The Incredibles is the greatest superhero film of all time.
I realize that’s the Why-Didn’t-I-Blow-On-This-Soup-First-Dear-Lord-My-Mouth-Is-On-Fire of hot takes in a world where The Dark Knight, Logan, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Guardians of the Galaxy, the original Superman movies (just the first two), all sorts of Spider-Man flicks and Avengers: Infinity War exist. But it’s true.
You see, we here at Observer were exhausted from trudging through endless debates about which superhero movie sits atop the colorfully caped throne. How can we compare a single entry in the larger Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) to a standalone Batman movie? Do we judge the X-Men franchise as a whole or individually? Why can’t I introduce my argument without a narrative crutch like rhetorical questions? A consensus could never be reached.
So to bring a little order to this lawless cinematic landscape, we came up with the Vigilante Values, a rubric of sorts to grade superhero movies. The criteria are: impact on the genre, originality, world building, villain quality and sheer awesomeness. Going through each category, it becomes more clear just how amazing of a superhero feature writer/director Brad Bird crafted with the original Incredibles.
Impact on the Genre: Did It Change the Game?
3000 BC: The Great Pyramid is built.
105 AD: First use of modern paper.
2004: The Incredibles is released.
These are the undisputed greatest moments in human history, and any counter-arguments are as invalid as the laws of physics when it comes to Captain America’s shield.
The Incredibles arrived during the embryonic stages of the modern superhero era, but like Ross’ keyboard skills in Friends, its content was far ahead of its time. With the benefit of (Captain) hindsight, The Incredibles laid the groundwork for some of the more serious superhero themes that have cropped up in recent blockbusters.
As superhero stories have become the all-consuming dominant genre in Hollywood (2018 will see nine wide releases in this vein alone), credit must be given to Pixar for helping shape the field.
“With great power, comes great responsibility” is arguably the most famous line in all of superhero history, but The Incredibles is equally interested in the obligations that we carry in our everyday lives as family members as it is in the superhero-ing of our superheroes. The movie magnifies the challenges of parenting and the complexities of familial relationships as Bob/Mr. Incredible (Craig T. Nelson) and Helen/Elastigirl (Holly Hunter) try to raise their three children—rambunctious youngin’ Dash (Spencer Fox), mercurial teen Violet (Sarah Vowell) and infant Jack Jack—after forced retirement from hero duty.
The movie manages to present us with kids who feel stifled by their parents and parents who want their kids to take their responsibilities (i.e. superpowers) seriously but won’t trust them with those abilities to begin with. Sound familiar?
Unlike other superhero films both prior and since its release, The Incredibles doesn’t waste our time with a formulaic origin story; it plops us right into a mid-life crisis that sees Bob questioning his value in a world that doesn’t seem to need or want him any longer. That’s heady stuff for an animated kids movie, let alone an early-stage superhero flick. But The Incredibles prioritized its characters above all, and that focus shows in the multi-layered protagonists we’re given.
It’s not about the super-ness, it’s about the people.
Beyond the specific character work, Bird also managed to take a long view of superhero thematics that would stretch Elastigirl-style to the present day.
In 2009’s Watchmen, growing anti-vigilante sentiment and a nationwide police strike pressure the U.S. government into outlawing costumed crime-fighters, a fascinating idea that is used more as exposition rather than as a central plot point. In 2013’s Man of Steel and 2016’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, director Zack Snyder lays waste to major metropolitan cities and halfheartedly attempts to address the real-world post-9/11 fallout before dipping back into the same well of CGI destruction and character-stasis. In Captain America: Civil War, the government attempts to absorb the Avengers under its jurisdiction to avoid further collateral damage.
The Incredibles was the first superhero movie to really touch upon the impact superheroes would have on the real world, but it goes a step beyond that by also exploring how society’s relationship and perception of heroes changes over time. It shows us how public opinion turns against the superheroes due to the civilian cost of their crime-fighting and how mounting lawsuits leads to the government relocating heroes in a pseudo-witness protection program. As a result, Bob feels trapped by the mundanity of everyday suburban life.
Federal oversight, shifting societal attitudes, a comically dark take on the American Dream, familial dynamics; The Incredibles broke new ground for what a superhero film could represent and say about life, and the major blockbusters of today owe it a debt of gratitude.
