Friday, November 05, 2004

Cruelty, Manipulation, Meaninglessness

The dream life of the rich, white, and educated men in suburbia, who brought you George W. Bush's second term, is well animated by The Incredibles (Dir. Brad Bird, 2004):
"THEY keep finding new ways to celebrate mediocrity," grumbles Bob Parr, once known as Mr. Incredible, the patriarch of a superhero family languishing in middle-class suburban exile. He is referring to a pointless ceremony at his son's school, but his complaint is much more general, and it is one that animates "The Incredibles," giving it an edge of intellectual indignation unusual in a family-friendly cartoon blockbuster. Because it is so visually splendid and ethically serious, the movie raises hopes it cannot quite satisfy. It comes tantalizingly close to greatness, but seems content, in the end, to fight mediocrity to a draw.

By "they" Bob means the various do-gooders, meddlers and bureaucrats -- schoolteachers, lawyers, politicians, insurance executives -- who have driven the world's once-admired superheroes underground, into lives of bland split-level normalcy. "The Incredibles," written and directed by Brad Bird and released under the mighty Pixar brand, is not subtle in announcing its central theme. Some people have powers that others do not, and to deny them the right to exercise those powers, or the privileges that accompany them, is misguided, cruel and socially destructive.

Bob (voiced by Craig T. Nelson, best known for his title role on television's "Coach"), who was once a superman in both the Nietzschean and the DC Comics sense of the word, has been forced by a litigation-driven, media-fueled anti-superhero backlash into the flabby, dull life of a cubicle drone. He and his pal Lucius, a k a Frozone (Samuel L. Jackson), do a little clandestine moonlighting, with the help of a police scanner, but it hardly compensates for the 9-to-5 tedium of Bob's day job processing insurance claims.

His wife, Helen (Holly Hunter), a daring and feisty crime fighter named Elastagirl in their former life, now stays home raising their three children, two of whom have already manifested special abilities they are not allowed to use. Bob and Helen's teenage daughter, Violet (who speaks in the scratchy deadpan of the essayist and public radio storyteller Sarah Vowell), can make herself invisible and generate impermeable force fields, but these powers serve mainly as metaphors for her shyness and disconnection. Dash (Spencer Fox), her younger brother, uses his gift of superhuman speed for low-level mischief. Like their parents, the children are forced to conform to a society where "everyone is special, so no one is."

In the movie's view of things, this kind of misguided egalitarianism, enforced in petty ways at school and work, is not just stultifying but actively, murderously evil. The super-villain, a flame-haired nerd named Syndrome (Jason Lee), is a would-be superhero tormented by his own lack of special talents. From his high-tech island laboratory, populated by faceless minions, a slinky second-in-command (Elizabeth Peña) and giant killer robots, he plots a quasi-genocidal campaign against the former costumed crime fighters, whom he lures out of retirement by promising them the chance to practice their profession once again.

Syndrome's ultimate goal is not so much to rule the world as to force the rules that already govern it to their logical conclusion. His diabolical utopia will be cleansed of heroes: once he is done, he hisses, "everybody will be super, which means no one will be."

The intensity with which "The Incredibles" advances its central idea -- it suggests a thorough, feverish immersion in both the history of American comic books and the philosophy of Ayn Rand - is startling. . . . (A. O. Scott, "Being Super in Suburbia Is No Picnic," New York Times, November 5, 2004)
So, what's left for John Kerry voters to watch? I Heart Huckabees (Dir. David O. Russell, 2004).

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