Sunday, December 26, 2004

It is very difficult to post from my parents' house. For one thing, my parents have serious issues with blogging. They think people with blogs are, if not necessarily bad people, then certainly deeply flawed and a bit pathetic. Needless to say, they don't know about this blog. Also, they don't necessarily believe in privacy. For instance, the computer is located in the laundry room, and the door to the room doesn't close. When I'm on the computer, my parents like to wander in and read over my shoulder. They must find my email a lot more fascinating than I do. Have I mentioned that my parents are driving me a bit nuts?

Anyway, in an attempt not to drive each other up the wall, we have been seeing a lot of movies. Today we saw The Incredibles, which everyone in the world seems to love. Everyone but me, that is. To me, the movie's heavy-handed message seems deeply objectionable. It seems offensive and reactionary, even. Why am I the only person who seems to be bothered by this? Am I missing something?

Warning: spoilers follow!

So The Incredibles is about a couple of superheroes: Mr. Incredible, who is superhumanly strong, and his wife Elastagirl, who can stretch like a rubber band. When the action starts, they are young lovers about to be married, and they devote themselves to helping humanity and stopping wrongdoers. Because of this, they're worshipped by mere mortals, and Mr. Incredible is dogged by a non-superhero kid who is a member of his fan club and who wants to be his sidekick. But the kid doesn't have powers, so he just gets in the way, and Mr. Incredible sends him away. Because of this slight, the kid grows up to envy and resent superheroes. Thus is born our villain.

Meanwhile, the government decides that it's a bad idea to have superheroes roaming the cities doing good, so Mr. Incredible and Elastagirl are forced to enter the Superhero Relocation Program, where they must suppress their talents and pretend to be ordinary suburban citizens aptly named Mr. and Mrs. Par. When the story resumes, they are desperately trying to pretend to be normal, as are their socially-maladjusted but superhumanly talented offspring, 10-year-old Dashell, who can run really fast, and teenaged Violet, who can make herself invisible and create impenetrable force fields.

Enter the villain, the normal guy who hates superheroes because they're exceptional and he's not. He's grown up to be an inventor, and he's invented a bunch of machines that give him strength that rivals real superheroes'. He has concocted a dastardly plan to kill off the genuine superheroes, create a lot of havoc, pretend that he's a superhero, and then save the world, earning people's respect and gratitude. Then, he says, he will make his inventions available to the public, so that everyone can be a superhero. The Incredible family foils this plan, and in the process they redeem the public reputation of superheroes. They must be modest about their superiority to other people, the movie suggests, but it's also important that society recognize and give free reign to their superior powers.

The movie isn't subtle in its social criticism: it also takes potshots at the litigious society and uncaring insurance companies, for what it's worth. But fundamentally, this is a movie about the social role of talented people. I read a review today that said that it was a polemic against mediocrity, but I don't think that's right at all. The movie's real target is not mediocrity but equality. Some people, according to The Incredibles, are just born better than the rest of us. This superiority is innate and inherited: superheroes make up a kind of master race. The movie doesn't just suggest that it's destructive to stifle talented people; it also derides the notion that everyone has talents that should be celebrated, and it raises and dismisses the idea that ordinary people could make their way into the elect. You don't choose to be a superhero; you can't earn it through ingenuity or hard work. You're either born super or you're not.

An unstated but necessary corollary to the idea of an innately superior group of superheroes is the notion that they will always use this power for the common good. Otherwise, we might have to confront the pesky notion that powerful elites might use their strength to oppress others. It's not that it's impossible for ordinary people to become super-talented: with the help of his inventions, the villain becomes an equal match for any member of the Incredible family. The problem seems to be that it's unnatural to elevate people who are destined to be ordinary; it messes with the proper order of things. When given extraordinary power, normal people will be corrupted. Only those born superheroes can be trusted to use their powers for good. This movie says that powerful, hereditary elites are good for society not because they're more talented but because they're more moral. It's a nineteenth or even eighteenth-century version of how society should be ordered: it's a celebration of natural aristocracy and the concept of knowing your place.

Another unstated but clear assumption is that real, important powers are physical, not mental. The Incredibles' powers all reside in the body: they can lift, throw, contort, run, or disappear. There's no thinking involved. In fact, Mrs. Incredible tells Violet that in case of an emergency, she should not think. Thinking just trips Violet up, and she's more effective when she shuts her brain off and just acts. The villain of the piece, on the other hand, is depicted as that comic-book cliche, a genius inventor. His powers reside in his mind, and he is capable of creating machines that could give everyone extraordinary powers. This mental prowess, however, is not a super power. His ability to design and create makes him an imposter, not a superhero. His intelligence is a destructive force, while the Incredibles' bodily strength is a force for good. The movie suggests that the whole society should mirror the social hierarchy of your typical high school: the football players should lord it over the losers in the chess club.

