The Incredibles was a fun, well-made animated superhero movie from 2004. With director Brad Bird’s keen eye for animation, the film was more visually engaging than its live-action contemporaries and their still-developing CGI, thanks in large part to virtuoso sequences like Dash’s jungle chase. It had standout side characters like Edna, memorable catch phrases (“where is my Super Suit!”), and fleshed out the entire nuclear family so that everyone had a character they could relate to. It was a well-liked, enjoyable moviegoing experience that did well at the box office and received positive reviews.
That could have been the end of this story. Until recently, most people had pleasant memories of the original but no serious passion for it. The people who rode for The Incredibles ran in the same circles as The Adventures of Shark Boy and Lava Girl (2005) evangelists. Their semi-ironic enthusiasm for the films was more a reaction to gatekeepers and tastemakers than it was to the content of the films. Those who claimed The Incredibles as their favorite superhero film were likely just sick of hearing Nolan diehards argue with MCU fanboys.
The children of the early aughts grew up to be jaded, media-savvy adults aware of how they were pandered towards by cynical producers as kids. Reclaiming this media in our adult years makes for hilarious absurdist content. At risk of reading too deeply into a film where George Lopez plays an evil electrical outlet, this reclamation also helps us feel like we are exercising autonomy in a world where billions of dollars are spent engineering taste.
But at some point, the love for The Incredibles lost its exaggerated, satirical slant. The 2014 announcement that Bird was developing a sequel was met with genuine enthusiasm that likely would not have existed had the sequel been announced a year or two after the original release. Something had changed with the way we interacted with The Incredibles, despite the fact that outside of a TNT re-run most people hadn’t thought about the film at all since it came out.
The changes that the superhero genre underwent in this span played a major role in this attitude shift. The Incredibles came out before superhero films were considered a (near) certainty at the box office and dominated each year’s release slate. Disney’s other property, the Marvel Cinematic Universe, established a template for superhero films that mostly held for the 19 films released between 2008’s Iron Man and the culmination* of the series with the 2018 Avengers – Infinity War. The hero’s backstory is carefully laid out, a two-dimensional love interest is in introduced, and the film ends with a battle against either an indiscriminate killing machine or a villain with similar powers as the hero. At some point in the film, or in a post-credits sequence, the hero is connected to other characters that exist in the same universe, leading to an inevitable team-up film.
(*this was part one of the finale and there are 20 more MCU films scheduled between now and 2028.)
Even the most ardent Marvel fans will likely cop to some degree of superhero fatigue; there’s only so many times one can watch the world get saved before the stakes start to feel diminished. As a reaction to this fatigue, the enthusiasm for The Incredibles starts to make more sense. The opening montage of The Incredibles succinctly offers the backstory of the Incredible family, and allows the rest of the film to explore new adventures. Syndrome, more Reddit guy mad about Wonder Woman than omnipotent killing machine, has a discernible motivation and stands out from a pack of other villains. Perhaps most refreshingly, the team-up was self-contained. Every character was introduced, learned about their powers, and had to try to come together in the span of one film – no prequels or standalone films required.
The backlash to superhero films partially explains The Incredibles’ rejuvenated appeal, but there is plenty of overlap between Incredibles fans and those who eagerly line up for every new MCU film. That is why I don’t think that a renewed enthusiasm for The Incredibles led to a sequel being greenlit. Instead, it seems that the announcement that a sequel was coming out helped reinvigorate interest in the original. The Incredibles existed in a sweet spot where most people born in the mid-late 1990s were exposed to it, almost everyone had a positive opinion of it, and it had left so little of a cultural footprint that no one was sick of hearing about it.
The excitement that followed the announced development of The Incredibles 2 had less to do with the content of the first film and more with the realization that something created during their childhood had become a viable franchise and cultural touchstone. The Incredible family was an original creation, not an adaptation of a decades-old comic book character. It didn’t matter that Bird made no attempts to make new types of superheroes, and transparently based them on Superman, Flash, and Mister Fantastic. Bird has openly admitted “[he’d] be astonished if anyone could come up with any truly original powers that were at all interesting any more.” All that matters to the 20-25 crowd is that these characters are not reboots or adaptations of existing properties. Unlike Batman, who has had an onscreen counterpart since 1943, the Incredibles were created for a film that came out after they were born.
Of course, these days it isn’t enough to just be a fan, and the 20-25 year old fans of the original Incredibles have been performatively claiming this sequel to a children’s movie for their own because it means more to them than the kids born after the original came out. Even if the original had an insignificant impact on their childhood, it came out during their childhood, which awakened an odd, dormant strain of brand loyalty.
Across Capitalist Realism and Ghosts of My Past, Mark Fisher emphasized the ways that nostalgia masks the stagnation of new ideas in the 21st century. In Fisher’s view, pastiche and homage gradually stopped being viewed as throwbacks to a previous era and grew to become the defining aesthetic of the new millennium; in other words, “the quotation marks [used to be] around things. Whereas now, the quotation marks have disappeared.” There is plenty of evidence to support this, such as the fact that some of the most avant garde works of the 2010s are reboots of old properties, such as Mad Max: Fury Road or Twin Peaks: The Return. However, it is difficult to come up with more concrete evidence for this than Steven Spielberg signing on to direct the film adaptation of Ready Player One (2018).
Ready Player One, and its 1970s and 80s nostalgia peddling, was predictably a hit at the box office. What was interesting was that it appealed to the type of kids born in 1998 that love Space Jam (1993) and “Only 90s Kids Will Remember…” memes as much as it did to the people who grew up watching the films referenced in Ready Player One. Specific pop culture references mattered less than the opportunity to retreat into the past. Let enough time pass and the specifics of any work will fade away to be replaced with your own idealized projections of an era. Spielberg used to create pop culture icons, now he makes blockbusters out of recycling other peoples’. This human centipede of nostalgia leads to people pining for things that never happened from times that they never experienced.
The Incredibles is less cutesy about its pastiche, but is no less indebted to older works. Bird was inspired by the comic books and movies he was exposed to in the 1960s, and spent years getting laughs out of nuclear family stereotypes working on The Simpsons. The originality comes from mashing together a story about unremarkable superheroes with a typical family film. This undersells Bird’s cleverness and light touch; there are plenty of inventive moments like Elastigirl’s break-in to Kronos, and a villain who wants to diminish the importance of superheroes by giving everyone powers is a much more compelling goal than destroying the world with bombs, or magic, or something. Nonetheless, The Incredibles is nothing we haven’t seen before.
It makes perfect sense that Pixar made another Incredibles movie. The original grossed $633M and won Best Animated Feature, which is more than enough for a sequel in the studio that made Cars 3. And it’s not really a surprise that fans of the original are showing up to the sequel (to the tune of $182M in domestic sales opening weekend, almost twice as much as the original when adjusting for inflation) since the original was a good time. Yet the fawning over this series of children’s films by 20-somethings that need their followers to know how important The Incredibles was to their childhood feels contrived.
The hype that another superhero sequel is getting for lightly expanding a story that trafficked in superhero cliches reveals a lot about the current moment. Short of original ideas, we’ll settle for original franchises, and clutch to the few new ones that came out in our lifetimes. The Incredibles and its sequel are accomplished feats of animated filmmaking that can be a lot of fun. But the frequent citations of this film as a defining film of the aughts, when there’s little in it that couldn’t be found in a comic book from the 1960s, does little to dissuade the fear that we’re living in a time where truly new ideas haven’t existed in a while.