Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Incredibles 2 (2018) Review

It seems weird to say that I’ve always felt a little bit conflicted by the prospect of an Incredibles 2, considering its been fourteen years since the original, even as its never stopped feeling like a foregone conclusion we’d inevitably get another one. The first Incredibles is still my personal favorite Pixar movie, and arguably one of the best animated movies of all time, and over the the years we’ve seen several franchises built out of other Pixar properties with far less depth and potential for expansion. My concern has always been that these other sequels have often been mediocre (Monsters University, Finding Dory) to outright terrible (Cars, Cars, and more Cars), with the Toy Story trilogy being the only one that really worked at all, and even then, there’s always been the sense that Pixar was leveraging the goodwill they developed with their earlier movies to cash in rather than maintain what appeared to be their almost slavish commitment to quality storytelling. The Incredibles was really the only Pixar movie that ever seemed to me to actually demand further adventures, and thankfully I’m happy to report that it was more than worth the wait.

Incredibles 2 starts off literally exactly where the first film left off with the titular heroes defending the city against the subterranean Underminer and his giant drill tank. Unfortunately the battle doesn’t go very well, and a resulting public relations backlash forces the superhero relocation program to shut down, leaving the Parr family with few options, until help arrives from a pair of wealthy sibling superfans with a plan to bring supers back into the limelight, and hopefully create enough support to overturn the superhero ban altogether. This time around the story focuses more on Elastigirl’s heroic aspirations, with her greater popularity pushing her to the forefront of the pro-super campaign, forcing her husband Mr. Incredible into the role of reluctant stay at home dad. If the first movie was the superhero take on a man’s mid-life crisis, this new story is its take on a woman’s drive to break the glass ceiling, and it provides a nice contrast to the previous film that actually allows for a little more room in the narrative to let the ensemble develop as everyone has to learn how to cope with this new paradigm.

The problem with this is that I kept having to remind myself that The Incredibles exist in this strange hybrid universe of modern and retro sensibilities where the expectations of the traditional nuclear family still go mostly unquestioned, assigning old school gender roles without much in the way of contemporary subversion or examination, even as the narrative challenges those very assumptions. Mr. Incredible’s instantaneous jealousy over his wife’s greater popularity, as well as his frustration at being forced to take on his wife’s former duties and forego what he had always considered to be the man’s responsibility as provider, are played for comedy, and a more modern character, or a movie more concerned with modern perspectives, would at some point acknowledge the sense of male entitlement that suggests about him. Throughout the film he learns to accept that the partnership inherent in his marriage is strong enough to account for this new balance, but some of the moments watching him get there were a bit cringeworthy only because I had liked his character so much from the first film, and had kind of just assumed he was already there and didn’t need to learn this lesson.

Its a minor quibble, as for the most part the character work in this movie is on point and in line with the first film. Everyone gets their moment to shine and contribute to the larger ensemble arc, including all the people you love and a host of new ones that fit in with the original cast very well. The older daughter Violet gets a nice little side story about balancing her new found zeal for crime-fighting with trying to live a normal life, and the younger son Dash continues to struggle with his super speedy ADHD hyperactivity, but the clear highlight of the movie is baby Jack Jack. The fact that I’m able to say that was probably my biggest surprise, as just based on the trailers I was positively dreading the larger emphasis on the cute little baby trope, but every time he revealed a new superpower or a previously revealed superpower paid off for a story point or interesting action set piece, it was a highlight, not the least of which being a mad cap chase sequence in the third act that brings all of them together in a rare moment of wacky cartoonish mayhem for one of the more grounded Pixar worlds.

It’s the cumulative effect of a lot of smaller incidental elements like that sequence that makes Incredibles 2 so much fun. Little things like Elastigirl’s motorcycle being specifically designed to exploit her stretching ability turn what could have otherwise been a fairly simple train chase into a completely unique and visually interesting variation on Fast and Furious style vehicle action that only this movie could have done this well. We also get a whole new team of young superheroes inspired by Elastigirl to come out of hiding, and each one has a superpower that at first blush seems like a standard comic book concept, but when they’re unleashed all at once their abilities all blend together so well into this perfectly orchestrated panoply of action-packed insanity very rarely scene even in live action superhero movies outside of the famous airplane scene in Captain America: Civil War. At so many points the movie takes full advantage of being a sequel in a way that few manage to accomplish, recognizing that it doesn’t have to spend so much time setting up the world, and actually taking the opportunity to just live in it and explore fun new things about it.

If I had one other minor complaint about the movie, its in the twist surrounding the nature of the main villain. I won’t spoil it here, but you’ll probably see it coming from miles away, and it’s not nearly a big enough reveal to justify the build up. I actually guessed it months ago from reading a casting notice before the first round of trailers even came out, and while it’s not necessarily a huge problem since enjoying the film is not dependent on being surprised, the story is still structured with it being a surprise, so it’s a little annoying that it’s so telegraphed. One interesting thing to note about the villain is that the politics seem to have switched around completely from the first film. The Incredibles embraced a clearly Randian ideal that social inequality was a natural and perfectly acceptable consequence of meritocracy, with Syndrome’s goal of democratizing superpowers being a threat to that worldview. This time around there’s a similarly conservative message that over-reliance on protection from powerful people and institutions, be they superheroes or governments, makes us soft, but this message is coming from the villain, and the heroes come to embody a much more altruistic and much more liberal point of view that if you see something wrong and have the power to stop it, it is a moral imperative to try.

Incredibles 2 is actually better than the first film in almost all but the most important ways. Its more inventive, more visually interesting, and just more fun to watch. Its the big stuff, narrative, characterization, thematic resonance, where the original outshines the new and remains the more significant achievement. There is never a moment in the new film like Mr. Incredible breaking down in front of his wife and admitting the thing he fears most is losing her again, or like Elastigirl being forced to tell her children how dangerous the world really is, taking away their innocence for their own protection. Incredibles 2 never really escapes the feeling like its just playing around in the sandbox of a much bigger and more well-realized idea, but its so satisfying to watch it play that it doesn’t really matter in the end. Yes, technically Incredibles 2 is not quite as good as one of the best movies to ever come out of one of the best production houses currently working today, but its still no doubt far better than the vast majority of movies you’re going to see this year, and its easily a must see. 

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