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The Incredibles didn't need comic-book source material (or origin stories) to do superheroes right

Screenshot: The Incredibles
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Nobody starts with the origin stories. At least when I first fell in love with comic books, the lure wasn’t the story arcs of these individual heroes. It was in finding out about this whole world full of outsized characters, many of whom had decades worth of interconnecting storylines. When I’d pick up individual issues of comics at the bookstore or Royal Farms, I’d be catching little pieces of continuing storylines, never quite understanding what was happening but drawn in all the same. The trials of the heroes were interesting, especially the tensions between their secret-identity lives and their heroic impulses. But those parts were never as interesting as the grand, absurd clashes or the idea of how much fun it would be to have these far-fetched powers.

And so when I first saw The Incredibles, I immediately decided that it was the purest representation of the comic-book experience I’d ever seen on screen. I couldn’t believe how good it was. It seemed like some impossible miracle, this zippy and fun vision of a fully-realized comic-book universe—and it didn’t actually come from any previously existing comic book, though it definitely borrowed some ideas and storylines from a few of them. There was some weird political-philosophy stuff in there (and we’ll get to that), but the whole thing worked as a colorful and efficient entertainment-delivery machine, full of fully-drawn characters and inventive action scenes and comedy beats that actually worked. It knocked me out.

By 2004, superhero movies hadn’t become the industry-dominating juggernaut that they are now, but they did make up a fully established movie genre. Superhero movies, no matter where they pushed the idea, seemed to have the same basic arcs, the same beats, like biopics about musicians. The hero would gain powers through some unlikely way, discover those powers, learn of the complications that come with having powers, and finally come into conflict with a villain almost as powerful as himself. The Incredibles doesn’t have any use for any of that. In a few minutes of scratchy interview footage, it shows us the general outlines of its main characters and shows us a world where superheroes exist, where they have their own social circles and customs, where they’re respected pillars of society. Nobody gets an origin story. The movie knows that none of that matters.

The first set-piece in The Incredibles, in which Mr. Incredible is on his way to a wedding but keeps getting sidetracked trying to help people, is a marvel of filmmaking. He’s a fully stereotypical square-jawed comic-book hero, the type who literally stops to pull a cat out of a tree. But he’s also overconfident to the point of recklessness, and he’s trained the world to trust him so much that nobody can quite believe it when he messes up. He lives in a world where tommy-gun-toting bank robbers are all over the place, filling the streets, even though their success rate has to be crazy low. We get some moments of straight-up adrenaline, like the scene where Mr. Incredible snatches a suicidal building-jumper out of the air and crashes through a window with him. And we get a shot that’s stayed with me since I first saw it: Mr. Incredible watching Elastigirl as she stretches and somersaults across rooftops, into the sunset.

As it progresses and briefly turns into a surprisingly bleak midlife-crisis comedy, The Incredibles keeps the sensibility of that first set piece intact. The movie lightly lampoons old superhero tropes—the cat in the tree, the capes, the villains’ tendency to monologue—but it does it while celebrating those. It’s not too cool for its own genre. Instead, it delights in it. It unfolds entirely in a gorgeously implausible retro-futuristic world—a dream world rather than a real one. Its color palette is sharp and vivid, and its music is loose and jazzy. The movie has a great pace, and it keeps its characters in the forefront while taking great joy in putting those characters into ridiculous situations.

The Incredibles is the first Pixar movie to feature an outside director, and it’s the first one where one person wrote and directed the whole thing. That makes it an early Pixar experiment in auteurism. And the auteur in question is Brad Bird, who’d started out as a Disney whiz-kid, worked on The Simpsons, and made a brilliant flop with 1999’s The Iron Giant. Before Bird, Pixar movies had been made by committee, with entire groups of writers painstakingly working over every detail of the studio’s storylines. Bird presumably had help in putting his vision together, but The Incredibles really does come across as one person’s vision. That’s mostly a good thing. Sometimes, it’s bad.

