Friday, September 26, 2008

Review - The Incredibles

The Incredibles
2005 Hugo Winner for Best Long Form Dramatic Presentation

Hey comic book writers: this is how you create a good post modern superhero story. Please take notes.

Mr. Incredible is your traditional super strong and invulnerable superhero. He gets married to Elastigirl but their lives as superheroes come to an abrupt end when lawsuits over all the incidental damages that superheroes cause drives them into hiding. Fifteen years on and they're a traditional suburban family with a teenage daughter (who turns invisible and makes force fields), a young boy (who doesn't burst into flames), and a baby. Mr. Incredible is depressed by his life as an insurance adjuster, though, and he jumps at the opportunity to return to action. His midlife crisis entangles his whole family in a conspiracy.

I can honestly say that I think The Incredibles is the best superhero movie ever made. The recent Nolan Batman movies also are spectacular and I enjoy the Donner Superman movies but they don't manage to both capture the spirit of superhero comics and reinterpret them.

Starting with the obvious, the entire film is a parallel to the transition between the golden age and silver age of comic books. First the superheroes were driven out of business by legal actions (see the congressional hearings that shut down the majority of the comic book industry in the early fifties). The revival of superhero comic was triggered by two major books: The Flash which was about a guy who could run fast (like the young boy in the movie) and The Fantastic Four which featured a "family" of superheroes including a super strong guy, a stretching guy, a woman who turned invisible and made force fields, and a teen who burst into flames. The most common type of villain to show up in those early days of the silver age was the mad inventor; a normal person who created fantastic scientific devices and robots but used them for evil. You'll also note that the style of decor, archetecture, and fashion in the movie is straight from the late fifties/early sixties.

What makes it post-modern is the fact that while it's a film with superheroes in it the themes break from that mold. The conflicts are multilayered in a way that you don't typically find in superhero films (it has become more common in comic books). It's about raising a family, growing old, give up on your dreams, and the tendency for the masses to tear down the idols. Being post-modern with superheroes means breaking down the traditional conventions, not adding more violence and swearing as far too many people think. The Incredibles did this by attaching to different themes.

It helps that director Brad Bird really took advantage of the animation medium to create a superhero movie that live action directors can only dream of. Live action is constrained by budget when it comes to showing us the hero performing incredible stunts. This means every effects shot has to count there while in The Incredibles the effects of those superpowers can be demonstrated constantly. Similarly costs require that action sequences in a superhero film be kept to a minimum which is why despite costing $160 million there are only two of them in the first Fantastic Four movie. The action set peice is the hook to get people in to watch the movie and the Incredibles has by my count nine of them (and I'm running a few closely tied in portions together). Then there is the actors; a real problem for superhero movies is that the actor wants to have more screen time than the stuntman which means that they tend to lose their masks a lot (see Spider-Man who couldn't go an action scene without taking the mask off). With no actors on screen there's no one to complain that they're not getting enough face time.

Speaking of acting I have to say that I'm grateful the Pixar constantly avoids the stunt casting that plagues modern animated movies (see the Shrek films for examples of that). Using big name actors might get a little bit of attention but the big name actors often don't have decent voice acting ability. When the biggest name in the film is Samuel L. Jackson, a man who I'm convinced gave up on a normal acting career ten years ago and has now decided to do anything that sounds like it would be fun, then it's clear that they're not casting to get an Entertainment Tonight mention. Instead we've got a lot of people doing fine work most of whom have experience in voice acting.

As someone who collects comic book movies I was incredibly impressed when I saw The Incredibles and my appreciation of it has only grown over time. I am certain that it will be regarded as a classic film long after superhero comics have gone the way of the western.