There’s a duality to the far-reaching appeal of a Pixar film that extends beyond bright hues and impeccable digital renderings. The studio’s 2004 super-powered super smash The Incredibles is an unabashed celebration of heroics, complete with breathtaking action, a delightfully dastardly villain, and an abiding message about recognizing one’s own potential. It’s also a very human look at how we define, and subsequently choose to live up to, our assumed purpose. Hidden beneath a pile of masks, spandex onesies, and capes (fine, maybe not capes) is an examination of two very different definitions of greatness, and for the many adults who watched this extraordinary family at work, that was just as alluring a story.
Bob (Craig T. Nelson), barrel-chested and imposing in stature, is a physical manifestation of exceptionalism. From the onset, he struggles in every possible way with mediocrity, right down to his physical inability to properly fit into his drab office cubicle and nameless midsize vehicle. Desperate for opportunities to revisit his former glory as a local savior, Bob willingly risks his life and freedom for low-level vigilante work. Meanwhile, Helen (Holly Hunter) remains happily removed from the superhero lifestyle and has found her groove as a homemaker and stay-at-home mother, which is a hectic undertaking in its own right. It’s so chaotic, in fact, that it takes her three full years to locate the energy to unpack their last forgotten box of belongings—an accomplishment that apparently warrants a moment of gloating. It’s understandable: After repeatedly having to uproot their entire lives, managing to finally settle into a town where they can, for once, revel in boring monotony is worth a celebration or two.
So when Helen catches Bob sneaking in after engaging in something that actively threatens their hard-earned peace, we witness a notable clash of two conflicting ideologies, courtesy of a late-night screaming match. For Bob, greatness means rising to the occasion and leaning into what makes one special, which definitely doesn’t include elementary school graduation ceremonies and participation trophies. But to Helen, maintaining their peaceful, somewhat dull slice of Americana—which it to say, preserving stability— is what makes them heroes to their three kids. Neither of them are necessarily wrong.
As parents, this battle between the adult Parrs is instantly recognizable and relatable. Generally, youth-leaning entertainment is starkly black-and-white on heroism: You can choose to be bold or complacent, stand out or fit in, actively fight against evil or become part of the problem. But—at the risk of overstating the obvious—having children categorically changes things. While it certainly doesn’t negate anyone’s ability to save the world, it does affect how we navigate it. As a result, those shifting priorities blur the former black-and-white nature of greatness into a gray area, “fight evil at all costs” evolving into “stand against evil, but make sure to return home to the people that need you.” To be clear, this isn’t a conflict exclusive to parents by any means, as childless adults also have to reassess priorities and boundaries as responsibilities continue to mount. But the constant (and welcome) distraction of children has a way of sometimes making parents forget that we’re still figuring things out ourselves. The Incredibles is fiction, but it’s still reassuring, the idea that having superpowers wouldn’t make anyone immune to that reality.
Bob and Helen eventually do what all mildly successful co-parenting adults do and meet each other in the middle, managing to finally embrace both the ordinary and extraordinary aspects of their lives. Doing so makes them an, ahem, incredibly strong unit that, moving forward, can take on any new threats that may cross their collective path (or, in the case of the ending, literally pop up from the ground). Neither parent is pegged as “correct” or “incorrect.” Their happy ending is a byproduct of their willingness to compromise, which is what makes this such a resonant story for parents, built on a lesson we have to constantly relearn. That’s Pixar for you: always finding the nuanced middle ground, for its characters and audiences alike.