Originality: How Fresh and New Does it Feel?
Being a superhero can feel a bit formulaic and repetitive these days. Since 2000, we’ve had (squints): 10 X-Men Universe movies, 19 MCU movies, five standalone Spider-Man (Men?) movies, five DC Extended Universe movies and a handful of one-off films and television series.
This ain’t sex or pizza, where even when it’s bad it’s good. Some of these have been really, really bad. (See: Lantern, Green. Actually, don’t see it, you’ll thank me.) There’s only so many ways to make super powers interesting and fresh cinematically.
The members of the Avengers and the Justice League are all super in their own defining ways: tortured billionaire geniuses, demi-gods who must find their place among mortals, unstoppable rage monsters afraid of losing control, isolated aliens, etc. It can all be very interesting but also a bit… much.
If the fate of the world rests on everyone’s shoulders, than shouldn’t it be easier to prop up? If everyone is a universe-challenging being, than is anyone really that unique?
But The Incredibles feel like a real family that just happens to have powers. There isn’t anything inherently super about them as people when you strip away their abilities, which is what makes them interesting and relatable. Picking up with them in retirement puts the central focus on their characters and not their character functions (saving people and being super).
Plus, Bird crafts each of their abilities to match their individual personalities.
Bob feels like he must be the spine of the world, so he gets super strength; Helen is the overworked mother who keeps everything together, so she gets super stretching power; Violet feels like an awkward teenager, so she gets invisibility; and Dash is a hyperactive young boy, so he gets super speed. The obviousness of the metaphors doesn’t make them any less potent. If anything, it makes them more tangible than the all-encompassing and somewhat antiseptic abilities of Wonder Woman, Thor or Superman.
The Incredibles also pulls a Deadpool before Deadpool (minus the decapitation, sex and cursing) by poking fun at the tried-and-true tropes of the genre, while still lovingly embracing them. The ridiculousness of superhero costumes? There’s a montage about that. The infamous villain monologue? There’s a joke about that. The “heroes don’t kill” rule? There’s a test for that. The Incredibles is basically the hipster of superhero films, coasting on its self-awareness before it was cool.
Mash all of this together in a family story and you’ve got the Fantastic Four movie we’ve all been yearning for and have never been given. Why? Because it’s incredibly difficult to pull off, which is why this movie ranks so high in the originality category.
It’s not a coincidence that The Incredibles, which was Pixar’s sixth film but the first to deal with humans, is the studio’s best. Yes, even better than the Toy Story franchise.
World Building: Would I Want to Do a Book Report on This Universe?
Superhero movies can’t just be movies these days, they need to be world-building cinematic chapters in a larger story ripe for additional content. They need to feel fully sketched out and lived in, with established mythology that viewers can mine for extra fun.
All of this can be handled subtly and effectively, such as the pitch-perfect Joker tease at the conclusion of Batman Begins, or it can be handled in the sloppiest and most haphazard way possible, like Batman v Superman‘s YouTube backdoor pilot for Justice League.
Note to Hollywood: Don’t do this.
But The Incredibles sets up its sequel—which, admittedly, has taken 14 years to arrive—with a quick and non-distracting scene that arrives at the end of the movie rather than being shoehorned right in the middle.
On top of that, The Incredibles gives us the single-best world-building scene in the history of superhero films with the hilarious “No Capes!” montage delivered by Edna Mode (who, fun fact, is voiced by Brad Bird!).
In less than three minutes, we’re given all of the information we need to know about The Incredibles universe: there used to be a multitude of heroes who were supported by government programs, and underground elements of the super-world still exist.
Villain Quality: How Good Is The Bad Guy?
To maximize your protagonists’ potential, you need a worthy antagonist who can elicit the most out of them and your movie.
Heath Ledger’s Joker is the primary reason why The Dark Knight is one of the greats. His Oscar-winning turn as the Clown Prince of Crime elevates every single scene and provides the movie with a defining attribute that is unparalleled in the genre. Michael B. Jordan’s Killmonger in Black Panther earns the audience’s understanding through his tragic backstory and understandable worldview that the fictional and technologically advanced nation of Wakanda should use its immense resources to help impoverished and oppressed peoples around the world.
