Movie Review: Incredibles 2 (2018)
2018 is the year the dastardly plots of supervillains in movies began to make sense to me. Either our superhero movies are becoming more complex or I’m becoming more diabolical. Or both.
Start with “Black Panther.” The hero, T’Challa, is part of a long line of Wakandan leaders who not only hide their superior tech but their entire nation. They’re less Invisible Man than Invisible Country. They even let the slave trade continue unabated for centuries despite the tech to stop it. Killmonger, the villain, wants to share this wealth; he wants to help oppressed peoples rise. The only reason we really root against him is because he’s an asshole. But in the long view he makes more sense than T’Challa—who, by the end, actually adopts part of Killmonger’s platform. That was in February.
In “Avengers: Infinity War,” we don’t exactly root for Thanos but at least we recognize some cold Malthusian logic to his actions. He doesn’t want to rule the universe, as so many supervillains before him, he wants to save it. By killing half, sure, but his heart is vaguely in the right place. He just wants to do his job, then retire and sit on his porch and watch the sunset. Who can’t relate?
But the 2018 supervillain who makes the most sense is Screenslaver.
Director as smuggler
First, can I get a shout-out for Pixar supervillain names? In “2,” our heroes first encounter “The Underminer” (Pixar perennial John Ratzenberger), who emerges from below in a giant digging machine spouting the catchphrase, “I’m always beneath you ... but nothing is beneath me!” Love that. (By the way, is he still at large? I don’t think they ever caught him.)
He’s just the warm-up. “Incredibles 2”’s main supervillain is Screenslaver, who is able to hack into almost any system and hypnotize the people watching the screen. It’s basically all about the dangers of screens. Can there be a better message for kids in 2018? I mean, are parents now able to tell their kids, rather than the ineffectual “No more screens,” something like: “You don’t want to be hypnotized by Screenslaver, do you?"
But that’s not what I meant about Screenslaver making sense. Screenslaver’s true purpose is to get rid of superheroes—or, as they’re called here, supers. Initially a hypnotized pizza delivery guy, Screenslaver is in actuality Evelyn Deavor (Catherine Keener), sister to Winston Deavor (Bob Odenkirk), who is trying to help legalize supers via the most modern means possible: public relations.
Evelyn—who looks astonishingly like some actress I can’t quite place, but I’m thinking some ‘90s sitcom I never watched—initially seems the cynical counterpoint to Winston’s wide-eyed enthusiasm. At one point, she and Elastigirl (Holly Hunter) have the following conversation over glasses of wine:
Evelyn: I invent, he sells. I ask you: Which of us has the greater influence?
Elastigirl: Which side of me are you asking: the believer or the cynic?
Eveyln: The cynic—
Elastigirl: —would say selling is more important because the best sellers have the most buyers. It doesn’t matter what you’re selling, it only matters what people buy.
Up to this point, I’d been flagging, slightly bored by Winston’s reclamation project, via Elastigirl, and Mr. Incredible’s relegation to the role of Mr. Mom and the inevitable gags that resulted. But this conversation perked me up. I’ve long argued that the one thing we should teach in public schools is how to sell. We all have to do it at some point—even if it’s just ourselves at a job interview—and some of us are naturally gifted at this, others not, and a little help for the latter group wouldn't be bad. (Full disclosure: I’m in the latter group. Virtually its president.)
Yes, this is Elastigirl’s comments, not Evelyn’s, but Evelyn is guiding the conversation. She’s the creator, and yet her brother, the seller, has all the power. Pull back, and it’s Hollywood’s artistic side (writers, directors) complaining about the power of its commercial side—the producers and studio heads demanding sequels and superhero movies; demanding, from Pixar, “Finding Dory” and “Incredibles 2” and “Toy Story 4.” Amazing that this conversation is even in here—in a superhero sequel that grossed $1.2 billion worldwide. But I guess the producers and studio heads know that it doesn’t matter what’s being sold; it only matters that people buy.
But—again—that not what I meant by Screenslaver making the most sense. Here’s what I meant. At one point, as Elastigirl pursues Screenslaver, he (really she) announces his/her doctrine to the world. Please read it all:
Superheroes are part of a brainless desire to replace true experience with simulation. You don’t talk, you watch talk shows. You don’t play games, you watch game shows. Travel, relationships, risk—every meaningful experience must be packaged and delivered to you to watch at a distance so that you can remain ever-sheltered, ever-passive, ever-ravenous consumers who can’t bring themselves to rise from their couches, break a sweat and participate in life. You want superheroes to protect you, and make yourselves ever more powerless in the process, while you tell yourselves you’re being “looked after,” that your interests are being served and your rights are being upheld—so that the system can keep stealing from you, smiling at you all the while. Go ahead, send your Supers to stop me. Grab your snacks, watch your screens, and see what happens. You are no longer in control. I am.
On the one hand, it’s simply a villain attacking the superhero-reliant people in this animated world. Except since supers are already outlawed, that doesn’t make sense. Nobody’s relying on anything. So what’s really going on? C'mon, you know what it is: It’s a superhero movie railing against superhero movies. And insulting its viewers in the process.
That’s amazing. It’s basically the movies owning up to the threat that the movies themselves pose to the moviegoing public:
Grab your snacks
Watch your screens
You’re not in control
They’re not hiding any of it. It’s all right there.
In “A Personal Journey with Martin Scorsese Through American Movies,” the famous director divides movies into four overlapping categories: director as storyteller, illusionist, iconoclast and smuggler. The “smuggler” is a director such as Andre De Toth or Douglas Sirk who includes “different sensibilities, off-beat themes, even radical political views” in otherwise conventional genres and stories.
Do we add “Incredibles 2” writer-director Brad Bird to the list? Maybe at the top of it?
As for the rest of the movie? Shrug.
The animation is fantastic. The characters are either so prototypical or so personal that I was constantly reminded of people I know: the hapless Mr. Incredible as my brother-in-law; the testosterone-filled Dash as my 3-year-old nephew. I was happy when Winston, the man helping the Incredibles, didn’t turn out to have ulterior motives. That would have been a dull move.
The movie was fun but not funny enough. I don’t think I laughed until Jack-Jack began to do his thing in the backyard with the raccoon. I mean, “New math”? Some chestnut to roast again.
But at least “Incredibles 2” gives us Screenslaver’s doctrine. Sure, she’s the supervillain, but she’s not wrong. She may be more right than anyone in any movie you see this year.