The Incredibles Save… Themselves!

Ayn Rand made a pretty good living and quite a reputation convincing people to resent how the “common” masses resent the “special” few and then strive to cut those special people down to common size. Rand believed that special people deserve to remain special, while the common people should simply accept their own mediocrity, especially since they rely so much on the what the special people can do. Her upholding of the special almost invariably took the form of extreme individualism — for who will champion the rare special person in the face of the commoners if not him- or herself?

Since the film The Incredibles was released in late 2004, many have suggested that it is an expression of Rand’s thinking. But I believe that Brad Bird, the film’s Oscar-winning writer-director, doesn’t agree with Rand’s characterization of either the “special” people or the “common” ones, or with her heroic individualism. Neither, however, does he have in mind a simple opposition to Rand. Instead, as it so often does, the truth lies somewhere in between. The Incredibles do hold great stock in who they are as individuals, and they are happy to save the common people, but they are happiest when they save each other.

The “normal” people in The Incredibles did stop the superheroes from being who they are, just as the masses in Rand’s novels often try to do. But in this film, it was only a result of truly negative side effects of how those superheroes were going about their business — they did not hate the special people for their specialness. The normal people relied on the superheroes as Rand’s commoners rely on her fictional heroes, but the world didn’t fall apart once the heroics were stopped — the special people were not the foundation of the normal people’s lives.

More importantly, the superheroes in The Incredibles wanted to exercise their powers not because they were out to make themselves special in comparison to the mass of normal people as Rand might suggest or because they had a purely altruistic urge to help others as an anti-Randian might suggest, but for the sheer joy of doing it and having someone to share it with. This is key to understanding why the world has come to be the way it is and who humans really are — and what The Incredibles is really about.

To look at the world and see only a few special people and to accept that sight at face value ignores a systems-based understanding of how human societies have evolved and why so many people are dissatisfied with the status quo. The explanations are far beyond the scope of an analysis of a movie, but the facts remain: Most human societies through evolutionary time thrived because they were structured so that each member was recognized as unique and valued as a meaningful contributor to the whole. And humans, biologically and psychologically, are designed to function well — to experience joy — under precisely those circumstances. Through flukes of cultural evolution, however, most human societies now are structured so as to deny uniqueness and genuine value to all but a few — and the pervasiveness of this condition makes most people believe that it is the rule rather than the grand exception that it actually is. Most people simply have no idea that there was another way and that this other way is still present in some quarters and viable in all.

All it takes is a recognition of the importance of discovering and cultivating what each individual is best at in order for people to come together on smaller scales to creates structures which work with rather than against who we are as human beings. Those who do are rewarded with mutually supporting relationships in which each individual plays to his or her own strengths, whatever they may be, and helps the rest do so as well. This allows all to experience security, joy and purpose. And this allows each individual to be special — truly unique, important and valuable to those who matter most. Our individual worth comes simultaneously and interactively from within and, in the best way, from without. The main story/character arc of the The Incredibles is how Mr. Incredible and Elastigirl come to learn all of this.

At first, Mr. Incredible himself makes the same mistake that Rand does, wishing that Buddy Pine will shut down his exuberance and leave the superheroics to the superheroes, the specialness to the special. He wishes that the common person would stay common — a notion he can maintain only by ignoring the fact that Buddy is, in fact, special, a person of genuine talent. What then happens is the same thing that happens to every child whose youthful enthusiasm in something is quashed by the strictures of an adult world that needs them to conform — Buddy becomes resentful at having been denied the opportunity to play to his talents and passions. Had he received encouragement from Mr. Incredible instead of a brush-off, his talent for technology might have been put toward something positive. Instead, Buddy grows up just as so many do — resentful that only a few get an opportunity to express their true selves, and lacking the ability, or at least the inclination, to put their efforts toward anything worthwhile.

Rand would see Syndrome, Buddy’s alter ego, as particularly villainous, and there is little to quibble about with her on this count. He seeks to kill all the most special people, and then to give the common masses a false sense of specialness by selling them gadgets that will allow them to act like superheroes. But the worst of it — and Rand would surely agree — is that the success of those very gadgets relies on Syndrome’s/Buddy’s own specialness, his talent for technology. The killing of the special few and the falsifying of specialness for the rest both flow not from anything common but from from the perversion of specialness in himself.

Using their powers to rid the world of Syndrome, however, doesn’t mean that the Incredibles intend to restore inequality to the world, with superheroes at the top of the heap. Far from it. Syndrome may be a Rand-like villain, but the superheroes in The Incredibles are most definitely not purely Rand-like heroes. The first clue is that there is no real talk about an inequality problem. Again, the normal people did not resent the superheroes’ abilities, only the damage that was caused by careless use of those abilities, and things stayed basically fine after the use of superpowers was prohibited. Rand’s heroes are ever reluctant to share their talents with common people who don’t seem to truly appreciate them, while Brad Bird’s superheroes are simply aching to use their powers, regardless of what others think. Further, we see superheroes struggling through lifeless jobs and mundane housework in the name of security and conformity but at the expense of being true to oneself and having fulfillment in life — and then we seem them giddy at the opportunity to do what they love instead. The issue here isn’t whether a Rand-like hero would feel the same thing — it’s whether a common person would. And when a “common” member of the film’s audience sees these things, it’s not likely that they’d react with confusion, clueless about how superheroes must feel in such a situation. Far more likely, they’ll identify perfectly with the superheroes’ malaise — and with their subsequent happiness.

