In 2004, when Pixar's The Incredibles was a smash hit, superheroes had yet to take over the blockbuster landscape. Like the graphic novel Watchmen, Brad Bird's animation found both comedy and commentary in imagining how ordinary Americans would really receive super-humans in their midst. Alarmed by the collateral damage of super-battles, the citizenry eventually makes it illegal for caped crusaders to use their powers, forcing crime-fighting spouses Bob/Mr. Incredible (voice of Craig T. Nelson) and Helen/Elastigirl (Holly Hunter) underground.
Not much has changed when the long-awaited sequel opens — except the pop-cultural context. After more than a decade jam-packed with self-aware Marvel films and operatic DC ones, moviegoers are accustomed to seeing contemporary issues refracted through the bizarro prism of superhero sagas.
While film bloggers have spent the past 14 years arguing over whether The Incredibles is a covert Objectivist screed, the premise has lost its cheeky novelty. Incredibles 2 doesn't accomplish much in terms of storytelling that the first film didn't, but that doesn't stop Bird's follow-up from being visually glorious, witty and a lot of fun.
The sequel's setup echoes that of its predecessor: Having run afoul of authorities, the super-family finds a well-heeled patron. The twist is that telecommunications billionaire Winston Deavor (Bob Odenkirk) wants Helen out in front of the cameras, saving people. Deemed too "messy" to produce the proper optics, Bob is relegated to staying home with the kids, Violet (Sarah Vowell), Dash (Huck Milner) and baby Jack-Jack (Eli Fucile).
Our muscle-bound hero isn't happy with the role reversal, but Bird manages to keep corny "Mr. Incredible becomes Mr. Mom" jokes to a minimum. Bob tries earnestly to be a good parent, even as he grapples with Jack-Jack's new powers, which range in nature from endearing to terrifying. Junior's apocalyptic battle with a scavenging raccoon — while Dad dozes — harks back to the heights of classic cartoon slapstick.
Meanwhile, Helen stops a runaway train in an action sequence significantly more visually legible and nail-biting than most of its counterparts in live-action flicks. Given that all such set pieces are works of animation these days, there's much to be said for the clarity and beauty the Pixar team provides, down to the wash of magic light. Equally gorgeous and comprehensively imagined is the space-age mansion where the rest of the family has been stowed.
The train's saboteur turns out to be a hacker with mind-control powers, a hatred of superheroes, and an anti-consumerist spiel worthy of "Mr. Robot"'s F-Society. By the time the mysterious "Screenslaver" is speaking through the mouths of hypnotized TV anchormen, it should be clear that the film has raised more issues than it can handle in any meaningful way.
Sure enough, tantalizing questions about gender roles, hero worship and civic responsibility eventually give way to a predictable reveal and a flurry of action, with new characters getting shortchanged in the process.
Like so many blockbusters generally, and sequels in particular, Incredibles 2 works desperately to please the entire audience, from folks who remember the New Math to tots. If it sacrifices a streamlined story and coherent thematics in the process, the snappy dialogue, strong characterizations and compelling visuals still put it way ahead of your average family flick.
Stylized designs and outlandish powers aside, Bob, Helen and their progeny still feel oddly real. It's impossible not to empathize as the pair continues to discover that, as Edna Mode (voiced by director Bird) puts it, "parenting is a heroic act."