The Incredible Potential of the Superhero Genre

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By Joellene Yap (19S07A)

This article was written in collaboration with Film Society. 

Released in 2004, The Incredibles is considered the second hit superhero movie of the 21st century. It came out only 2 years after Spider-Man — the first in the Tobey Maguire trilogy — and right at the birth of the superhero genre. Its themes are common to the genre, but are framed in a unique way, one that remains singular even amidst the past 10 years of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (and the past 7 years of the DCEU….haha).

So, let’s dive straight into The Incredibles, shall we?

In the clip above, we see Helen and Bob Parr arguing about a multitude of things all at once, as most family arguments go. There’s Bob’s late night illegal vigilantism, whether to let Dash compete for real in a race, concerns about having to uproot their lives and move again — all linking back to a divergence in their points of view on superheroes being banned. Bob desires a return to the glory days of superheroes, whereas Helen accepts and is determined to follow the new law. Through this, we see the dichotomy between the past and the present in the world of The Incredibles; between fame and blame, between public approval and rejection; between the desire to prove oneself as exceptional, and the desire to protect one’s family life.

This idea, of the survival of superheroes being contingent on public opinion, is clear in current superhero genre movies. For example, Captain America: Civil War (2016) shows the public turning their backs on the Avengers after the events in Sokovia, while Watchmen (2009) illustrates the rise and fall of superheroes as public opinion changed. But the one thing that sets The Incredibles apart is how it portrays this conflict on a personal level. It’s not about superheroes fighting against politicians and public backlash; it’s about supers trying to carry on with life after retiring, about them finding normal jobs, starting families, going to school.

In the clip above, we see Bob Parr — Mr Incredible — cramming his huge body into a tiny little office cubicle, working an insurance company and getting more and more rankled by the meaninglessness of his job with every day that passes. In his fight with Helen, he projects his own bitterness onto Dash’s races, railing against the mediocrity that he has been forced into, unable to use his powers to their full extent.

The contrast between his current life and his previous one can even be seen in the visual design of each scene. In the above clip, the office is all whites and greys, the blandness of the colouring reinforcing the monotony of Bob’s insurance job. Bob, in particular, is practically bursting out of the confines of his cubicle,  constantly hunched miserably over the tiny furniture. This stands in stark contrast to the screenshot below, from the time before superheroes were banned.

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The visual design in the above screenshot is composed of high contrast, dark backgrounds, and Bob is dynamic and assertive. Given the personal consequences that the banning of superheroes had on Bob’s life, it is easy to see why he longs for his “glory days”, and would risk his secret identity to continue doing vigilante work illegally.

The Incredibles thus goes a step further than showing us the collateral damage and public rejection of ‘supers’, and shows us how a ‘super’ that once took pride in his abilities and good deeds feels reduced and belittled by the mediocre life he has had to cram himself into. One of the only other superhero movies that comes close to this kind of personal portrayal is Watchmen (favourite movie opening ever), which contains entirely too much macho posturing and mysterious auras to truly bring the message across on a personal, emotional level.

At the same time, Helen and Bob’s differing views also contribute to the narrative of the meaning and nature of superheroes on a more meta level. This is because The Incredibles is about superheroes, but isn’t a superhero movie. Instead, it takes most of the usual themes of a superhero movie and sets it spinning around the idea of family.

How does it do that? The Incredibles presents individualistic superheroism as mutually exclusive to the maintenance of family and personal relationships. Bob Parr’s desire to return to his glory days is also a desire to return to solo vigilantism, and implicit in the actions he takes in the first half of the movie is his rejection of family life in favour of returning to that old life in any way he can. His desire for individualistic superheroism drives him further and further away from his family in the early stages of the plot. In the fight with Helen previously mentioned, we see the two of them standing with the darkened hallway between them (see below).

