Just what is Brad Bird up to with Incredibles 2? Having fun, no doubt. The writer-director’s sequel to his 2004 classic is an eyepopping delight, especially in a couple scenes involving overstretched matriarch Elastigirl (Holly Hunter). At one point, the hero motorcycle-chases a runaway monorail train, cityscape-hopping between cars, through drains, up construction yards.
She chases the train on the train itself, and around it: It’s complicated to describe, but Bird’s animator impulse goes wild to the infinite malleable possibilities of Elastigirl’s superpowers. It’s like watching the car chase from French Connection transformed into a Chuck Jones cartoon, in a micro-detailed city sunblasted with vanilla skies. And then for something completely different: Later, in a dark corner of a midnight city, Elastigirl punchbrawls a shadowy bad dude in a cage built from walls of cascading neon.
Meanwhile, baby Jack-Jack is beginning to show signs of superdom. He seems to have multiple X-teams’ worth of superpowers, mutations familiar (laser-eye stuff!) and absurd (extra-dimensional stuff!). All these abilities are utilized, quite expertly, in an epic backyard showdown with a raccoon.
No joke: These are the best superhero action sequences in our superhero-drowned decade. You figured Bird might be trepidatious returning to this material. Since 2004, there have been untold eons of comic book heroism adapted to the bigscreen, two Fantastic Fours, three different Spider-Men, the ongoing threat of a Jared Leto-Joker film. But the writer-director brings a snazzy Pop Art kineticism to his heroes’ journey. When Incredibles pal Frozone (Samuel L. Jackson) casts his Iceman powers, the furious density is astonishing. He’s not just casting freeze-rays. It looks like he’s whipping up an Everest. And there’s a character whose power seems to be vomiting lava; I’ve never seen prettier lava.
If the original Incredibles was cheerfully vintage in its worldbuilding, this sequel is a midcentury-modern fever dream. Much of the action takes place in New Urbrem, a city that looks like Superman’s Metropolis except every skyscraper is Tower-of-Babel tall. Meanwhile, the titular family of super-people moves into a swank new house, a glassy castle that somehow looks Flintstones-y and Jetsons-y, with a remote control water feature and a giant accent rock.
So the look of Incredibles 2 is visually adventurous. The story’s less adventurous, alas. Incredibles 2 picks up with the Parr family not long after the ending of the first film. Elastigirl/Helen and Mr. Incredible/Bob (Craig T. Nelson) wind up working with Winston Deavor (Bob Odenkirk), the CEO of a “world-class telecommunications company” called DevTech, which he runs with his brilliant scientist sister Evelyn (Catherine Keener). These siblings need a hero, so Helen dons her mask and a new costume. Bob stays home with the kids, tending to baby Jack-Jack and big siblings Violet (Sarah Vowell) and Dash (Huck Milner).
A key plot turn is lifted right from the original Incredibles, requiring a villainous motivation more described than felt. It just about breaks the final act of the film, and contributes to the feeling that Incredibles 2 is more of an expansion than a continuation. There’s a lot of fun with Jack-Jack, but the other kids feel a bit overlooked. Violet’s subplot depends on amnesia; Dash continues to run fast.
But it feels like Bird is up to something else in this sequel — something strange, not quite coherent, but fascinating. Shadows linger, lines resonate strangely. In this world, masked vigilantes are still illegal, leading Elastigirl and Mr. Incredible to a conversation about, like, moral duty in the face of unethical governance. “If laws are unjust, there are laws to change them,” she insists — but he convinces her it’s time for righteous civil disobedience. So she dons her costume to go fight crime. “Mom is going out illegally to explain why she shouldn’t be illegal?” asks Violet, sounding like the child of an undocumented activist.
But then solution to the Super problem is, no kidding, Bodycams — a law enforcement hot topic reimagined here as a PR ploy for crimefighters seeking better branding. There’s a lot of branding talk in Incredibles 2, actually. “All the polls are going in your direction!” Winston will say, and “media awareness is up 70 percent!” Average citizens take to the streets, chanting “Supers Should be Legal Now!”
On the big screen, superheroes have stood for a few different notions — the outcasts of X-Men, the exultant empowerment avatars of Wonder Woman and Black Panther, the chill workplace family of The Avengers, the persecution-complex ubermenschen of Batman v Superman. In Incredibles 2, superheroes stand for — well, all of that. They’re a victimized minority, and a deplored master race under assault from the kind of government overreach Holly Hunter herself was running in Batman v Superman.
There is tantalizing talk of “legality,” a breakthrough idea that what the Parrs want most for their children is a right to choose (whether to be super or not). Meanwhile, a mysterious Mr. Robot-y bad guy called the Screenslaver rants that society loves superheroes because “they replace true experience with simulation.” So there’s some Baudrillard with your popcorn.
The final act’s revelations confuse and deflate much of this. What we learn about the villain is unconvincing, and the smash-up climax races backward from the earlier complexity, devolving to the family-together fun of the first Incredibles. The thrills are always there, and you can enjoy the jazzy Michael Giacchino score, the sweet stay-at-home-Dad gags. But don’t let the dazzle fool you. Bird’s made the weirdest Pixar movie ever, revolutionary and retro, an anti-authoritarian ode to good parenting. B+