Wednesday, August 22, 2007

"When everyone is super, no one will be."

I've just read a convincing argument that The Incredibles is conservative claptrap.

I mean... I love the movie, it was funny, it had great characters, great action, but the basic message here is that some people are just born better and that anyone else trying to be as good as them is wrong; and that in trying to level the playing field and give everyone a sporting chance (affirmative action, feminism, prepackaged super-powers), we're preventing special people from living up to their potential and enforcing mediocrity on everyone. "They keep on finding new ways to celebrate mediocrity." "When everyone is super, no one will be."

Now, the film was set in the early 1960s, when people were deathly afraid of communism turning everyone into identical drones and that the liberals were in cahoots. And of course the creators of the film have every right to express their beliefs however they see fit. But it's just... jarring to come to that realization.

13 comments:

Tom Foss said...

I think it's more of an anti-conformity, pro-diversity message, which would be far from conservative. It's saying that you should let people be who they are; trying to force people into a role doesn't have good consequences for anyone, whether it's the government forcing the Parrs to live as civilians or Mr. Incredible forcing the kid to give up crimefighting. When you deny people the ability to express their identities, eventually something's going to break--your power over those people, or the people themselves.

While I can see the quasi-Objectivist interpretation, I can also see the side that would be in support of gay and transgendered rights. It's about freedom of choice, freedom of expression. You might argue that there's a libertarian bent to it (pro-vigilantism, anti-litigiousness, anti-bureaucracy), but there's a populist side to it too (the heroes are middle-class suburbanites, Mr. Incredible trains in stereotypically blue-collar locales, the villain is independently wealthy, etc.).

Will Staples said...

I see your point. I freely admit I have the tendency to shoot off my mouth without thinking everything through (just ask DJ Black Adam). When I think about it, your interpretation seems just as valid.

My train of thought was mainly that it reminded me strongly of a quote from comics writer and avowed conservative Carl Barks (The Life and Times of Scrooge McDuck -- heh, what else?): "...I believe that we should preserve many old ideals and methods of working: honor, honesty, allowing other people to believe in their own ideas, not trying to force everyone into one form. The thing I have against the present political system is that it tries to make everybody exactly alike. We should have a million different patterns." Which strikes me as the same rhetoric conservatives use against race-based social programs, that if we just shut up and pretend that America really is "color-blind" and that there's no racial discrimination in our country, then said discrimination will go away. But again, you're right, there's more to the movie than that.

Still, one thing that continues to bother me is that all "supers" in the film are born with their powers rather than having gained them by accident or made them, and that Syndrome is at fault for trying to join their club. I can easily see an alternate take on the basic story in which the supers are using their "special" status to keep normal people down, whereupon Syndrome heroically endeavors to level the playing field by giving powers to ordinary people. In fact I think I probably have read that story, only substitute "Syndrome" with "Lex Luthor"...

Ami Angelwings said...

Before Marvel and the Silver Age, heroes had powers and villains did not, kinda portraying villains like ppl who didn't deserve powers, or jealousy want them. >.>

リチャード said...

I'm inclined to say that the movie's a strong rant against the Lowest Common Denominator and a tendency to ignore talent in favor of "self-esteem building." You're free to argue with Pixar over how real these trends are. We *do* live in a culture with ridiculous grade inflation and restrictions on the vocabulary you're supposed to use in children's books (for fear that they might run into a word they don't know and feel bad about it, apparently, ignoring the fact that that's a great way to learn new words).

This is the absurdity: Dash could be competing (say, against race cars?) but instead is is not allowed to run at all because he'd win. All of the Incredibles could be saving lives, but they're not allowed because it would make them a target for litigation. Mr. Incredible could be, you know, bodyguarding the President or something, but is forced to spend his days pretending to withhold insurance payments.