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Visually, it is as if there is a deep rift between the two. Furthermore, at the climax of their argument, there is a break away from the back-and-forth close-ups on their faces during dialogue, with a sudden cut to a full body shot showing the entire living room. The physical context of their argument suddenly enters the picture: this is their home, they are husband and wife, they have children, and they are disagreeing because Bob is unable to let go of his past superhero life to focus on the present, to focus on their family. This outdated, individualistic take on superheroism is therefore presented as mutually exclusive to the maintenance of a healthy family relationships.

Further along in the plot, Bob continues to distance himself from his family, as he chases his old life. He accepts a job offer from an unknown employer to fight giant robots, too elated at regaining some semblance of heroism in his life to even question his circumstances. He lies to his family about his job, money starts appearing out of nowhere, and he grows more confident but less present in his family’s life. The Incredibles even goes so far as to drop hints that liken his behaviour to cheating — Helen finds a strand of another woman’s hair on her husband’s suit, and he has dinner with that woman, making edgy conversation that borders on flirting — framing his dishonesty as an even greater betrayal of his family.  

But even if all the above makes sense, why is this idea of family so important in The Incredibles? Again, it could be about consequences and whether they are general or personal. Below is a clip from Captain America: Civil War, where the Avengers argue about whether to sign the Sokovia Accords.

We see no real impact of what they are saying and the conflict is forced, the characters’ mere descriptions of the number of deaths or negative consequences used to make the fluff about principles and justice sound real. But The Incredibles doesn’t do that. It makes the consequences personal, it shows the personal cost of vigilantism in the form of shouting matches and fights at the dinner table.

But even more important than that, Bob’s increasing distance from his family as he pursues his glory days points to the mutual exclusivity of our conventional superheroes’ lives and actual personal relationships. The lifestyle that he chases after is one of the lone wolf, not tied down by family, and incredibly good at his job. (Sounds like James Bond, or Ethan Hunt in Mission Impossible, right?)

Similarly, in popular culture, being a superhero has always been something very individualistic, necessitating a lonely lifestyle. Superheroes are often without family, close friends or romantic interests (that are not dead and/or not used as fodder for characterisation of the hero). Their personal relationships often seem more like mere plot devices than any real attempts to show their connections to something other than their righteous sense of justice.

As a result, superheroes gain our approval through their substantial personal charisma instead — think Tony Stark, Batman, Thor, Captain America. Discounting ensemble stories like the Avengers (which are entirely different), these arcs often end with the individual triumphing over the villain. In contrast, The Incredibles presents us with this reconciliation:

Bob’s family chases after him, even as he distances himself from them, and their story ends with a family becoming closer, instead of an individual triumphing over a villain. This is a superhero story embedded into the story of a family, and not the other way round — as has been the case with most other superhero families, particularly those found in the comics.

The Incredibles shows us that superheroes can be so much more than what we’ve been seeing at the movies till now. The Incredibles came out long before the rise of the MCU, before superhero movies became the lucrative genre. Brad Bird only had superheroes from the comics to go off, but as of now no one has matched the sheer relatability of his portrayal.  

Of course, Pixar and Marvel Studios make very different movies — Pixar has a penchant for personal, emotional connection, and Marvel’s heroes are less relatable, more like action figures come to life. But there is potential. Thor: Ragnarok showed that it is possible to create relatable characters and relationships, with its easy-going comedy and realistic friendship between Banner and Thor, as well as the brotherly angst between Thor and Loki. The industry right now should start relying less on that safe template of a popular superhero film, made up of witty one-liners, a dash of funny dialogue, sweeping statements about values and justice, but nothing more than that. Creating something real means taking risks. And if this industry can bear to take those risks, superheroes can start taking on more meaning, and really reflect how much humans can achieve while still being human, and while still having realistic relationships with others.

The Incredibles is thus distinct in the superhero genre, because it takes familiar tropes such as public resentment and pretending to be normal, and puts them in the context of a family, something that is almost antithetical to the portrayals of superheroes we usually see. It shows us that superhero stories can be heartwarming and personal, and that there is still much to be explored in this genre.

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