Of The Incredibles and Ayn Rand

Posted on: May 30, 2015

You may have noticed over the years that I am not a person who likes a lot of things. I have definitely noticed over the years that people often do not take kindly to my disliking something that they do enjoy. In an attempt to lessen any potential ire of these sensitive people, I have over the years developed a two-pronged approach to disliking things:

  1. Rather than implying that any particular thing is of poor quality, I instead frame my dislike in terms of my own reaction; i.e. “I didn’t like that,” instead of “That was TERRIBLE;”
  2. If the thing in question seems to be particularly beloved despite my own negative reaction to its unimpeachable quality, I just don’t bring it up.

Prong number two is why I never mentioned that I kind of hate The Incredibles.

I should clarify – I don’t hate The Incredibles. It’s fun movie, it presented a fresh take on both animation and the superhero genre that made both a little more grown up, and it brought attention to the very real dangers a cape poses to crime-fighters, attention that was, unlike the chapter in my 10th grade health textbook on the hazards of platform shoes, intentionally funny.

So I enjoyed The Incredibles. I applauded along with the rest of the theater when it ended, and I even voluntarily watched it a second time at a friend’s house, deliberately selecting it over other available dvds. And both times, though, while enjoying it, there were little things, minor, certainly, but constantly niggling at the back of my head that there was something, maybe, just a touch anti-intellectual about the film. Nothing to get all het up about, for sure, but still – something wasn’t entirely right with me.

And then I read this review of Tomorrowland, that mentions that Brad Bird, behind both T-land and The Incredibles, is a devotee of Ayn Rand, and suddenly I understood that, at least in this case, the problem isn’t actually me.

My understanding of the Randian philosophy is by no means thorough, as far as I can tell it’s basically the same philosophy of a frustrated high school mean girl who doesn’t understand why she’s not more popular since she’s clearly so much smarter, prettier, and just plain better than everyone else. And even though I’m sure I’m missing some of the nuances I can absolutely see how that would appeal to a certain segment of the population who constantly find themselves thwarted by their own inability to succeed entirely on their own merit or to motivate others to act on their clearly superior behalf.

In The Incredibles this comes across less high school than juvenile, as young Dash laments that everyone being special means that no one is. It’s smart of the movie to give this line to the youngest character capable of speech, since it is exactly the kind of thing you might hear from a four year-old who hates the new baby because now he won’t be the center of attention anymore.

But The Incredibles doesn’t dismiss this as the baseless and bratty whining it is; instead, it doubles down by having Syndrome, the bad guy, reveal that this is exactly his dastardly plan – to make everyday fools just as powerful as the Supers, to make everyone special so that no one will be.

I don’t want to dwell on the fact that this, in addition to being kind of a weird message for a children’s movie, is utter horseshit, both because you already know that and because I have another point to make. But I do think we should take a moment to acknowledge that this is utter horseshit. Because it is. Talent and ability are not zero-sum games; if I were a funny, talented writer, that wouldn’t preclude anyone else from being either funny or talented or both. And I’m sure that most people accepted this as merely a critique of the everybody-gets-a-trophy culture of the mid-aughts, I find the implication that some people are inherently less than other people offensive, in order, as a Jewish person, as a woman, and, somewhat surprisingly, as a vegetarian.

But what really troubles me about this message is that Syndrome – and, let me just say how irritating it is that none of these characters have actual names, although I’m sure it’s part of a deeper commentary on identity; but anyway: Syndrome’s ability to create these gadgets that will give everyone powers should actually be pretty impressive. It demonstrates innovative thinking, impressive skill, and probably years of dedicated study. Sure, he’s turned these talents toward the dark side, a phrase the movie really should have coined, but the real dastardly part of his plan is not that he’s willing to actually murder people (who, sure, are cartoons) in order to make himself appear the hero, but that he’s going to share his amazing gizmos with the world, that his technology will benefit others.

And I should admit that I probably know only slightly more about comic books and superheroes than I do about Ayn Rand; I watched Amazing Spiderman and the Superfriends or Justice League or some other cartoon as a kid with my brother, who was a big fan of comics, but back in the ’80s when it really wasn’t cool; and I’ve seen some of the movie adaptations of this millennia, although I tapped out when they started to be overrun by bombast because, for real: they’re grown-ups in costumes! Let’s not take ourselves too seriously.

So, what I know about comics is they have very much a love-hate relationship with technology: Batman has the Batcave and Batmobile and a Batbelt filled with Batgadgets to help him defeat his similarly geared-up foes; and, whereas technology saved Tony Stark’s life and made him Iron Man, it also lead to whatever The Dude and Mickey Rourke’s characters wanted in the first two movies. Even the Hulk, who’s is literally turned into a monster by exposure to gamma rays (maybe that was Godzilla?) still manages to find a way to use his enhanced strength to help people. The technology itself is neutral; it’s the application of that technology that makes it good or evil. But there’s really no good technology in The Incredibles: the supers have their powers, and the bad guys have gadgets. In the world of The Incredibles, Iron Man would be a villain, and Buzz Lightyear would never have gotten to fly because he’s just a toy.

Finally, let’s consider that the little boy who becomes Syndrome becomes Syndrome because, it is heavily implied, he is repeatedly blown-off by Mr. Incredible. I can’t find a clip to link to, so maybe I’m not remembering 100% correctly, but as I recall, Mr. Incredible is not, as you might expect of a hero, concerned for the safety of the young child who is in a dangerous situation and only wants to help; instead, he is exasperated by the nuisance posed by this little pretender, emphasis on little because, again, he is just a child. Sure, Future Syndrome should have had access to some other positive reinforcement that being rejected by his hero wouldn’t necessarily lead to a life of utter villainy. And sure, again, this was primarily viewed as a reaction against the coddling of young children, which can only lead to confidence for those with ridiculous dreams, which we, as a society, must stand firm against. And sure, Mr. Incredible was in kind of a hurry to get to his own wedding. But you know what? If the entire world calls you Mr. Incredible, and they’re not being ironic, you don’t get to be a dick to children.

Also? It probably has nothing to do with the influence of Ayn Rand, but Jack-Jack’s power doesn’t make any sense.


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