In Incredibles 2, society has placed a ban on superheroes, and you're excused if you look upon this world with a twinge of envy.
At the multiplex and in the culture, we have reached peak superhero. Movies about comic book characters dominate the box office and movie screens, displacing movies about, say, regular American families struggling to make sense of modern life.
The genius of Incredibles writer-director Brad Bird is to merge the two, the super and the regular. His character universe is the nuclear family, and the "powers" of its members are meant to suggest the distinguishing traits of the individuals within the family unit.
Multitasking mom (Holly Hunter), pulled in all directions, is rubber-limbed Elastigirl. A moody teen (Sarah Vowell) who sometimes wants to disappear, becomes literally invisible, etc.
The Parrs, the Incredible family that Bird unveiled in 2004, was designed to resonate. Their gripes were popular gripes — backyard barbecue rants about participation trophies for everyone. In the original, when dad (Craig T. Nelson) watched a protracted awards ceremony at his son's school, and complained that if everyone is special, no one is. This was echoed in the actions of the movie's villain Syndrome, who wanted to rid the world of exceptional beings so that no one would be exceptional.
The themes return in Incredibles 2. The Parrs and all superheroes have once again been told to stand down — punishment for the damage they caused trying to save the city from a tunneling bank robber.
This time, a benevolent tycoon (Bob Odenkirk) and his inventor sister (Catherine Keener) want to restore public confidence in superheroes, so they draft Elastigirl (she polls better than her husband, and tends to cause less damage) to lead a crime-fighting venture and PR campaign. They give her a body-cam and equip her to stop a new villain, the Screenslaver, who has the ability to turn televisions into mind-control devices. He commandeers the airwaves to make angry speeches about the docile masses, whose deference to superheroes is described as a sign of coddled weakness.
Meanwhile, the sidelined, stay-at-home Mr. Parr is the center of a comic subplot that has him overmatched by domestic chores — dealing with his daughter's teen meltdown, his son's new math, and baby Jack-Jack's manic energy.
Jack-Jack turns out to be a jackpot. The movie is frankly slow to get cranking, and we don't really know what we're missing until the unsupervised infant goes to war with a mischievous raccoon. This is a short film in itself, and accounts for the best few minutes of action-comedy animation that I've seen in years.
As expected, Bird shows his chops with taut, efficient action sequences — Elastigirl stops a runaway train, then a hydro-foil goes out of control, looking like something out of a Bond movie, until a jet detaches, looking like something out of a Star Trek episode..
Visual references and animated marvels abound. Bird loves pie-eyed futurism, but the kind that existed in the 1950s and '60s, when the culture was drenched in Space Age motifs that reflected Kennedy-era optimism. Incredibles 2 is set in this forward-looking world, and at the same time wrapped in warm nostalgia — Bird's special niche. The frames are clever, dense, and gorgeous, and so is the music by Michael Giachinno – the action is set to the sort of blaring, brassy jazz-ensemble sound that composer Hoyt Curtin used for Jonny Quest (the cartoon is actually quoted here).
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And for the Parrs, they develop as individuals, pull together as a family, and all is well. Elastigirl even enjoys a martini.
So why is Bird, at times, so grumpy?
His dialogue takes potshots at politicians who resent people who want to "do good," and weird detours into grouchy discussions of commerce co-opting creativity, cynicism trumping belief (his theme in Tomorrowland).
He seems awfully touchy. Bird and Pixar are creatures of Silicon Valley, where creativity and innovation are lavishly rewarded, yet he has made a movie that wants to make doubly sure, in his words, "the extraordinarily gifted are treated fairly."
Thus does he become an advocate for the world's least disadvantaged special-interest group.
I'd say the extraordinarily gifted Bird has been treated fairly, certainly by Pixar, which allowed him to wait more than a decade before making this sequel.
In that time, they cranked out three Cars and another Toy Story.