Super, Ordinary

These heroes may be Incredibles, but they're also normal

Nov 3, 2004 at 4:00 am
Since its initial publication in 1986, myriad filmmakers have attempted in vain to film Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons' comic book Watchmen, in which costumed superheroes have been outlawed and are being summarily exiled and executed by an unknown baddie. At the moment Darren Aronofsky (Pi) is set to direct a screenplay by X-Men scribe David Hayter for release next year, but no one has yet been cast; doubtful it will arrive on time, or at all. But perhaps there is no need for a Watchmen movie at this late date -- not when Pixar, of all places, now offers its own Technicolor take on the bleak superhero tale: The Incredibles, the darkest feel-good fable thus far spun by the makers of toy stories and fish tales aimed at kiddies who play with dolls and the parents who buy them.

The Incredibles, written and directed by Brad Bird (The Iron Giant, a masterpiece without the box-office to show for it), is a hybrid of several sources: James Bond movies, the angst-ridden pop-camp comics of 1960s Marvel (especially The Fantastic Four, a forthcoming movie now also rendered moot), the Spy Kids movies and Saturday-morning cartoons starring superfriends and other costumed hangers-on. But its main influence would appear to be Watchmen, among the first comics to wonder about the private, and often troubled, lives of heroes once they shed their Spandex skins and resume their secret identities. They rendered the myths almost mortal -- flawed, troubled humans who became heroes not because they were noble or generous but merely because they liked to flex their muscles. (Or they were megalomaniacs. Or just plain nuts.) Still, they talked like us, bled like us and loved like us, and you could almost imagine these heroes as next-door neighbors going off to their day jobs, which often involved saving the world from Armageddon.

In The Incredibles, that's precisely what they are: Bob Parr (voiced by Craig T. Nelson) is little more than an insurance salesman helping poor clients leap through loopholes in their restrictive contracts; you're in really good -- and really strong -- hands with this guy. Bob used to be known as the invincible Mr. Incredible -- until the government outlawed superheroes when the public turned on them, damning them as nuisances. Bob and his wife Helen, once known as Elastigirl (and voiced by Holly Hunter), have gone into the superhero relocation program, along with their speedster son Dash (Spencer Fox) and disappearing daughter Violet (NPR commentator Sarah Vowell). Among the other banished heroes is Lucius Best, a.k.a. Frozone (Samuel L. Jackson), the coolest of all heroes, with the ability to freeze anything so long as there's moisture in the air.

Bob, his hair receding and his gut expanding, is itching to get back in the hero biz; he'd rather punch villains than clocks. He and Lucius have even taken to surreptitiously listening to a police scanner, in search of late-night adventures denied them. This doesn't sit well with Helen, who's stretched thin, as it were, trying to pretend hers is a normal family. "Reliving the glory days is better than pretending they didn't happen at all," Bob shouts at Helen after one of their myriad arguments. When there are no bad guys left to fight, Bob and Helen do battle with each other, and it's to Bird's estimable credit that in his second animated feature he doesn't reduce the Parrs to cartoon characters. Their disappointments are familiar; so, too, are their longings to be seen as something more special than suburban statistics.

Bob, whose home office is decorated from floor to ceiling with remnants and reminders of his crime-fighting days, is rescued from his funk by an invitation to once again don the super-suit to destroy a rampaging robot. He's born again with the chance to use his powers -- so much so that Helen starts to believe Bob's having an affair, given his newfound smile and penchant for disappearing at odd hours. But as it turns out, Bob is being set up by a new villain who was once an old acolyte: a creep named Syndrome (Jason Lee), who once idolized Mr. Incredible but was sent packing by the hero, who claimed he preferred to work alone. Syndrome has been killing off heroes, working his way toward Mr. Incredible to settle an old score; even better if he gets the chance to off Bob's super-family, too.

This is all grim, grownup stuff, but Bird keeps it from sinking in the depressing muck. He prefers the sweet to the sour, as evidenced in The Iron Giant, about a lonely little boy finding a father figure in a kindly 100-foot-tall robot from outer space. Bob easily fits in the Pixar pantheon of would-be daddies trying to find the time for family; he's Sulley from Monsters Inc. or Marlin from Finding Nemo, one more lovable lunk looking out for his children in a terrifying world. Yes, yes -- The Incredibles is beautiful to look at, but it's even more lovely beneath the computer-generated surfaces. Bird's is just a different kind of fairy tale, one with its roots in the modern-day comic book, in which the invincible can be hurt and the super are just ordinary after all.