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The Incredibles movies have a weird relationship with technology

The Incredibles movies have a weird relationship with technology
03 Jul
4:11

This piece contains significant spoilers for The Incredibles and Incredibles 2.

It’s been 14 years since Brad Bird’s animated superhero movie The Incredibles hit theaters, but the new sequel, The Incredibles 2, is remarkably consistent with the first movie in a number of obvious ways. It picks up at the exact moment where the first movie ends, with the appearance of the villainous Underminer. It follows up on the date plans Violet made with her crush, Tony, and on the fact that no one in the family has seen Jack-Jack use his powers yet.

But there’s another, subtler thread running through the two Pixar films. And because it repeats, it seems to point to a larger philosophy: both movies feature villains whose evil deeds give the franchise a markedly technophobic outlook. In The Incredibles, it’s Syndrome, a normal human with no superpowers who uses his tech skills to amass a huge fortune, which he plans to use to effectively rid the world of supers. In The Incredibles 2, it’s Screenslaver, a normal human with no superpowers who uses her tech skills to amass a huge fortune, which she plans to use to actually rid the world of supers. In a world where society vilifies superpowered heroes, it’s strange that the villains don’t have powers, too. (Wouldn’t someone without superpowers defeating supers be a blessing, rather than a curse, to a system that hates supers?) The films instead attach a kind of moral superiority to natural powers, and place them above any abilities attained through tech innovation.

The villains in both stories come from radically different backgrounds, each reflecting the times when they were written. The Incredibles was released in 2004, just a year after the invasion of Iraq, three years after the invasion of Afghanistan, and a few more after the dot-com bubble burst. Naturally, the villain Syndrome, who puts his technological prowess to work designing and selling sophisticated, superpower-grade weapons to the highest bidder, functioned as a criticism of the new money of the tech boom, and reflected a cultural weariness about the military industrial complex.


Photo: Pixar Animation Studios

Now, The Incredibles 2 has arrived at a moment when disdain for the 1 percent is growing almost as fast as the wealth gap, and abuses of power by tech giants is heightening the public’s fears of being exploited by tech as a whole. In the climax of the sequel, Screenslaver is revealed to have been Evelyn Deavor, an old-money heiress and tech genius who has inherited her family’s telecom business, DevTech, along with her brother, and uses that power to manipulate regular people and supers alike to serve her own purposes.

The thing about villains, especially in superhero stories, is they’re meant as an antithesis of what the heroes represent. The “evil” of a villain lies in their actions — the means they pursue to achieve their ends — but their job is, ultimately, to challenge the hero’s worldview, their ideals and beliefs, with their own ideology. Heroes can only triumph by answering or overcoming that challenge. (See: Black Panther, or any X-Men movie that features Charles Xavier and Magneto squaring off over the future of mutants.) For the audience, a villain’s perspective can be a way to work through philosophical questions or beliefs, in a manner that’s a bit easier (and more entertaining) to process then asking someone whether they would pull a switch to divert a trolley from hitting a loved one if it meant hitting multiple other people instead. But just as these characters’ motivations can be a place for the audience to parse tough moral quandaries, they serve the same purpose for the movie’s creators. Intentionally or not, the story’s overall lessons — the way it defines right and wrong — are an active argument for a specific viewpoint or ideal.

The Incredibles franchise is set in a retro-future awash in mid-century modern design, meant to evoke the kind of rosy nostalgia that fuels most of Pixar’s films. That certainly lends itself to a technology-suspicious outlook, if not an outright technology-averse one. The backdrop fits an action-packed story in the visual style of Golden Age comics, but the franchise’s designers seem to have focused on the era’s visual aesthetics, while ignoring the other implications of setting a story during a time period frequently weaponized as a utopian vision of how America once was and should be again. Retrofuturistic design leans on a nostalgia that isn’t true to what that period of time was actually like, for people who weren’t straight, white, middle-class Protestant men. Nostalgia itself promotes stagnation or regression, which is antithetical to the advancement that invention represents.


