The Postmodern Heroism of Brad Bird’s ‘The Incredibles’

There are few Hollywood films this century that confront issues of government, age, race, family and the modern city against a distinct post-9/11 backdrop without being either preachy or unwatchably grim. There’s only one that’s also a beloved family adventure responsible for about 80% of modern superhero movie tropes, and that film is The Incredibles.

Arriving several months before Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins, and hence occupying a prestigious position of influence in contemporary cinema, The Incredibles applied a coat of self-awareness and self-reflexivity to the concept of The Superhero (then cynically-perceived but not yet overdone). Mr. Incredible/Bob Parr is a hybrid figure owing to Superman, Captain America and — as the film does in a broader sense — Mr. Fantastic of Fantastic Four fame. The family man notion is borrowed from FF, the suburban weariness is completely original. Both Bob and his superwife Elastigirl/Helen (what is it with stretchy arms?) have fallen into the dynamics of tightly-coordinated family management, acknowledging their kids’ superpowers but putting strict limits to their usage.

Nothing bonds a family like a really big secret, and the tracking of the Parrs’ interdependence throughout The Incredibles is its strongest storytelling virtue. Writer/director Brad Bird’s wise decision to focus on family over fighting marks the clearest gap in quality between The Incredibles and the real, actual Fantastic Four movie that succeeded it in 2005, a gaudy and shallow punch-fest that acted as a vehicle for Jessica Alba fetishism more than actual superheroics. Syndrome, the primary villain of The Incredibles, is defined by his relationship to Bob more than any convoluted comic-book backstory. With no source material to relax into, Bird’s Incredibles mythology is kept on its toes in every scene.

The kids are best described as rough interpretations of Bart and Lisa Simpson: Dash is belligerent, pranks his teachers; Violet excels academically but is painfully self-conscious. Frozone/Lucius, Bob’s best friend who accompanies him on secret late-night superschemes, is the archetypal sitcom Dad Friend. As voiced by Sam Jackson, he is an absolute delight.

Yet to call Frozone the outstanding supporting character in The Incredibles would mean ignoring one of the foremost supporting characters in all of modern Hollywood: a little lady named Edna Mode. Voiced by Bird himself, Mode is both a tribute to infamous costume designer Edith Head and a blisteringly original creation. That she has been made a principle element of Incredibles 2’s marketing campaign despite the relatively minor size of her role (and self) is testament to the iconic role she has come to possess in the history of animation.

Most importantly, however, The Incredibles captures a blissful and aspirational moment in the American blockbuster: the bridge between the genuine and the vapidly nostalgic. Its 60s aesthetic (best summed up by Michael Giacchino’s masterful score) never weighs it down; one eye is always kept on the genre cinema yet to come. 14 years after its release, with at least two Marvel adaptations currently in cinemas, its view of superheroism feels just a little quaint — in the best possible way. The essentials of the comic-book movie are all here, and at their best. Everything since has been superficial baggage.