Disney / Pixar

This article contains major spoilers for the plot of Incredibles 2.

“Politicians don’t understand people who do good things. That makes them nervous,” Rick Dicker, the rheumy-eyed secret agent assigned to the world of superheroes, tells the Parr family as they go into hiding at the start of Incredibles 2. Delivered with a melancholy shrug, it’s an unusually charged line for a children’s film, and the first real sign that the writer and director, Brad Bird, isn’t afraid to explore some thorny ideas in his latest blockbuster. As he has before, Bird takes frothy genre material and digs into its richer themes, reaching conclusions about the state of society that have, in the past, been criticized as blatantly elitist.

Bird has long rejected this interpretation of his work. But with both 2004’s The Incredibles and its long-awaited sequel, he has certainly made art that interrogates the role of elites in American culture. The Incredibles focused on the constraints placed on its super-powered family unit, forced to live in secrecy after costumed heroes are outlawed, while the movie’s villain was an inventor with a vendetta against those who naturally possessed such gifts. As such, it seemed to some critics like a “libertarian parable.” In Incredibles 2, the Parrs lobby to return to the public eye, and Bird slyly flips the original movie’s themes around, weighing the heroes’ inherent value to civilization against the risk they could abuse their powers.

When The Incredibles came out 14 years ago, there was no Marvel Cinematic Universe, and Hollywood’s reliance on comic-book movies was just starting to spool up (Spider-Man, which came out in 2002, was the genre’s first genuine box-office sensation in at least a decade). Superheroes have since become the dominant stars for this moviegoing generation. And it’s a trend that seems to worry Bird, who has written those fears into two major new characters in his sequel—the brother-sister entrepreneur team of Winston and Evelyn Deavor, voiced by Bob Odenkirk and Catherine Keener, respectively.

Winston is an optimist. He’s convinced the return of powered people will solve the nation’s ills, and he’s dedicated to using his advertising savvy to sell the public on his vision. His father was an industrialist enamored of costumed heroes who was murdered by home invaders after the ban took effect; if only someone like Mr. Incredible (Craig T. Nelson) had been there to save him, Winston muses. Evelyn, a tech genius who’s eventually revealed to be the film’s chief villain Screenslaver, is a cynic. She’s convinced that her father’s idealism was what got him killed, and that superheroes are nothing more than a cheap convenience for a society unwilling to fix its own problems.

Bird has admitted to understanding Screenslaver’s point of view. At one point, the villain monologues about how people chase after neatly packaged TV versions of life so that they can ignore the real thing, and how superheroes only reinforce that kind of laziness. “I like [Screenslaver’s] idea that superheroes are making people weak. You need to rely on yourself,” the film’s producer John Walker said in an interview with Vulture. Bird agreed, adding, “It’s a little bit libertarian, that idea.”

Where the first Incredibles argued that it was only right for the Parr family to exult in their powers, Incredibles 2 seems a little more suspicious of the idea that supers should automatically be worshipped as heroes. As part of Winston’s push for legalization, Elastigirl (Holly Hunter) is given a new costume with a body camera and is sold as a brand. But her battles with Screenslaver are all staged by Evelyn (a scheme in which Elastigirl is an unwitting pawn), whose ultimate goal is to gather the world’s superheroes, hypnotize them, and have them cause chaos, ruining their global reputation for good.

While Bird may be sympathetic to Screenslaver’s argument that superheroes are too easy to take at face value, his film has a more nuanced view. Halfway through Incredibles 2, Elastigirl and Evelyn debate the merits of two different philosophies: cynicism and optimism. In that conversation, Elastigirl recognizes her own idealism (she is, after all, a crime-fighter who wants to help people) but also acknowledges that everything she does can be manipulated for viewers at home. She’s not quite a pure cynic or an optimist, but more of a realist who understands the limits of her abilities without abandoning her morals.

What really makes Elastigirl and her family heroes, the movie suggests, is that they actively work to do good with their gifts. That’s what makes them better than the film’s villains, not their powers alone. Early on in Incredibles 2, Elastigirl argues with her husband at the dinner table over whether they should break the law (by fighting crime) in order to change it, and whether a law’s essential immorality is reason enough to defy it—age-old questions that the family takes seriously.

In part because of the Parrs’ altruism and conscientiousness, Incredibles 2 concludes that Elastigirl’s quest to make superheroism legal again is a justified one. The movie also makes this point by framing well-intentioned costumed vigilantes as more principled than existing social institutions. Beyond Rick’s aforementioned jab at politicians, the film’s mistrust comes through in overheard news broadcasts about the public’s disgust for Congress, as well as in Violet Parr’s (Sarah Vowell) throwaway line at the end of the movie predicting that the now-captured Evelyn is rich enough to buy her way out of jail. Incredibles 2 may be skeptical of superheroes’ innate usefulness, but it sees the Parrs as a more competent and less corruptible force than the government when it comes to serving the public.

If Bird ever makes an Incredibles 3, he might consider giving the Parr family an enemy who’s naturally blessed with the kinds of abilities they have. So far, they’ve only done battle with smart, unpowered mad scientists whose chief evil is their amorality. Bird has yet to investigate the terror of a powered person using their gifts for nefarious ends; the heroes of the Incredibles universe are always good, which lends support to the idea that Bird is celebrating their God-given superiority, whether he likes it or not. Incredibles 2 is a dazzling blast of an action movie. It’s also a complex examination of American culture’s tendency toward hero worship, perhaps making it the only blockbuster this summer that dares to question its own existence.

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