When you think about it, how odd is it that fashion designer is a key figure in the superhero universe of The Incredibles?
The presence of fashion maven Edna Mode (visually based on Oscar-winning costume designer Edith Head) serves as a clue to how important design is to Brad Bird. The writer-director first demonstrated his love of 1950s modernist design elements in The Iron Giant (1999) and took it to the next level in The Incredibles (2004), the story of a superhero family obliged to live as mere mortals in a world where the act of exercising superpowers is illegal. (That notion especially rankled Edna, as you’ll recall, given her fashion specialty of designing clothes to withstand all the abuse meted out against supers.)
Taking place immediately after the events of the first movie, Part 2 sees the Parr family brought low — losing their house and possessions — in the aftermath of their battle with Syndrome. Patriarch Bob/Mr. Incredible (Craig T. Nelson) and wife Helen/Elastigirl (Holly Hunter) find themselves ensconced in a bleak motel with rebellious teen daughter Violet (Sarah Vowell), son Dash (Huck Milner) and baby Jack-Jack. Bob is coming to terms with the fact he’s going to have to get a straight job again.
Lucky break: the family is rescued by tech industrialist Winston Deavor (Bob Odenkirk), who inherited his love of all things super from his late father, who was a tragic fatality after supers were outlawed. His sister Evelyn (Catherine Keener) is the true tech wizard in the family, but proves willing to come up with toys that will make the supers even more super. The Deavors intend to make supers legal again, using a media campaign to give the public a look at how supers pull off their derring-do, utilizing body cameras.
Alas, TV screens become the weapon of choice for a new villain, calling himself "Screen Slaver," a megalomaniac who can turn anyone into a hypnotized drone by hacking into TV screens.
To Mr. Incredible’s barely suppressed chagrin, it is Elastigirl who is chosen to represent superhumans, relegating Bob to the task of caring for the three kids, a task made immeasurably more difficult by the fact Jack-Jack is starting to display an array of superpowers of his own, including inter-dimensional travel and the ability to change into a flaming demon-baby.
The movie could coast on that satiric storyline about changing family dynamics. But Bird goes a little darker, making Screen Slaver a mouthpiece for a viewpoint that says reliance on supers makes the masses even more lazy and irresponsible than they would be without supers. (It’s always a little discomfiting when you realize the supervillain has a point, in this case about the downside of escapist fantasy.)
The Incredibles 2
Directed by Brad Bird
● Grant Park, Kildonan Place, McGillivray, Polo Park, St. Vital, Towne.
★★★ out of five
As in the first movie, the movie boasts some great action set pieces, including a thrilling sequence in which Elastigirl must stop a runaway train. The action gets decidedly tense in another sequence in which Elastigirl tracks Screen Slaver to an apartment building where there ensues a claustrophobic battle in an enclosed space.
But much of the charm of the original is diminished here. It may have to do with the fact the culture is saturated with superhero action more than ever before. But it may also be that Bird’s attempt to address bigger themes feels more obligatory than heartfelt.
Ultimately, in superhero lingo, action trumps substance and form beats the hell out of content.
Edna Mode would be pleased. For the rest of us, maybe not so much.
In a way, Randall King was born into the entertainment beat.