After all, you’re only as good as your competition. The ball’s in their court. Other generic sports references that support my point about villains.
That’s why Syndrome is such a memorable and worthy villain in The Incredibles.
His backstory is established efficiently and effectively, and he rises far above the common bad guy motivations of being evil just for evil’s sake. What makes him particularly interesting is that he was “created” by our hero, whose arrogance and carelessness pushed him into a life of crime.
An eager young fan of Mr. Incredible’s, Syndrome (real name: Buddy) just wanted to help our hero as a sidekick when he was younger. But Mr. Incredible’s dismissive “I work alone” rejection shatters Buddy’s idealism and saps him of his optimistic vantage. This culminates in a narrative connection between the two—the hero must face his own personal flaws and the consequences of his shortcomings and behavior—that feeds directly into Syndrome’s evil plan to sell advanced military technology throughout the world.
“And when everyone’s super, no one will be,” Jason Lee threatens as Syndrome. Boom: there’s our character motivation rooted deeply in childhood and intertwined with our hero. It’s complex relationship building that far outshines the gluttony of forgettable foils we’ve seen trotted out recently.
Try to describe the following villains without commenting on their physical appearance, skills, plot relevance or relationships (this is the Mr. Plinkett character test) and only focus on their personalities: Obadiah Stane (Iron Man), Malekith (Thor: The Dark World), The Mandarin (Iron Man 3), Yellow Jacket (Ant-Man), Kaecilius (Doctor Strange), Lex Luthor and Doomsday (Batman v Superman), Ares (Wonder Woman) and Steppenwolf (Justice League).
It’s incredibly difficult to give a substantive answer because each of these villains are about as bland and lifeless as an office holiday party. If you want to be a Hall of Fame superhero movie, you need to develop a Hall of Fame supervillain.
Awesomeness: How Much Fun Is It?
At the end of the day, superhero movies should be fun. They should inspire an involuntary “wowwww” from audiences. There are a million different ways to go about that, and the awesome-factor is easily the most subjective category in the Vigilante Values, but I think we can all agree that The Incredibles brings it in this department.
Like a mini-James Bond movie, The Incredibles is stacked with exotic locations, including the delightfully cliché secret evil island lair. It’s fun to jet around the globe, even if it’s all animated.
Speaking of animation, Pixar isn’t bound by the laws of physics or the limitations of practical stunt choreography. This freedom leads to some action sequences that are even better than the CGI-heavy smash-em-ups we’ve been given in recent blockbusters (Avengers: Age of Ultron, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice). It’s become an unwritten rule that every superhero movie’s third act has to climax with either a giant spaceship crashing or a darkly-lit battle against a computer-generated bad guy. Neither is all that fun.
The final fight in The Incredibles is, well, incredible—not only because the action is used to conclude a story about character development but also because it’s just plain old fashioned fun. (Shout out to Frozone, Samuel L. Jackson’s best superhero role. Sorry, Nick Fury.)
The Incredibles also packs its runtime with equal parts heart and humor.
There are serious moments, such as when Helen cocoons her children as a missile hits their plane or when Bob admits that he’s not strong enough to lose his wife again. These moments remind us of the surprising emotional depth Bird manages to conjure while endearing us to the characters and peeling back their layers.
Add it all up and you have one of the most fun superhero blockbusters ever, which is the driving force behind the genre in the first place.
The Incredibles Is The Best Superhero Movie… Period.
There are countless good superhero movies that can hit three or four of the five Vigilante Values categories.
The MCU is chock full of amazing adventures with great world-building efforts that have forever altered the structure and scope of the genre. But you won’t find too many A1 villains among its ranks, and some of its efforts can feel formulaic and stale. On the flip side, the DCEU’s most celebrated entry, Wonder Woman, is a rollicking and optimistic good time, but with a bland third act, it doesn’t retool our idea of superhero movies.
Very rarely does a superhero film come along that is able to lay the groundwork for future movies in the genre, create an entirely original story with realistic and relatable characters, introduce us to an enticing new world we want to learn more about, develop a compelling villain and blow our minds with unbridled fun. Yet somehow, someway, The Incredibles is able to accomplish all of those Herculean tasks with each attribute complimenting the next rather than detracting from it.
That’s a pretty Incredibles feat.