‘Incredibles 2’: The best sequel since ‘The Dark Knight’ and maybe even better
Brad Bird doesn’t get enough love. Not the credit he deserves for pioneering the beats of modern comic-book cinema with his seminal 2004 work The Incredibles, nor for his prior contributions to animation with The Iron Giant and work on The Simpsons, nor for his unique position in Hollywood as a blank cheque director who can persuade the Walt Disney company to fund a $200m blockbuster in which George Clooney has a romance with a young girl, or a massive animated sequel 14 years in the making that hits its dramatic crescendo with two middle-aged women having a long conversation about the patriarchy in the corner of a work party. He is, in all the best ways, totally bonkers, and Incredibles 2 is the latest exceptionally entertaining, interesting step in his career.
Incredibles 2 is also, quite significantly, one of the few films in my time as a blogger/commentator that I’ve refused to write a review of before seeing twice, my judgement being so steeped in hysteria, nostalgia and pathological obsession with the 2004 original — which I’ve long considered one of the few perfect American films — that a rushed opinion piece would age more poorly than my five-star review of Thor: The Dark World. Hence, it is with enormous pleasure that I can announce — after two viewings, many long conversations and much thought — that Incredibles 2 absolutely rules and is simultaneously (because I adore superlatives) one of the best sequels ever made, one of the best blockbusters of recent years and the strongest superhero movie since Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight, released ten years to the day as I write this.
It’s not the slightest bit irrational to mention these films in the same breath: as much as Bird pioneered so much of what Nolan mastered, Incredibles 2 is unquestionably born into a post-Dark Knight world (also a post-Marvel world, but that concerns me less) and the fingerprints of that film’s legacy are all over what Bird has created (as would be the case with any superhero film with aspirations of quality in 2018… if only more were made). Two action sequences particularly, both in the middle act and involving Elastigirl/Helen Parr, are as stunningly-directed as anything in Nolan’s oeuvre (or, indeed, in Bird’s own action masterpiece Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol). A helicopter rescue above and between the skyscrapers, and a strobe-lit fight between Helen and the nominal villain The Screenslaver, demonstrate an understanding of generating visual excitement few directors can claim to possess.
Bird’s grasp of capturing motion in unexpected ways, which extends to his live-action work but isn’t as relevant there for obvious reasons, leads to some quietly stunning innovations throughout Incredibles 2: the character of Evelyn Deavor (Catherine Keener) has a hyperrealistic range of poses that are subtly the most incredible thing in the film. Her brother Winston — voiced by and modelled after the great Bob Odenkirk — is one of the great misdirect figures in recent memory; Bird plays on the audiences’s associations of Odenkirk to suggest nonexistent malice; for a film set (roughly) in the 1960s and aimed at a young audience, Incredibles 2 is outrageously cineliterate down to a last-minute Dementia 13 joke.
In general, Bird has zero interest in pandering; if anything he expects a little too much of his audience both in attentiveness and tolerance for his impassioned drum-beating against mankind’s ignorant downfall (the same drum that was Tomorrowland’s indulgent downfall is played more softly and effectively now). As Helen flips between buildings to track a radio signal, The Screenslaver delivers a monologue about the effects of watching TV and relying on superheroes that’s a little too Bane in The Dark Knight Rises (ie. a bit more irony would do no harm). Yet the sophistication of Bird’s script, and the admirable intent of the storytelling goals he’s pursuing, is pretty extraordinary considering the commercial weight behind this film; he’s effectively getting away with murder on a multi-million dollar scale and nobody could help but respect him for it.
Incredibles 2 opens with everybody’s favourite turtleneck-adorned heartthrob Tony Rydinger in an interrogation room and only goes to more unexpected and delightful places from there. The Parr family (Helen, Bob, Dash, Violet, Jack-Jack) fight The Underminer, are approached by the Deavors to lead a hero rehab PR campaign, must cope with Helen being away for work, then defeat The Screenslaver threat. It’s a fairly similar structure to the original, with some major differences in form; namely a refocus on the comedic elements of the family dynamic. Bob is now a stay-at-home dad, coping with Jack-Jack’s highly unpredictable powers and the adolescent struggles of his older kids.
The Jack-Jack business is handled remarkably well; consistently A-grade slapstick far more on the level of the terrific The Boss Baby than, as I had worried, the so-so Despicable Me movies (obviously Incredibles 2 is better than The Boss Baby, don’t misinterpret me). His tiny head turning between a TV showing an old Jimmy Cagney-type toughguy and a garden raccoon who sorta looks like him erupts into a fabulous fight. There’s a running joke about cookies that I loved. And, most importantly, the Jack-Jack plot facilitates the return of possibly my favourite character in all of cinema: the one and only Edna Mode, adopting the moniker Aunty Edna and bonding with the infant nuisance after he’s able to emulate her visage/humour her narcissism.
Edna has about 6 minutes of screentime and every second is the best it could possibly be; she is used precisely the right amount and it’s a huge, huge relief. Similarly, the incorporation of Frozone into the primary storyline is cleverly navigated to avoid wearing that character thin, while also giving him some extremely cool moments (haha, cool, get it?). Most central, though, are of course our Incredible duo of Bob and Helen. Craig T. Nelson’s brilliant voice performance and the improved facial dexterity of Bob give him a significantly more compelling arc than the totally compelling arc he had the first time. A scene where he snaps and yells “I’m not Mr. So-And-So! I’m not Mr. Mediocre!” at the kids would be phenomenal performance in any film (the same applies to Odenkirk’s delivery of “I disagree strongly!” when recounting his father’s murder).
As for Helen… this time she’s just entirely, effortlessly awesome as a proactive protagonist; her ingenious character design put to spectacular use in every set-piece. Violet, too, gets far more to do than in ’04; if at the expense of any substantial Dash material. Dash here retreats a little into the Bart Simpson Lite persona he wobbled close to in The Incredibles and one gets the sense Bird isn’t quite sure how to utilise him in new ways.
In fairness, after the two-hour running time of Incredibles 2, it’s hard to see how even Bird could conceive of enough fresh material from these characters to sustain a third film, and I would personally rather he leave these instalments — one of the most flawless set of two movies in my memory — as the collective, if wildly different, victory they are. Incredibles 2 is from conception at such a disadvantage — no element of surprise, of novelty, of the pre-Marvel genre sandbox, of Me Being 7 And Loving Every Movie Unconditionally — yet it uses these restrictions in its favour, and functions entirely independently as a work of engaging, immersive and highly amusing animated storytelling. My appreciation of Incredibles 2 only comes partially from a place of infantilism. After all, this really isn’t intended for children anyway.