I’m talking, of course, about the Ayn Rand thing. Early on in The Incredibles, the government makes superheroism illegal, thus forcing Mr. Incredible and Elastigirl to go dormant, raising their superpowered kids as normal people. The kids have a problem with this, and so does Mr. Incredible. When Elastigirl tells her son Dash that “everyone’s special,” he shoots back, “Which is another way of saying no one is.” Mr. Incredible fumes about how “they keep finding new ways of celebrating mediocrity.” Syndrome, the movie’s villain, cackles about a future where “everyone can be superheroes,” thus making the actual superheroes irrelevant.

For years, people have been debating about just how Randian Bird meant all this to be. Is The Incredibles a right-wing mockery of participation-trophy culture? Plenty of people, on all sides of the political spectrum, seem to think so. The National Review put The Incredibles at No. 2 on a list of the best conservative movies, while plenty of articles have blasted the movie’s philosophy. And the movie does seem to depict a Randian-nightmare world where exceptional people are prevented from being exceptional, where the feelings of the non-exceptional are paramount.

I don’t know, though. The movie certainly isn’t fully Randian. Mr. Incredible works at an insurance company, bending the rules so that regular people can get the money that they’re owed, putting himself at risk in the process. And he and his family work to protect the general public without the hope of any kind of reward, so they’re not purely self-interested. They’re working for what Frozone calls “the greater good,” so they’re… what? Socialists? Bird himself said he hated the idea that he was sneaking Randian philosophy into a kids’ movie, and in The Incredibles 2, the villain seems to have a Randian disgust for superheroic charity.

If I had to guess, I’d say Bird never fully thought out the implications of his whole “not everyone is special” message, and he got a bit freaked out when people started pointing it out to him. That’s the kind of thing that would’ve probably disappeared from the movie if Pixar’s team had exerted a bit more control over the script. It’s a series of halfassed asides, not an overarching theme for the movie. I don’t like that undercurrent, but I’ve never let it spoil my enjoyment of the movie, either. At worst, those lines put The Incredibles in the company of Dirty Harry on the list of great movies with shitty politics.

There are other small and personal moments that ring a lot truer. There is, for instance, the vaguely excruciating extended stretch where Mr. Incredible is a middle-class schlub, going through the daily stress and drudgery of raising kids and trying to stretch money and, above all, stay engaged. It’s a kids’ movie about the horrors of adulthood, which is a pretty fascinating thing. And from a purely superhero-movie perspective, Bird was prescient enough to make an entitled fan into his villain, thus anticipating the weird cultural climate we’re in where frustrated assholes send death threats every time a storyteller uses the characters that they like to make points that they don’t. Late in the movie, Syndrome tells Mr. Incredible, “I’ve outgrown you.” If only today’s trolls would do the same.

And Bird just knows how to tell a fun superhero story. He finds space for actual stakes. You know the family is going to win, but you also see Mr. Incredible go through a torturous stretch where he thinks his whole family is dead. The first couple of times my daughter tried to watch it, she had to stop because things got too intense when Mr. Incredible discovered the database of dead heroes. The giant robot is an actual threat; it makes Mr. Incredible bleed right away. The quick first fight scene between Mr. Incredible and the robot is a thing of beauty, a short and almost wordless sequence of an outmatched hero courageously outsmarting his enemy. Later on, Mr. Incredible jumps out a window to give a flying shoulderblock to a building-climbing robot, and that kind of shit is just awesome on some deep and primal level.

Bird borrows from the entire history of adventure movies. The robot turns itself into a rolling boulder straight out of Raiders Of The Lost Ark. The whirling-hovercraft jungle chase is a blown-out version of the speederbike chase from Return Of The Jedi. Syndrome’s lair and gadgets are pure Bond. And by that same token, the movie draws on comic-book history. The whole notion of a superhero family is straight out of The Fantastic Four, and Bird even recycles many of the Four’s powers. He also pulls a whole plot catalyst from Watchmen, though he’s complained that he’d never even heard of Watchmen before writing the movie. And honestly, it doesn’t even matter whether that’s true. Either way, the movie stands as a masterful work of pastiche.

