Early into Brad Bird’s Incredibles 2, Elastigirl (Holly Hunter) races down the gridlocked streets of a Space Age metropolis on a motorcycle: flinging the bike in and out of tight traffic, stretching her impossibly malleable limbs around the sleek surfaces of a runaway maglev train. One of several dazzling set pieces in this madcap, belated sequel, it amounts to some of the most kinetic, wizardly action the superhero genre has produced in the 14 long years since Bird’s original Incredibles added a nuclear family of costumed crime-fighters to the Pixar roster. Superhero movies are now the dominant form of Hollywood entertainment, but even the most CGI-heavy of the lot tend to be restricted by the laws of gravity and physics—the hard limitations of a flesh and blood world. Early and often, Incredibles 2 makes the compelling case that animation is the ideal medium for stories based on, or at least inspired by, comic book fantasias, where reality tends to bend and twist as elastically as Elastigirl.
It’s Bird’s ideal medium, too. If the best moments of his terrifically entertaining Mission: Impossible—Ghost Protocol and significantly less entertaining Tomorrowland proved that the filmmaker can stage the hell out of a live-action showstopper, there’s no denying that he’s further liberated by the endless possibilities of animation. With Incredibles 2, the writer-director of The Iron Giant and Ratatouille returns not just to the art form he mastered and to the dream factory he helped build, but also to the out-of-time, retro-futuristic America of The Incredibles. Bird’s blobby humans and “supers” may possess telltale signs of technological refinement (e.g., minute details of facial expression that just weren’t possible to render in 2004), but the place they occupy is more or less as Bird left it: a gee-whiz world of yesterday and tomorrow, equally indebted to the jazzy, bebop cool of early 007 adventures and the angular, art-deco grandeur of the old Fleischer Studios Superman cartoons.
Bird, in fact, has picked up rather literally where he left off, with the super-powered Parr family—a fantastic four keeping its incredible skillset secret—rushing into the battle teased by the final frames of the first film. In what feels like a less harsh, Pixarian twist on the fallout narratives of recent Marvel and DC tentpoles, The Incredibles get blamed for all the rubble left in the wake of the fight—a sign that the anti-superhero legislation established in the original isn’t going anywhere. A glimmer of hope arrives in the form of Winston (Bob Odenkirk) and Evelyn Deavor (Catherine Keener), billionaire sibling moguls looking to drum up public support for the cape and cowl class by sponsoring their rescue-mission exploits and affixing cameras to their costumes, so the world can witness their derring-do firsthand. Hoping to minimize the property damage, the Deavors select Elastigirl, a.k.a. Helen, whose touch is a bit lighter and less destructive than that of her husband, to pilot the PR campaign. This leaves Mr. Incredible, a.k.a. Bob (Craig T. Nelson), stuck at home, watching the kids while his wife saves the world.
One might, at this point, begin to worry that Bird’s retro fetish could go full retrograde, straight into Mr. Mom territory. There’s no denying that Incredibles 2 lightly plays on some tired, last-century anxiety about gender roles. (Isn’t it a gas, a few scenes ask, seeing this brawny goliath of a guy changing diapers?) Thankfully, most of Bird’s jokes are at the expense of child-raising itself, a gauntlet of packed days and sleepless nights for any committed guardian. (“Parenting, when done right, can be a heroic act,” deadpans super-suit-maker-for-the-stars Edna Mode, voiced again by Bird himself.) Teenage wallflower Violet (Sarah Vowell), who feels as invisible as she can make herself, and adolescent speed demon Dash (Huck Milner, taking over for Spencer Fox), who’s not as quick at learning as he is at everything else, are handful enough. But there’s also baby Jack Jack (Eli Fucile), assumed by the family to be powerless, when in fact he has a whole X-mansion’s worth of blossoming abilities, from laser eyes to interdimensional travel. Incredibles 2 gets some truly inspired slapstick out of the infant Parr’s sudden, violent flashes of magic (including a backyard brawl with a raccoon worthy of Tex Avery), but it’s Bob’s compounding exhaustion that earns the biggest, truest laughs.
It’s clear that Helen, entrusted to save the city, is the Parr for the job. How could she not be, with Hunter and her spiky Southern drawl bringing the character back to headstrong life? (There are moments, when Helen is leaning into the joy and finesse of her work, that almost play like Broadcast News in Comic Con drag.) Elastigirl, whose adventures unfold through a can-you-top-this daisy chain of eye-popping spectacle, ends up squaring off against a mysterious terrorist named the Screenslaver, determined to exploit public addiction to gadgets and devices and televised escapism. If that sounds like a cranky screed, keep in mind that it’s coming out of the mouth of the villain, whose hatred for superheroes aligns pretty neatly with that of bitter, entitled fanboy Syndrome from the original. Bird has caught flak for the almost Randian bent of his politics—that continual insistence, given its loudest airing in Tomorrowland, that there are special people in the world who deserve privileges, or at least acknowledgement, that the mediocre masses don’t. Incredibles 2, which hides a twist only the youngest in attendance won’t see coming a mile away, muddles and maybe even complicates Bird’s vaguely Objectivist leanings. Maybe that makes them easier to compartmentalize.
Uncomfortable subtext aside, the first Incredibles located something poignant in its comic, all-ages Watchmen riff: an amusing, sweet parable about midlife crisis and the difficulty of leaving your glory days in the past. Incredibles 2, which crosscuts between Helen reigniting her professional passion—in sequences of velocity, verve, and visual imagination—and the more sitcom woes of Bob’s stay-at-home fathering, lacks the straightforward resonance of its predecessor. But it’s still a sparkling contraption of an animated comedy, funny and often wondrous in its midcentury-modern vision of an alternate America frozen in the amber of a bygone idealism. To that end, the film could inspire nostalgia for more than just the Pixar melee it continues and often loosely, narratively resembles. Remember a time when the future looked as bright as the spandex of a Silver Age superhero? Incredibles 2 wants to bottle and disperse that optimism, as a tonic for today’s dark, grim comic book blockbusters and the darker, grimmer real world they’re refracting.