Photo: Disney•Pixar

But it’s not just the backdrop that makes the Incredibles films appear deeply critical of progress. The villains’ power — the thing the Parrs fight to take away, twice — comes from the devices the villains develop to compensate for their failings, which all stem from not being able to do the same things supers can do. Syndrome resents that he can’t fight crime, Evelyn that she couldn’t save her father. Both villains have become selfish and curdled, and both have developed the standard villain hubris that makes them overreach. They don’t fail solely because they’re using technology instead of natural powers. But technology in these films is the only reason the villains are effective, and it’s how they push against the series’ nostalgia. The Incredibles essentially want to move backward, into a nostalgic time when they were at the height of their powers, and heroes were more accepted. The villains want to move forward, into a self-created future where heroes aren’t superior, even if that means they don’t exist at all.

And when these villains are defeated, the implication is that their technological weapons needed to be resisted, because they were somehow cheating the natural order of things. At one point, Syndrome tells the Incredibles that once he’s done with his Watchmen-esque scam—in which he plans to use a killer robot to create havoc, then “defeat” it to appear heroic—he’s going to sell his tech to the public, because “when everyone is super, no one will be.” It’s an existential threat on top of his already murderous scheme: he’s threatening the superheroes’ natural supremacy. Instead, they assert that supremacy, and banish non-supers’ attempts to equal them.

It’s not just nefarious tech the movies reject, either. The Incredibles never really reckons with the fact that Mr. Incredible’s condescension to and dismissal of “Incrediboy” Buddy Pine and his technology was what created Syndrome in the first place. Bob apologizes at one point, but only after Syndrome’s technology has forced him to pay attention. In the second film, the family doesn’t fight Screenslaver to oppose her belief that people rely too much on the convenience and comfort of superheroes and technology instead of on themselves. (An unfair view, given that the regular people she criticizes would be all but powerless without tech and supers.) They battle her because she’s hypnotizing people into committing crimes on her behalf, commandeering their bodies without their consent. When they defeat her, her belief that people are essentially sheep begging to be manipulated by tech goes unchallenged. Technology is still the enemy that needs defeating.


Photo: Disney•Pixar

The takeaway from these plots isn’t just that technology can be bad, but that advancements themselves can be bad. Bob and Helen Parr can’t seem to envision a future in which their kids can be open about their powers, but the whole family isn’t out fighting crime and wreaking havoc. When the police chide them at the beginning of the film about the damage they did while trying to protect a bank that was already protected by insurance, the heroes never acknowledge the argument, even to address its obvious flaws. Non-supers who might advance themselves without supers, or even in spite of them, are still not to be trusted in the context of these films.

This seems like an odd thing for Pixar — a company that exists only because of ongoing technological advancements — to put on the screen, but ironically, it does fit the studio’s larger philosophies. Pixar has become a family-entertainment juggernaut because of its ability to hone in on emotional truths and personal growth, but it also traffics in its own specific brand of nostalgia and childlike innocence to accomplish this, one that’s fundamentally hostile to technological progress. Screenslaver’s ideas about people being technology-obsessed zombies isn’t new to the Pixar film suite; we see it in Wall-E with its depiction of fat future humans confined to hover-chairs and hooked on mindless entertainment. Otherwise, any mention or appearance of technology in Pixar movies usually romanticizes older forms of tech, like the gas-guzzling autos from Cars, or the dirigible and homemade take on a hot-air balloon in Up.

Because these are children’s movies these characterizations can, for now, be chalked up to the studio’s efforts to preserve what Baby Boomer execs see as a more innocent time, before the acceleration of current technology totally preoccupied kids with iPads and YouTube. But while preserving childhood innocence is an admirable feat, that mandate will necessarily need to shift to integrate tech into the plan, and soon. Pixar’s earliest youth audiences, millennials, experienced a world before and after the internet, so the idea that we might have lost something by gaining tech made sense back then. But kids today don’t remember anything but a digital world, which means that narratives like the ones in the Incredibles movies, in which tech is villainized as a kind of existential threat defining the future, just aren’t going to resonate for much longer.

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