Why Incredibles 2 can’t top the original

Even more disappointing than the lack of inspiration is the film’s taint of corporate bias.

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One of the supreme jokes of The Incredibles, the visually stylish 2004 Pixar superhero adventure, was its ending, in which Mr Incredible, his wife Elastigirl and their three children, Violet, Dash and Jack-Jack, were confronted with an entirely new adversary only seconds before the credits rolled. This jab at the inevitability of sequels was made all the more pointed by the insistence of the writer-director, Brad Bird, that there would be no second Incredibles. It was a tease in the spirit of Mel Brooks’s History of the World Part 1, which promised a Part 2 featuring such spectacles as “Hitler on Ice” and “Jews in Space”.

The most pressing question now that Incredibles 2 is upon us is whether it is good enough to merit spoiling that gag. It begins with Elastigirl (Holly Hunter) being adopted as the figurehead of a new initiative, hatched by the smooth-talking Winston (Bob Odenkirk) and his sister Evelyn (Catherine Keener), to rehabilitate the image of superheroes, who are still forced to live incognito after a backlash against them. The villain this time around dresses in a black bodysuit with glowing eyes and silver rodent teeth, hypnotises the populace through their TV screens and calls himself the ScreenSlaver. That name, with its 21st century connotations, is all wrong for a movie whose greatest asset is its fidelity to a retro aesthetic, each gadget and gizmo reeking of a 1960s futurism, every suit fit for the Rat Pack.

The original Incredibles movie pre-dates by one year Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins, which also set out to treat superheroes as flawed, frustrated human beings, albeit with a good deal more inclement weather. And Brad Bird’s influence on the genre has been just as mighty: what is the Avengers franchise, after all, if not The Incredibles with a fraction of the fun and style? Watching the new film, however, it’s clear that characters and concept are close to exhaustion. It’s satisfying that Elastigirl gets a bigger share of the limelight, and a handful of proto-feminist messages (“Make your mark, don’t wait for permission”). But Violet is coping with boy trouble while Dash, who had to come to terms with keeping his powers under wraps in the first film, now simply needs help with his maths homework. Mr Incredible (Craig T Nelson) has to learn that coming to the rescue of a son who doesn’t understand fractions can be just as much of a superpower as keeping a train from plunging off a broken bridge.

Old characters, such as the withering stylist Edna Mode, are rather shoehorned into the action. A cocktail party for bargain-bin crime-fighters is amusing: we meet Brick, a hulking slab of stone who holds her Martini glass delicately by its stem, and the elderly Reflux (“Medical condition or superpower? You decide!”), though this strays into the territory of the 1999 Mystery Men and its pathetic superheroes such as the Blue Raja, aka Jeff, who throws cutlery.

The production design keeps the eye satisfied even when the plot descends into biffing and powing. The architecture could fill a thousand coffee table books: Winston’s home, with its cylindrical motif, features overlapping granite semi-circles forming a huge chimney that dwarfs the fireplace it was built to ventilate. There is some inventive domestic slapstick, a collision of the homely and the futuristic worthy of Jacques Tati, when Dash presses all the wrong buttons and the three-piece suite ends up in the underfloor lake.

Of the Pixar sequels, only the incomparable Toy Story 2 has the distinction of being better than the original. More disappointing than the lack of inspiration here is the taint of corporate bias in the idea of a villain who hypnotises Americans to tell them they are being rendered passive by capitalism – a reversal of the device at the centre of John Carpenter’s They Live. A studio that has billions of dollars’ worth of skin in the game of flogging sequels, merchandise and theme parks is in no position to issue moral instruction. And when a movie that is in bed with McDonald’s, as this one is, warns against the dangers of resisting consumerism, it’s bound to leave a nasty taste in the mouth, nastier even than a Happy Meal. 

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards and is Film Critic in Residence at Falmouth University.

This article appears in the 13 July 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit farce