I recently shot a Besties entry on The Incredibles, and I still consider it my favorite of the various Pixar films, for a variety of reasons: the amazingly breathless action sequences, the wonderful throwback-60’s visual design, the fantastic score, the strong characterizations, the genuine humor. One thing has always kind of intrigued me, though, is its plainly-stated moral of “when everyone’s special, no one is.” That’s a kind of mantra that’s repeated multiple times through the film, and it’s a frustration that is echoed somewhat commonly in modern society: some people work extremely hard for their success and don’t deserve to be taxed into oblivion/made co-valedictorian with someone who didn’t work as hard/have a harder time getting into college than someone else based on the color of their skin, etc.
I can’t speak to the mind of Brad Bird, obviously, and I don’t really want to get into real-world politics (although, if I did, I’d link to this Fox News report calling Mr. Rogers an “evil man” for insisting that everyone is, indeed, “special”), but the application of the theme in the film has often rubbed me in an odd way. Mr. Incredible blows up as he refuses to attend his son’s “graduation ceremony” from the third to the fourth grade: “We keep finding new ways to celebrate mediocrity, but when someone is truly exceptional...!” The odd thing about the Incredible family, and where I find a disconnect between their plight and the slogan of the film, is that they have done precisely nothing to earn their exceptionalness, which makes their continued crowing about being beaten down for being “special” a bit odd.
The Incredibles are, of course, forced into a kind of witness protection program after the government bans all superpowered activity, an action that is primarily spurred by a particularly disastrous night for Mr. Incredible himself. Cut to a dozen or so years later, and the Incredibles have recast themselves as Mr. and Mrs. Bob and Helen Parr, heads of a normal suburban family with 2.5 kids and a home with a white picket fence. They’re not particularly happy with their lot, and neither is their son Dash, who has no outlet to actually use his speedy powers. The whole family essentially lives in fear of having to be relocated when someone discovers that they’re actually super-powered, and so they mostly are forced to deny their true natures, except for Bob, who engages in midnight heroism sprees with his old superhero friend Frozone. Denied their opportunity to utilize their unique talents, they’ve been brought down to the level of everyone else.
What’s curious about all this is, again, that the Incredibles have done nothing to be worthy of their powers; it’s never explained how Bob and Helen Parr obtained their abilities, but if their children gained them through genetics, it stands to reason that their parents did as well. And thus we’re left with what is effectively a separate, super-powered race that stands above the merely average, “unspecial” capabilities of normal humans. It’s an echo of the kinds of frustrations that the mutants have in the X-Men universe, save that the superpowered individuals in The Incredibles are apparently not the constant target of Sentinels or racism or violence, merely the occasional lawsuit.
The interplay between Syndrome and the Incredibles is one of the oddest of the film; although driven by jealousy and hatred of the blessed superheroes in his midst, Syndrome can be taken as a kind of Prometheus figure; his stated goal is to release his technology to everyone, enabling everyone to be “special.” The end result, that everyone will be on a level playing field with the supers, is taken to be almost intrinsically evil. What’s odd is that Syndrome is the only super-powered individual in the film who’s actually done any work towards achieving his goals; the Incredibles have all simply seen their powers fall into their laps, and seem to feel an entitlement to actually use them, regardless of the laws of the land.
If I have an issue with the film, it’s that Bird’s apparent analogy between superheroes in the world of The Incredibles and people with genuine talent in the real world falls apart after the introduction of Syndrome. Bird seems to be raving against the notion that “everyone is special” in the real world, which he sees as a way for the average and unexceptional members of society to hold back those with unique talents or the will to succeed, but his superheroes have obtained their powers seemingly only at random, by accident of birth; their greatest villain is precisely the kind of go-getter and self-starter that the movie seems to wish to celebrate in real life. He’s an entrepreneur and someone who wishes to apply his unique talents; the fact that he’s also a murderer and a genuinely evil person doesn’t negate that. If anything, it only muddles the analogy further; should “non-special” people in the real world not even bother to try and emulate those who have achieved success? Is doing so an amoral act? Is there some natural pecking order between those who can and those who can’t; is attempting to climb above your station evil? When I extrapolate what The Incredibles seems to be talking about into the real world, I interpret it as an argument for a strict meritocracy, which is definitely a valid political/social viewpoint, but the actions and backgrounds of the characters in the film itself seem to counteract that notion. Is my extrapolation incorrect, or my interpretation of the film's events and characters?
I’d be the first to admit that I find the notion of assuming that everyone is capable of precisely the same achievement level a bit offensive; there are, indeed, people who achieve greater success than others through the dint of hard work and late nights of self-betterment. You can have two reactions to the “everyone is special in their own way” message of Mr. Rogers and Sesame Street, though; you can find it a cynical ploy to erase the natural differences that may see some children more capable of success than others and discourage young people from working hard to succeed, or you can see it as an encouraging message to be your best in any endeavour that you come to, no matter what limitations you may be saddled with. I’m a cynical asshole, to be sure, but I’ve always interpreted it more as an encouragement to those children who might be a bit slower in the race or less capable in the classroom than as a method to bring the exceptional kids down to everyone else’s level. After all, if someone watches too much Mr. Rogers and decides that their innate specialness means that they don’t have to try as hard to be exceptional, were they really that exceptional to be begin with?
I’m curious if you think my interpretation of the film is a bit off; this is one of those films that I find fascinating for multiple reasons, and, again, I still consider it my favorite among the Pixar canon. I think its real-world analogies are defensible, perhaps, but I also think that they’re undercut by some confusing complications in the film itself. What do you think, though? Should The Incredibles be thought of as nothing more than a movie? Or can it be read as a real-world parable? Should it be read that way, and if so, does anything about it bother you?