A lot’s been said about both Incredibles movies and Brad Bird’s other Disney movie, Tomorrowland, in terms of them being quasi-Ayn Randian spiels. They’re all about “gifted” individuals struggling with being “allowed” to use their talents for the betterment of society, and some see this as uplifting said “special” people to a higher social status. I get where this interpretation comes from, but I really doubt that’s what’s going on in the back of Bird’s mind.
To be that sort of Atlas Shrugged Objectivist type, you pretty much have to be an asshole at heart. You have to care about the self more than the outside world, and that the betterment of the self is the betterment of the outside world. These movies, especially both incarnations of The Incredibles, are anything but the products of an asshole. You can’t care this much about family connections, biological or otherwise, and be anything close to a Randian.
That said, the problem is rooted in the same frustrations that can birth these sorts of attitudes, and it’s a frustration I can really grok.
The characters in Bird’s Disney output are all people with particular skills that make them stand out from the crowd, be they peeps with super powers or rats who can cook. Something blocks them from reaching their full potential, and it usually boils down to “someone else doesn’t like who I am.” In The Incredibles movies, it’s the world’s governments who see “supers” as being more of a problem than they’re worth, and they collectively outlaw the use of super powers in public. In the context of a world where super heroes exist, it’s a tangible, understandable concept– those who are different are denied a degree of equality because of their differences.
The catch here is that when taken as a metaphor for reality– and there’s no other way to look at these sorts of things in storytelling– it doesn’t quite translate into any sort of real world prejudice. Minorities aren’t persecuted for measurable advantages over the dominant race/culture/etc– these prejudices are born out of economic and/or political convenience, misunderstanding of existing cultural traditions, and the need for an “other” to unite behind. It’s all tribalism and exploitation.
The “we want to keep you down for being special” attitude isn’t a metaphor for the world’s prejudices, it’s born out of a certain type of frustration that can only come from a place of privilege. It’s that frustration of going through your youth being told you’re unique and special and “gifted,” only to be hit by reality when you get a little older that, while you may have more knowledge than the average person or have a knack for a certain subject/talent, you aren’t actually special. You’re just another typical shmoe who isn’t going to have everything handed to them, despite what your parents, teachers, or other mentors told you as a kid.
You might be awesome at something, but you are not awesome, and realizing this puts you at an impasse.
One way is to externalize this frustration and turn into that Randian asshole. You’re owed the world because you’re smarter, better, and more worthy of reward, and you have all the “facts” to prove your worth. Now if only others would see things your way. For these people, their frustration turns into fascism, and you have a breeding ground for the sort of nationalist exceptionalism, white supremacy, scumbaggery that is the alt-right, Trumpism, and so forth.
Another option is to internalize that frustration. You aren’t mad at the world, you’re mad at yourself for ever buying into the hype, so to speak. Yeah, you’re good with words, could spin an awesome story when other kids were struggling to form coherent sentences, and you can synthesize all those weird movies and books you read as a kid into new things (obvious spoiler: the “gift” I was told that made me “better), but you come to the realization that the problem isn’t others.
The problem is how you perceive the world and how you perceive your place in it.
To deal with knowing that you’re the “problem” is damn hard. You wish there was someone to blame, but you know better. You almost wish there was an external force working against you, but that’s just the stuff of conspiracy theories and those nutjob friends of yours who went down that other path. If you have the knack, you’re going to take that frustration and turn it into fodder for your creations– be that art, music, or in what I imagine is Bird’s case, storytelling. You take these frustrations and funnel them into something tangible in a form you can manipulate, and you conquer them on your own terms. That’s what I think Brad Bird’s doing with most of his movies, because it’s what I do in a lot of my writing. I’m taking that internal struggle with where I am personally and turning it into some sort of auto-critique of my anxieties and frustrations with feeling one way and knowing better. By wrapping that struggle into a story about the greatness of family bonds, friendship, and the like, it’s showing that out of that inner struggle can come a lot of heart and decency.
You can’t love people as much as either Incredibles movie does and buy into Atlas Shrugged.
That said, Incredibles 2 repeats a lot of the same frustrations as the first movie (and his other movies with similar themes). Rather than using the first movie as a way of working through those ideas, then branching out to tackle new ideas, Incredibles 2 feels the need to still fight this internal fight. Supers are still struggling to be out in the open, a new villain wants to shut them down forever, and we end up in a similar place as the first movie. The movie does a lot with Elastigirl being the “breadwinner” for the family and the desire to have her be the “face” of this new movement to legalize super powers, and juxtaposing that with Mr. Incredible’s Mr. Mom difficulties is pretty interesting, but the continued frustration with being allowed to be “better” ends up framing Mr. Incredible as someone who, while well-meaning, is just as much wrapped up in this sort of struggle not just on a super power level, but also on a gender role level. The movie tries to show him as a loving husband, but the rest of the movie’s context puts added emphasis on his resistance rather than on his growing acceptance.
The movie’s saying a lot that deserves to be said, but it all gets unintentionally muddled in the process. That’s why I wish it left behind the first movie’s anti-super spiel and focused on the family life. Too many anxieties in the foreground makes the movie as a whole anxious.
To boil it down even further, it should have been 90 minutes of Jack Jack’s eternal struggle with The Raccoon, with the occasional divergence to see Elastigirl motoring around on her rad cycle. And the score is damn amazing.