Incredibles Follow Their Passion
by Ari Armstrong, November 19, 2004
What most surprises me about The Incredibles is that it's a great film with a difficult theme, I love it, audiences love it, and the critics also love it (RottenTomatoes gave it a 96% "fresh" rating). All those things do not often align.
And who thought the year's most philosophically advanced film would also be the most fun and action-packed? What a great story, and what great characters! Super cool doesn't begin to do the story justice as the fantastically gifted family comes out of hiding to fight a rising menace.
The theme is honoring greatness and making the most of one's abilities. Brad Bird, the writer and director of the film, was deeply influenced either by Ayn Rand or by some similar tradition of thought.
The superheroes, including the Incredible family, are driven underground by a spiteful public that pursues liability suits against the heroes. The parents don't allow their children to use their powers.
But this starts to kill Mr. Incredible's spirit. He hates the monotony of his job and yearns for the action of his earlier life. He begins to find outlets for his life's passion, some of which are worrisome. Meanwhile, the children struggle to cope with repressing their talented true selves.
And then the rise of the super villain. Is there some comparison to be made with the overly litigious? Undoubtedly.
The tone of The Incredibles is far different from that of Spiderman II. Spidey is for a time filled with angst because being a superhero is a drag that ruins his personal life. The Incredibles, on the other hand, are initially filled with angst because they refuse to pursue their passion and explore their super abilities.
There is a joke in The Incredibles that is more than a joke. Frozone gets in an argument with his wife when he can't find his supersuit. He tells his wife he needs to find the suit for the greater good. Her answer is both riotously funny and profound.
And there's E, or Edna, given a surprisingly effective voice by Bird. She's not a superhero, but she has a super ability of her own. Just don't get her started on capes!
Fundamentally, the film takes a position on the most pressing of human questions: what is the good life? What are our responsibilities to others and to ourselves? Bird's answer is credible indeed.
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I am not the only one to find some connection between The Incredibles and the ideas of Ayn Rand. An article in the November 19 Christian Science Monitor finds this link problematic.
Film critic David Sterritt cites John Anderson of Newsday, who mentions Rand's novel Atlas Shrugged and claims the film "suggests not only class warfare, but also something approaching a Divine Right of Superheroes."
Sterritt also quotes Stuart Klawans, a critic and author who believes The Incredibles is "brilliantly engaging" and therefore "more worrisome, if you lack blind faith in the writings of Ayn Rand."
Sterritt's article is in fact the sort of garbage criticized by The Incredibles. Sterritt allows gross misrepresentations of Rand's ideas without bothering to quote anybody who correctly understands them or appreciates them. Sort of like the litigation-crazy lawyers in The Incredibles who complain Mr. Incredible allegedly slightly injured a man -- while they ignore the fact that Mr. Incredible saved the man's life.
In fact, Rand harshly criticizes "class warfare" and properly blames it on the might-makes-right politics of the left. For Rand, there is no such thing as "Divine Right" or divinity, but rather individual talent that can be developed or squandered according to a person's choices. Klawan's snide remark that only "blind faith" can explain an interest in Rand's work is merely an ad hominem attack, one intended to mock Rand without the bother of approaching her ideas seriously. This is indeed the sort of black spitefulness criticized by The Incredibles.
Even though Rand explicitly denounces Nietzsche for various reasons, Sterritt cites anti-Rand sentiment and anti-Nietzchean sentiment without bothering to distinguish those traditions. Sterritt writes that "some see a 'social Darwinist' agenda" in the film. Sterritt quotes Mikita Brottman, professor of language and literature at the Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore, "I can't help thinking of Nietzsche and his idea that some people are better and more deserving than others... The movie salutes Superman... Not the 'superman' in comic books but the one [despots] believe in. Its idea seems to be that even in a democracy some people are 'more equal' than others, and the rest of us shouldn't be so presumptuous as to get in their way."
Incidentally, after Christopher Reeve died I watched Superman again. While reading some of the notes provided by the DVD, I learned Superman was indeed originally the "one [despots] believe in." (I'm curious as to why Sterritt placed that word, "despot," in brackets. Did Brottman in fact use another word? If so, what word might that have been?) The Reign of the Superman is a story about a man who gains super powers and begins to destroy the world. But of course Americans are not drawn to such stories. Superman did not become a cultural phenomenon until the character became a hero, someone who never lies and who vanquishes evil. And the heroic Superman is indeed the precursor to The Incredibles.
Brottman conflates rational self-fulfillment with brutal totalitarianism. Brottman also conflates democratic equality with a system in which people don't get in each other's way. At the root of Brottman's comments is the assumption that the only two possibilities are victimization of others and self-sacrifice to the demos. Totally ignored is the possibility of a system of individual rights, in which everyone has equal protection of the laws but in which individuals may pursue their natural and developed talents. Brottman ignores the very possibility of a civil society in which individuals, as Rand puts the matter, neither have to sacrifice themselves to others nor others to themselves.
Yet Brottman compares the Incredibles, a talented family that saves the world from evil, with "[despots]." The spirit of Syndrome is alive and well in modern American culture. It is also the spirit of Ellsworth Toohey (one of Rand's villains), a spirit shared, at least in this case, by Sterritt and Brottman. Thankfully, the dominant spirit in our culture is that expressed by the Incredibles.
What is my response to the attacks of Sterritt and the critics he cites? Simply to happily pay to see The Incredibles, one more time. And, in the spirit of the movie, I offer my profound thanks to Bird and the Incredible team at Pixar.