Tuesday, November 16, 2004

Cages or wings, which do you prefer?

Having finally finished my last paper for the term this morning (due at 5:30 today; let no one say I don't enjoy the paranoid exhilaration of meeting a deadline by only a matter of hours), I decided to go see The Incredibles. I'd read what some people saw in it from both a positive and negative perspective, but didn't really believe it could be so joyously uplifting in its philosophy, especially considering director Brad Bird's first film, The Iron Giant. Both films are basically about overwhelming power and the accompanying responsibility for it, but they make radically different arguments. "I am not a gun" is what the amnesiac Iron Giant declares when he realizes that he was, in fact, built as a weapon. He doesn't want to be a weapon. He just wants to be Hogarth's friend. That on his descent from space he passes the just-launched Sputnik is no coincidence; the entire film is an extended condemnation of the American nuclear doctrine throughout the Cold War, with the Iron Giant himself in the role of any ten ICBMs you'd care to name. If only, it seems to imply, we'd never made any threatening gestures towards the USSR, both countries could have lived in peace and harmony; absolute power only makes enemies out of potential friends. Conversely, Mr. Incredible is a gun, and he knows it. More importantly, he knows what direction that gun should be pointing: At them. At the enemies of civilization, of justice, of day-to-day society; at the supervillain just as much as the mugger. He doesn't want to abdicate the responsibility of that awesome power, because it pains him to see anyone be hurt when he could have made a difference. In the case of The Incredibles, the problem isn't a world gone mad (or MAD, as it were), but a world gone soft; superheroes just create difficulties for the government and the courts. Doing good and fighting for right isn't safe, and - more revealingly, as Wallace Shawn's insurance adjuster character kvetches at Mr. Incredible's long-suffering secret identity - it isn't profitable. Who cares about a gathering storm of evil in the world, when there's a healthy economy and a charming rogue in the White House? Another theme that runs through the film is "If everybody is super, then nobody is;" if we're willing to pretend that every person has exactly the same abilities, and can achieve exactly the same acts of heroism, we're just fooling ourselves. Not everyone is equal; for that matter, not everyone is even decent. I'd extend that to an indictment of international diplomacy, too; what does it say about UN bureaucracy that tinpot dictatorships are assumed, in that eminently corrupt body, to have the exact same credibility and innocence in their motives as the great democratic powers? Fanboy-gone-mad supervillain Syndrome is similarly eager to market his high-tech inventions in order to wipe out the advantage the good and heroic have over ordinary people; leveling the playing field between the super and non-super on an everyday level - enforcing the pure and depressing equality of mediocrity - is no less part of his motivation than doing the same on an international level, selling his robotic WMDs to whoever can pay for them. This is the appalling philosophy of far too many around the world, policy wonks and elitist literati alike. It assumes there's nothing to be gained in doing good; improving the world is too hard, and besides, it's bound to enrage some regional "street" or another. So, yes: insofar as valuing strength for the sake of doing right, in praising merit and conscience rather than enforcing a false consciousness of amoral egalitarianism, in realizing that some people actually are evil, and the only thing to do is not give them a chance to hurt you, it's fair to say The Incredibles is right-wing. But what of it? It used to be that these values weren't found near-exclusively on the right. These used to be things that the civilized world more or less agreed on. I don't know what kind of personal journey Brad Bird has made between the mid-90s and now, but I have my suspicions. When did he get mugged by reality? Was it as late as when most of the rest of us did? On some minor notes, Syndrome's death seemed remarkably gruesome for a Disney (co-) production; being shredded by a jet turbine, even if it happens offscreen, is still a cut above being eaten by hyenas or falling off a cliff. (To say nothing of the one similar episode of just deserts in Pixar's production history, of being eaten by a bird.) I also particularly enjoyed the aforementioned Wallace Shawn character being put in traction for his churlish, petty mediocrity, in light of the actor-playwright's previous comments in the same vein. Ditto Edna Mode, fashion designer to the superhero world; she's a delightfully nutty mix of Edith Head and Truman Capote. In sum, I'm impressed. It's the rare work of feature animation nowadays that's so thoroughly engaging both visually and mentally.

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