I suppose I shouldn't be surprised that this movie is such a hit in the U.S. After all, our newly re-elected president is an anti-intellectual jock whose main qualification seems to be that he's a member of one of the most elite families in the nation. I guess it's a sign of the times. But I'm a tad disappointed that so many liberal critics seem to have been taken in by this reactionary garbage.

(Followed a link from Alas, a Blog)
As someone who considers themselves liberal and enjoyed watching the Incredibles, I feel like I should give an account of my thoughts on the matter.

To begin with, I don't think that any story about a family of superheroes is ideologically suspect on that basis, despite the fact that it implies the existance of hereditary blatant superiority. The reason why I don't is because that is the sort of thing my mind tends to file into the "ways this world is not like ours" box, the contents of which are sacrificed to the god of suspension of disbelief.

Following from that point, if you're going to have a world in which superheroes exist, how should they behave and how should society treat them? My understanding of what was portrayed by the film is that they should be treated like exceptionally competent firemen, police, EMTs, or anyone whose job is to save people's lives in crisis situations. I would expect the consideration that someone in that role deserves a healthy amount of respect to be uncontroversial. What I don't see in the film is any indication that these people deserve any physical rewards, or power over civil affairs, which is what you seem to be seeing.

As to the status of the villian, my interpretation is that he is led to villainy from the belief that it is only the power of the supers that deserves respect, not how it is exercised. The fact that he is a genius I see as being more dictated by story requirements rather than by nefarious subtext, as being marked for revenge by an evil moron doesn't quite have the same capacity for excitement to it.

On the topic of the featured powers, I think you're stretching it to term Violet's powers as being physical. It's true that they aren't related to knowledge in any way, but I have them pegged as being more intuitive. In any case, I read an interview with one of the writers of the film, and he said that they based the superpowers on the stereotypical view of the average family. Regarding the advice to not think, just run and hide in a crisis, I think that's perfectly appropriate advice to give to a 7th-grader who may be attacked by soldiers. Violet does later redeem the status of thinking by having a good idea.

To sum up, I think the main themes in the Incredibles are: people are different, volunteerism is good, power for its own sake is bad, and fashion designers are eccentric, yet all-knowing.

While I do see your interpretation I have to say that I read the movie very differently. I read it as valuing that which makes you different and not trying to be what you aren't.

The Incredibles all have different gifts that they find difficult to hide and they all react differently to having to hide. Mr. Incredible is very frustrated by his limitations while ElastiGirl seems to feel more whistful about the old days. Violet rejects her powers and feels like there's something wrong with her while her brother Dash loves his powers and wishes he didn't have to hide. I saw the problem in their family as caused by having to hide that they are different.

I think the biggest difference between the way you and I understood the movie was in the character of Buddy - the supervillian. He wanted to be what he was not (as Violet did). Mr. Incredible rejected him not because he lacked super powers but because he was a) a kid and likely to get hurt and b) annoying as hell. Buddy, however, was utterly exceptional without any physical superpowers. He invented boots that allowed him to fly at the age of 10 or 11. He's a super genius - but somehow he never learned to value his intelligence as the gift that it is. Instead of simply accepting what was natural for him he wanted to be something he wasn't and he hated the fact that he couldn't be exactly what he idealised.

In my mind the Incredibles and Buddy had equally cool powers but none of them were valued by the general society for them. The superpowers were considered dangerous and the intelligence just wasn't cool. I thought the message of the story was that if everyone was valued for who they are we can all be incredible - allbeit in different ways.

Taken to real life I think it means that we should celebrate and excercise our differences. That not everybody is going to excel in the same area and that we need to value more than just the physical. Trying to make everyone the same means that no one will reach their full potential. Some people excel at arts, others at sciences, others as athletes, some people as writers, others as readers, but no one excels at everything. I guess I just saw The Incredibles as people who excel in non traditional ways.

stumbled on your comment a few months after the fact...

anyhow you're not alone in how you felt upon exiting that movie as i had precisely the same feeling.

the 2 people i saw the movie with were "ra ra that was so amazing i loved it", while i was thinking, sure there was some amazing animation, but i couldn't shake the feeling i was being brainwashed. it definitely colored my view of the film.

for me it's always the thought behind the action, rather than the action itself, that sticks.
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