The Incredible children are perhaps even better evidence of how the joy of doing what you’re best at is central to understanding the film. Dash uses his speed to mess with his teacher for much the same reason that Syndrome himself is pushed to a life of villainy — because he is frustrated at being generally denied the opportunity to use his talents in ways that are meaningful to him. He’s thrilled to be part of saving the world from Syndrome, sure, but it’s really all about being who he is and not being a hero in particular — which is why even a paltry grade school foot race is still a thrill for Dash even after defeating Syndrome.

At the end of the film, no longer a shrinking Violet, the Incredible daughter brims with self-esteem she never before had. High school socializing is suddenly anything but the chore it was for her and so many teens. Her invisibility now encouraged in positive ways, she no longer disappears in order hide herself. Instead, becoming invisible is how she reveals her true self.

Jack Jack, far too young to even have concepts of selfishness or selflessness, is perhaps the best example, despite having the least screen time. He doesn’t use his powers because he wants to help others or because he wants to be special. He does it just as any baby would do anything that comes naturally. His diversity of powers seems curious compared to the other superheroes who have only a single power each, but it is suggestive. Unlike the others, Jack Jack will have the opportunity to grow up accepted for who he is right from start. It’s only reasonable that he should subsequently be able to do that much more. Alternatively, perhaps he will choose for himself which of his powers is most joyful, letting the other abilities wither as he puts that much more effort into cultivating the one, just as all of us do in focusing our strengths and passions as we develop.

Throw in the rekindled romance between parents Bob/Mr. Incredible and Helen/Elastigirl and the new bonds among parents and children as a result of them having come together as The Incredibles, and the picture is complete. Before, the parents denied who they were and were miserable, and they forced their kids to deny who they were and made their kids miserable. Now, they’ve learned to appreciate their own uniqueness and the uniqueness of every other family member. All can now encourage each other to be who they really are. The result is a tight-knit community. The superheroics are incidental. They contribute far more to each other than they do to the masses, and they appreciate each other far more than the masses could appreciate them. They are now a role model for every small group of mutually reliant people, family or otherwise.

Even the fact that The Incredibles continue to fight villains at the end of the film doesn’t mean that their role as saviors of the common masses is paramount. They are too much improved personally for this to be so. It is simply the case that saving people from villains who might crop up is an excellent way for them to use their talents. Let the masses learn the importance of coming together in a group to support each other in discovering and exercising their strengths, and more and more people would become special, and there’d be fewer and fewer forces driving anyone to become a villain — and The Incredibles would be very unlikely to complain. Let Dash run his race, he’s happy. Any superhero could find many other productive ways to use his or her powers. The key is the use, in itself; the being and the doing, the feeling within, not the external results.

Clues to all of this are hidden right in the characters names. The Incredibles’ superhero friend Frozone is Lucius Best — a superhero is not the person who is best compared to others but the person who is at his or her best. How do we know this? Because the Incredibles are the Parrs. Not the above pars or the below pars, just the Parrs. Honoring who you truly are and doing your best to act on it is simply what it is to be at par as a human being — it is the normal, healthy state. Indeed, Buddy’s last name exemplifies the fact that something is missing for him. He pines to be appreciated for who he is, and he becomes a sociopath only because he is denied the opportunity. Then, his villainous plan is designed precisely to ensure that others will seek fulfillment through the purchasing of gadgets, through external things which can never provide the fulfillment of honoring who they really are inside. He will make all those people endlessly pine, just as he was made to.

In the end, it’s not that Rand is irrelevant to understanding The Incredibles. Rather, like nearly everything across the spectrum of mainstream, linear ways of thinking, Rand is only partially relevant because she doesn’t have the whole picture. Rand is insightful to focus on the importance of honoring talent and specialness, but she misunderstands evolution and so is content to propound an essentially Social Darwinist attitude, supporting the status quo by imagining that “what is” is “what ought to be” — that since only the few appear to be special, then only a few deserve to be thought of as special. This is the naturalistic fallacy, a notion which, like Social Darwinism itself, was disproved long ago.

Rather, a systems-based understanding of what has evolved to work well for people tells us that people live most happily in small social structures in which they come together to support each other in complementary ways and by honoring who each other truly is. Evolution shows us how it is possible for all individuals to be special — not through the phony notion that everyone is special for no good reason, an idea that Dash explicitly derides as actually meaning that nobody is special. Instead, it is done through honoring and cultivating the unique strengths of each individual, through living in such a way that each individual truly has an opportunity to express his or her talents and have that expression be genuinely valued by others. The Incredibles learn this with and from each other — and we are meant to learn it from them.

3 comments for “The Incredibles Save… Themselves!

  1. April 4, 2005 at 4:58 pm

    This is brilliant! Sophie is damn lucky to have a dad that understands this. I wish I had had more people in my life who understood the concepts you mention here. It almost brought tears to my eyes reading it. I didn’t expect to be hit emotionally when I set out to read it. This is a tour de force.

  2. October 3, 2007 at 4:21 am

    A fantastic analysis, Mark. You’ve expounded the functionality of tribalism without once using the word tribe. Invoking Rand is not a complete explanation and your insights add much more understanding. Thoroughly enjoyable.

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