bad review docked a star off of a restaurant run by a chef named Gusteau, which was thought to have catalyzed the chef’s death. Yet in the final act Ego is revealed to be amazed by Remy’s cuisine and praises it, writing in his review that the bitter truth critics must face is that more time and labor go into a common piece of junk than into the review designating it as such, and that the responsibility of a critic is to be willing to champion the new. In the last act the man who seemed to be the paragon of a domineering and ruthless technocrat is revealed to be a humanist idealist, if one who is very jaded and hard to please.

The battle between humanist idealists and manipulative, domineering technocrats is a thematic thread that runs across Brad Bird’s scripts. It’s easy enough to see if you aren’t blinkered by goggles of expectation about what can and can’t be explored in superhero films or animated films. Just as not everyone can be a great artist but a great artist can come from anywhere, art does not always have to conform to high or middlebrow checklists to deal with the question of whether or not a technocratic cognitive elite hiding behind corporate juggernauts is going to be better for us than “supers” in plain sight. Bird’s films suggest that we live in a world in which the power you can’t see is more dangerous than the power on display. The Underminer causes more visible property damage but the Screenslaver wields power over the mass media infrastructure of an entire city.

If there’s a tension between medium and message in Bird’s new film, it’s arguably that a computer generated animated film would seem like the apotheosis of art in a corporate-managed technocratic age such as ours. It can also seem as though there might be some tension between the high ideals of humanism in Bird’s films as distributed by Disney, and the company’s precedent of deciding to embargo a newspaper like the Los Angeles Times in the wake of possibly unflattering coverage. We can certainly enjoy the adventures of Elastigirl in this new film while also wondering whether or not there’s some Screenslaver at work behind the scenes.