The Incredibles was a huge hit, of course. It ended 2004 as the 5th-highest grosser (though not quite the most lucrative animated or superhero movie). Its almost-as-great sequel is already the first animated film to pass the $600 million mark at the domestic box office, and could be on its way to beating Frozen as the highest animated-film earner in history. And while the movie’s whole world is self-contained, people were paying attention. The movie’s bright, quippy tone and its whole-cloth universe eventually found an echo in the way Marvel constructed its cinematic universe and its in-house tone. Eventually, the biggest superhero movies would all be as bright and fun as The Incredibles. Before that could happen, though, things had to get dark.

Other notable 2004 superhero movies: It kills me a little bit that I didn’t get to write this column about Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 2, a massive success in just about every conceivable way. With the whole origin story out of the way, Raimi feels free to have a whole lot more fun with the Spider-Man story, sending Tobey Maguire’s digital image careening beautifully through Manhattan corridors. And in Alfred Molina’s Doctor Octopus, he created a villain who was both intimidating and sympathetic. I’m not crazy about the middle stretch where Peter Parker temporarily quits being Spider-Man, but Spider-Man 2 remains a hell of a movie, an all-timer for the genre.

Another good one was Hellboy, Guillermo del Toro’s adaptation of a cultishly beloved comic book about a human-raised demon. It looks and plays a lot like an X-Men movie, with Hellboy leading a team of freaky outcasts against global threats, protecting the people who are scared of him. But it works on its own merits, too. It’s got a great cast, fun monsters, and del Toro’s sweeping visual sensibility working for it. It takes its characters and its situations seriously but still finds a tone of B-movie fun. Hellboy is no masterpiece, but it holds up.

I wish I could say the same for Jonathan Hensleigh’s The Punisher, the second attempt to turn Marvel’s Charles Bronson-esque vigilante into a movie character. There are good things about the movie, including a few gnarly gunfights and a nicely broody performance from Thomas Jane. But the movie is also a tonal mess. There’s a truly upsetting family-massacre scene, a scenery-inhaling villain performance from a way over-the-top John Travolta, and a trio of comic-relief misfit neighbors, one of whom is inexplicably Rebecca Romijn, for this lone-wolf killer to bond with and take under his wing. A character as simple as the Punisher shouldn’t be that difficult to figure out, but apparently he was.

Meanwhile, a great franchise came to a sad end with David S. Goyer’s Blade: Trinity. The movie makes Blade part of a wisecracking vampire-hunter team out to fight Dracula, and its plot and action are sloppy and incoherent. The cast is fascinating: Jessica Biel! Eric Bogosian! Patton Oswalt! Parker Posey! Triple H! And yet none of them manage to make much of an impression. Wesley Snipes, meanwhile, reportedly hated everything about making the movie and refused to leave his trailer for entire stretches, forcing Goyer to add his image in digitally. If Blade: Trinity has a legacy, it’s probably as Ryan Reynolds’ first chance to play a foulmouthed, self-aware superhero type. More would follow.

And then there’s the notorious Catwoman, which started its development life as a Batman Returns spin-off, and then ended up taking place in a world where Batman apparently doesn’t exist. In this version of the Catwoman story, Halle Berry is resurrected and granted mystical Egyptian cat powers after being killed by an evil cosmetics company. She uses these powers to scamper across CGI rooftops, play one-on-one basketball with Benjamin Bratt, and grab a guy’s tongue while asking, “Cat got your tongue?” Berry showed up at the Razzies, Oscar in hand, to accept her Worst Actress award in person, and single-named director Pitof has never been allowed to make another movie. It’s really something.

Meanwhile, Mark Hamill directed and starred in Comic Book: The Movie, a straight-to-DVD mockumentary about a guy trying to get a superhero movie made. In Hong Kong, Michelle Yeoh starred as a masked and caped adventurer in Silver Hawk, and she fought Luke Goss, the British ex-teen-pop-star who’d also been a villain in Blade II. In Japan, the dystopian superhero anime Casshern got a live-action movie, while a picked-on schlub became a hero and fought aliens in the Takashi Miike’s satirical comedy Zebraman.

Next time: The dark-and-gritty-reboot era kicks off with Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins.