Fourteen years ago, Disney/Pixar released its superhero centerpiece The Incredibles, an animated film about a latex-clad family blessed with superpowers which, when the government abandons them for being different, retreats into suburban existence. The movie won an Oscar, which means the long-awaited sequel, released in theaters on June 15, had a lot to live up to. Despite a trailer that seemed to annoyingly embrace the lure of commercialized feminism (and the radical act of stay-at-home dads making breakfast!), Incredibles 2 is as joyous and bright as the first.
The portrayal of Mr. Incredible (voiced by Craig T. Nelson)—as a dad who’s on diaper duty while the matriarch, Elastigirl (Holly Hunter), gets promoted to head superhero—is the type of empowerment motif that could easily be overdone. But fortunately, this familiar work-home role reversal adds to the narrative instead of overwhelming it, while illustrating that being an attentive parent is just as hard, if not more challenging, than saving the city you call home.
Disclaimer: *Joanna voice* Hello, there are spoilers in this!
The year is 2018, and superheroes are illegal, which doesn’t stop Mr. and Mrs. Incredible and their icy-cool lifelong friend Frozone (Samuel L. Jackson) from being selfless heroes who try to stop a bank-robbing mole from pulverizing their town. The couple is successful—everyone is safe—but the police state is tight about how much demolition they caused, so the government kills any hope for a revived Supers program (where Mr. and Mrs. Incredible worked in the first movie). Meanwhile, the media portrays our superheroes as delinquent, destructive bad boys/girls, so they’re left with no choice but to have one parent get a civilian job to earn money. Mr. Incredible volunteers because (go figure) he’s terrified of spending time with his children.
A billionaire brother-sister duo—Winston and Evelyn (Bob Odenkirk and Catharine Keener)—then offer to solve the Incredibles’ bad PR problem by marketing Elastigirl and not Mr. Incredible as the Supers exemplar because, according to their research, the Mrs. is less destructive. She, of course, winds up simultaneously fighting crime while adhering to a few of her motherly duties and inspiring at least one boner-centric movie review.
If Elastigirl wasn’t a successful Super and super mom, nothing would be accomplished. But the “doing it all” aspect of her newfound work life isn’t shoved into the face of viewers; the movie rather successfully avoids superficial “yay women!” cheerleading. Instead, Incredibles 2 is surprisingly subtle in its delivery—Elastigirl is allowed to fulfill the roles she’s taken on, and it doesn’t matter as much whether or not she can have it all. But for all the jokes about Mr. Incredible’s inability to conquer domesticity—and secondary characters in the movie whose insistence that “it’s a man’s world” borders on obnoxious—Elastigirl’s double-duty role isn’t the conflict here. When she’s given the spotlight and things go awry, she gets shit done without expecting a parade. (In one scene, in fact, she mistakes a group of her supporters for a protest.)
Any victory is amassed through familial love, which is the true heart of the movie. The children—Violet (Sarah Vowell) and Dash (Huck Milner)—who’ve been instilled the ability to fight for what’s right and defend the family/city/non-super types at all costs, battle evil through the life lessons their mom has imparted on them. And even baby Jack Jack (Eli Fucile), who has crazy powers that we all know about but most of the characters on screen do not, participates in the action.
Just like there’s a superhero role reversal, there’s a noteworthy script-flipping for the villain, too. The aforementioned evil sister Evelyn not only plays a more devious role than expected, but also causes much of the mayhem by manipulating the everyday technology to which everyone is vulnerable. (For the viewer, this is particularly frightening—Incredibles 2 doesn’t seem too far removed from our current Cambridge Analytica reality.)
Because the chaos Mrs. Incredible creates is so uniquely tied to tech, it may be Pixar’s attempt to further another empowerment message—that of a woman succeeding (despite the evil of her actions) as a result of her STEM expertise. The movie doesn’t force the role-reversal point, nor does it treat it as bewildering, although the creators will likely enjoy the benefit of viewers applauding them for writing powerful (animated) women.