In this light, Syndrome's sin (sorry) isn't "trying to join the club." He's trying to burn down the clubhouse, and not for any noble reason like "leveling the playing field" -- it's all a snit that started because one person told him one time that he couldn't come in. The problem is that in response to a single setback (an angry reaction from Mr. Incredible) following an error on his own part (letting a bomb get attached to his cape after jumping into a situation he didn't have the experience to handle) he decided that somehow the appropriate reaction would be to hunt down and destroy everybody with superpowers! There may be nothing wrong with wearing rocket-boots and wanting to be super. There IS something wrong with wearing rocket boots and killing everyone who can fly on their own.

That said, if the metaphor is for the oppression of ability, then his sin was the rocket boots -- not because only supers are good enough to be special, but because he was trying to tack himself on to Mr. Incredible instead of trying to be himself. There's a long history of tech heroes (Badass Normals, if you will? Like Batman?). But both super heroes and tech heroes are heroes first; they want to help people and the rest is just a tool to do that. "Buddy" doesn't want to help people; he wants a piece of the fame he sees the supers getting.

Let's make a basketball analogy. Buddy sees Michael Jordon getting paid millions for being good at a sport. He's not tall or agile, though, so he takes performance-enhancing drugs. When he gets kicked off of his team, instead of training to his strengths (or shifting to, say, curling), he decides to murder the entire NBA and patent his personal steroid cocktail (but mind you, that's only to be distributed after he's done being the sole beneficiary of its glory. Did you forget that Syndrome wasn't going to give rocket boots to the public at large until his own retirement?).

You can look at it two ways: from the Average Joe (or the Below-Average Joe)'s point of view, The Incredibles is a shaky defense of snobby elitism. From the point of view of anyone above average at anything, it's a slightly incoherent plea to be allowed to be good at stuff. (Guess which site I stand on.) I'm reminded of the crabs in the bucket -- any crab that looks like it might climb to freedom is pulled down by the others.

Note: the people at Pixar seem intelligent and creative, and I wouldn't be surprised if a lot of personal frustration went into the movie. It's not a story about how the sheep should 'learn their place'; it's a story about how sheep dogs should be allowed to protect the flock instead of being tied up and dragged around by the sheep. If you disagree, then aren't you arguing that idiots have as much right to practice brain surgery as geniuses do?

Will "Filby" Staples said...

All I can do is thank you for your exceedingly well-thought-out comment and say how much I regret this post as ill-conceived and reactionary.

I'm assuming you came here from TV Tropes Wiki, and, well, there's a reason I set up a link from there: For the well-deserved public ridicule.

Are you a regular troper, by the way? I'm afraid I can't read katakana (or is that hiragana?) so I can't decipher your handle.

Anonymous said...

This comment is mostly unrelated to the topic at hand (though this discussion did make for a good read), but the katakana reads "Richard."

calieber said...

Late to the party, but I wanted to reply to the brain surgery thing: I think it would be great if we could democratize brain surgery. I don't think less able people and more able people should have the same access, but someone trying to make everyone able isn't evil; I disagree with Bird st al that this is the same as reining in the more able.

(Also here from TVTropes)

Anonymous said...

"While I can see the quasi-Objectivist interpretation, I can also see the side that would be in support of gay and transgendered rights."

Objectivists support gay and transgendered rights.

Will Staples said...

Some do, but not all. Ayn Rand herself was outspokenly homophobic, for instance.

Sun Stealer said...

If I'm remembering correctly, Rand believed homosexuality to be unnatural. However, there is a bit of a difference between finding someone's preferences distasteful and wanting to sic the government on them

Anonymous said...

"I think it's more of an anti-conformity, pro-diversity message, which would be far from conservative."

No it wouldn't.

Anonymous said...

But surely, it could also be critisism on conservative America's idea that each citizen should be armed with a firearm.

Anonymous said...

リチャード, while I do appreciate your very well thought out and written commentary, the last sentence left a very bitter taste in my mouth. The way you describe people that don't excel in anything in paticular, who are diverse, complex beings who are capable of so much, as sheep. I personally appreciate your commentary, but describing anyone who doesn't excel in something as a SHEEP is honestly one of the most horrible insults I have ever heard.