Dir. Brad Bird. Starring Holly Hunter, Craig T. Nelson, Catherine Keener
I never write about movies on their opening weekend, but because I am here…spoilers. Many spoilers.
In the abstract, an Incredibles 2 seems as heinous as a Toy Story 4. Both The Incredibles and Toy Story 3 end, in my opinion, quite completely and adequately, telling entire stories to their conclusion. In the case of The Incredibles, a family all but torn apart because of the father’s nostalgia is brought together again when his family is forced to rescue him from said nostalgia. One of the things I liked best about The Incredibles was that it felt urgent. When Bob (Nelson) is suckered into working for a mysterious inventor located on Nomanisan Island, his missions and his desperate attempts to stay alive felt urgent. When Helen (Hunter) and the kids follow him, Helen’s rescue mission and the kids’ manic attempts to evade the baddies felt urgent. And when Syndrome (Jason Lee) makes his play to become the first of the new supers (and loses his grip on an invention far more powerful than him), the Parrs are there to stop him. The Incredibles 2 doesn’t have that urgency, and so the result is a series of fun moments loosely connected by a weak plot. It is an entertaining movie, but it doesn’t feel meaningful the way its predecessor did, and more importantly it’s no longer thumbing its nose at its presumed genre. The Incredibles makes fun of the danger of capes and exposes the propensity of villains to monologue, and uses “supers” exclusively as opposed to “superheroes.” Generally it needled the superhero genre while mining what’s ignored in the margins (post-superhero life, the damage caused by superheroes and their legal liability, who makes the costumes, etc.) to make a very new and absorbing kind of superhero story. The Incredibles 2 has caped superheroes, a monologue in which a sinister plan is revealed, and the word “superheroes” bandied about over and over again. It very neatly bifurcates the superhero world from the normal person world in a way that The Incredibles never did. In short, it’s a superhero movie that doesn’t challenge anything, and there are an awful lot of those at the multiplex already.
Maybe I’m down on the movie because I thought that Helen, who is as compelling as any Pixar character, feels less like a person here than she did in the original. The sole exception is the monorail, which is the apex of her fabulous action sequences. (I couldn’t help but compare this movie, with its state of the art visuals, against the VeggieTales animation of the first movie…the strides in the past decade and a half have just been huge.) One of them sees her chase a monorail on a motorcycle (the “Elasticycle,” which I dig), and that sequence is killer, the first of its kind I’ve seen in ages where I didn’t hear a disembodied second unit director saying, “Yeah, we’ll fix that in post.” It has to be seen to be appreciated: there’s more than a little French Connection there, except half of it takes place in the air and it features a person who can contort her body in inhuman ways. The problem is there’s no man shot in the back at the end of this chase; it teaches us nothing we didn’t know about Helen already, for one of her great characteristics is her borderline psychotic determination. What it does teach us about is the difference between her and Bob. When Bob stopped a train fifteen years ago, it turns out to be have been the culminating event in a night that basically got the supers outlawed. When Helen does it, there are no injuries and it’s the best piece of press the supers have had in more than a decade.
It’s painfully obvious from the get-go that the Deavors and Screenslaver are connected to each other, which means that we have to wait for the movie to catch up to us rather than the other way round. The shame of it is that Evelyn Deavor (voiced by Keener but bearing a weird resemblance to Lisa Rinna) is a perfectly adequate villain and her brother Winston (Bob Odenkirk) is a surprisingly interesting foil for her. When she’s monologuing (sigh), she explains that the murder of her father by some burglars was the turning point for both of them. Her brother was locked into a state of arrested development, maintaining a childlike belief in the power of superheroes to right any wrong and solve any problem. (It’s the closest Incredibles 2 comes to launching a barrage at the audience for its taste, and the movie could honestly stand a little more like antagonism.) She’s been embittered by it; if her father had hid or even called the cops like a normal person, he would still be alive. A world with superheroes, Evelyn argues, is one in which people are far less likely to act on their own. Through her, a pizza guy in the Screenslaver’s garb delivers a monologue as Helen tries to track his signal. You don’t talk, but you watch talk shows. You don’t play, but you watch game shows. Aside from the obvious nod to our issues with screens (which the movie could stand to be a little less antagonistic about), it’s basically a strong argument that I wish the movie had taken in a slightly different direction. If you’re so sure that someone else will solve the problem—or will talk or play for you—you aren’t likely to do it for yourself. Winston drops a few “Make supers legal again” which, facepalm, but the real political statement for our time is in Evelyn’s perspective. There are an awful lot of people who got very excited about emoluments or the 25th Amendment or Russian interference or whatever liberal Benghazi equivalent you like. They truly seemed to believe that those little thought of hypotheticals would flip the election from Donald Trump to Hillary Clinton. There’s no shortcut to positive change; there’s no easy way to fix things; no one will magically offer up a deus ex machina in real life. Life imitates art, though the art in this case is more pragmatic than real life. (This is the second movie in the series, by the way, where I have sympathized much more with the villain’s point of view than the heroes’. Why should there be a special class of people with the privileges of the supers? Isn’t it bad that the supers have made us believe that we have to wait for the ubermenschen to solve our problems for us?) The trouble with Evelyn is that it’s clear she’s Screenslaver from early on, and the movie really wants a stronger reveal than it gets. Even fighting her, as the movie waits and waits on, requires someone to come along and remove the hypnotic eyewear she’s placed on her victims. It draws the movie out, which might still be okay if it weren’t for how drawn out the B-plot is.
While Helen is putting on the ol’ super-suit and going by Elastigirl again, Bob is managing the lives of his kids and waiting his turn for something exciting to happen for him. (I don’t care if it’s already cliche to call this the “full Force Awakens,” because it is.) I was terrified that the movie would turn into a “haw haw look at that man try to parent by himself, haw haw” story, which is just a low, ugly form of humor. For a minute it veers dangerously towards that track, although in the end it turns out that the real problem is raising an infant who can phase through solid objects and fight raccoons in the yard. Bob accidentally has Violet’s would-be boyfriend’s memory wiped after he sees her in her supersuit without her mask, a problem which gives the newly confident Violet a sharp relapse into that mid-2000s emo anger thing she had going on. After a frizzy-haired Violet tries to put her suit down the disposal and then storms upstairs gnashing her teeth, Dash asks, “Is she having adolescence?” Yes, Virginia. Dash has math homework which is giving him trouble, opening up the first joke at the expense of Common Core that I can remember in a movie. I can do math! Bob says. They just changed it since I was in school! Eventually, Bob stays up late to figure out the new math and manages to teach it to his son before he goes off to school. Bob also tries to make things right with Violet, down to taking her to the restaurant that Tony’s family owns so she can reintroduce herself. (There’s a sight gag here that I am begging the universe to turn into a meme yesterday and which I won’t ruin for you if you haven’t seen it yet.) In the end Bob does okay by his two older kids…it’s just Jack-Jack who poses the problem, as he is showcasing his powers for the first time and there are more of them every time Bob turns around.
My problem with Jack-Jack is that I enjoyed him more than I enjoyed any other part of the movie. He has been a scene-stealer from the beginning, but what they’ve done with him in Incredibles 2 borders on a new art form. The fight with the raccoon in his backyard is sensational. He meets Edna—at a point when I was starting to wonder if she was going to make it in the movie—and their first meeting is the movie’s second-best sight gag. He’s still the smiling, gurgling mess we fell in love with in the first movie, but with way more tricks up his sleeve. What it ultimately becomes is doughnuts for dinner, especially as his scenes proliferate throughout the picture. It didn’t stop me from laughing like a crazy person, but it does keep the movie from accessing more serious ideas.