Like a Spandex suit on a man traveling faster than a speeding bullet, the rumors of an affinity with Ayn Randian ideology have tenaciously clung to the Incredibles franchise. Slate film critic Dana Stevens was far from alone, for example, when she characterized the original 2004 film about a superhero family unhappily forced to hide their powers and integrate among the normies as “a barely disguised libertarian parable about the natural superiority of some individuals over others.” In the past 14 years, that interpretation has been repeated so often, including by New York Times critic A.O. Scott, that in 2015 Slate published its own rebuttal, though it’s ultimately done little to stop viewers from examining the sequel for objectivist inclinations.
Given that critical backdrop, what are we to make of the thematic muddle that is Incredibles 2? Watching the film with an eye toward its ideas is not unlike seeing a whack-a-mole game in action: As soon as a possible thesis emerges, it’s gone, giving the feature an unsatisfying weightlessness. A movie need not have a fresh or interesting thought behind it—plenty of great pictures don’t—but thematic coherence can give a story a narrative throughline, greater meaning to the character’s actions, and staying power in audience’s minds. Not being a mind reader, I couldn’t tell you what role, if any, the accusations of objectivist thought against Bird—which he seems sensitive to—played in the making of Incredibles 2. Perhaps he thought a film that didn’t say much at all would be best; perhaps he tried to say something and it got lost in the movie-making process. Or perhaps he didn’t think about it at all. Whatever happened behind closed doors at Pixar, the result is a sequel that tries on political views like outfits, only to discard them when they’re no longer relevant to a scene at hand. (Note: Significant spoilers ahead.)
Like so many superhero movies, Incredibles 2 is a film about public relations: how superheroes are perceived, and what they can do to alter those perceptions. A wealthy brother-and-sister team—you know something’s fishy because they work together as adult siblings, like the Lannisters or the Trumps—recruit Elastigirl to lead a PR campaign that’ll reintroduce her to the citizenry and hopefully win the hearts and minds of those who oppose superheroes. Faced with her first emergency, a runaway train, and equipped this time with a camera in her suit that will give voters a front-row seat to her derring-do—a possible reference to police body cams that, like so much in this film, is never further explored—Elastigirl has no problem saving the day. The campaign seems to be working.
But the mastermind behind the runaway train, a villain by the name of “the Screenslaver,” remains elusive. Eventually, it’s discovered that the real identity of the Screenslaver, who hypnotizes people and mind-controls them through screens, is the undersung inventor Evelyn Deavor (Catherine Keener), i.e., the woman who hired Elastigirl.
Late in the film, we hear Evelyn’s motivation. Her father was murdered by home-invading robbers, and she blames a dependency on superheroes for his death: Rather than defending himself, the father wasted his final minutes trying to dial up caped crusaders to come save him, but he failed to reach any of them. Evelyn wants to make sure that superheroes stay underground forever because she believes that people’s faith that someone else will make the world a better place for them makes them complacent. (Her brother took the traditional Bruce Wayne–esque turn by embracing vigilantism.) Evelyn’s endgame is to bring all the superheroes together and, at the moment they’re on the verge of being embraced by the United Nations and made legal forever in a globally televised ceremony, mind-control them into committing aggressive acts in front of the cameras, thus turning the whole world against them forever.
Meanwhile, as the Screenslaver, Evelyn rails against the distracting power of screens, which she believes to be another hindrance toward citizens taking up the task of fixing the world’s problems themselves. While it’s not completely clear to what extent Evelyn agrees with the Screenslaver or is simply using the villain as a puppet in her false-flag operation, Brad Bird, at least, agrees that the Screenslaver is “not wrong” that we’d all benefit from staring less at our phones and TVs and computers. And Evelyn isn’t a violent crackpot like the Joker. (If anything, she’s relatively harmless: Her schemes to turn the world against superheroes only involves a lone false imprisonment—that of a pizza-delivery boy she frames as the Screenslaver.)
But we’re never given any indication where Evelyn’s has-a-point reasonableness ends. She’s on Team Wrong by dint of her villainy, and perhaps because she uses conservative dog-whistle language like “dependency” and “lack of discipline.” (Bird has called the Screenslaver’s rants “a little bit libertarian” while describing himself as anything but.) And yet parts of the film seem to agree with her. Incredibles 2 opens with the latest in a series of city-destroying heists—another one Mr. Incredible and Elastigirl can’t quite prevent—and the couple are told that, because of the particularities of the bank’s insurance policy, it would have been better if they’d never intervened at all. In other words, the world figured out how to be self-sufficient without superheroes. Does that mean Evelyn was right? Or does her own devious plan end up proving that superheroes are necessary, since it’s ultimately they who risk their lives to stop her from hurting the residents of Metroville?
That type of ambiguity—or is it just messiness?—characterizes the other main debate in the film. When Mr. Incredible and Elastigirl are first approached to participate in the effort to re-legalize superheroes, they initially land on opposite sides: Is it more important to follow the law or to break an unjust prohibition, especially as individuals who aspire to become society’s morality mascots? Incredibles 2 treats this question like a philosophical gewgaw, to be considered only until boredom sets in. Ditto the fact that the original pitch is made by a nostalgic, branding-obsessed, strength-worshipping heir who promises to “Make supers legal again!” (The parallels between Evelyn’s brother Winston Deavor and Donald Trump are brief and only of interest until Evelyn takes center stage, at which point they’re rendered little more than a red herring.) The acrobatic grace of the images on-screen renders the sequel’s thematic tangles even more obvious and disappointing. Not everyone feels like indulging in a movie’s intellectual pleasures, but it’d be nice to have the option.