Tracking the transformation of what it means to be a man in everyone’s favorite Pixar movie.
Despite its title suggesting otherwise, The Incredibles is less about the titular family than it is about its patriarch and his inner gender-themed conflict. This is something the movie’s director, Brad Bird, has been open about: the story is loosely inspired by his own experience with the competing demands entailed by being a director, husband, and father. Mr. Incredible’s (Craig T. Nelson) struggles are heightened, though: he’s a superhero as well as family man, so the stakes are higher. The pressure is, too, although, as I’d like to argue, most of this is self-imposed. Mr. Incredible’s problems are harder and more numerous than they need to be because he suffers from a fantasy-reality disconnect that revolves around his (mis)understanding of what it is to be a man.
The opening scenes of the film set up Mr. Incredible in usual superhero fashion: he’s superhumanly strong, incredibly brave, über-capable and the natural savior of the city. As he likes to remind people, too, he doesn’t need anyone else’s help; what sort of a superhero does?
All of the above qualities make him the product and perpetuator of a certain type of masculinity; one that champions physical prowess, natural fearlessness, and self-isolation borne out of a sense of responsibility for everyone else. (This is not to say that these qualities are inherently male, just that, in this grouping at least, they have historically been understood as ostensibly representing masculinity.)
It’s clear that Mr. Incredible views himself in these terms, albeit unconsciously. There are other superheroes around the city, but for some reason, he views the protection of the metropolis and its little people as, ultimately, his responsibility. So much so, in fact, those huge personal milestones – such as his impending wedding to Elastigirl (Holly Hunter) – play second fiddle in his instinctive hierarchy of commitments, which prioritizes the performance of his hyper-masculine superhero duties above all else.
In the beginning of the movie, we understand Mr. Incredible in these “alpha male” terms because that’s how he does. But when the film jumps fifteen years later, we’re introduced to what could be an entirely different man. The first thing that marks a profound change in Mr Incredible’s sense of self is his name: from the superlative epithet of his shining superhero title, he becomes, simply, an unremarkable “Bob”.
Spurned by a public who’d rather not be saved, thank you very much, Bob, Helen (née Elastigirl) and their offspring have been relocated to the drab suburbs, where Helen keeps the house and Bob brings home the bread. Earlier, in the film’s very first scene, we see him wonder aloud whether he might prefer “the simple life” – in which he could “relax a little and raise a family” – over the 24-hour slog of being a superhero. When we see him in his new life of anonymity, though, it becomes abundantly clear that, despite having the perfect opportunity to fulfill this earlier-expressed desire, Bob is not happy.
His mind-numbing administrative job at a company as blandly evil as they come – an insurance corporation – is antithetical to Bob’s idea of himself, which remains the same as it was fifteen years earlier. That is to say, Bob’s anonymity – which ought to lend itself to domestic bliss – only makes him feel emasculated. This is not necessarily down to the fact that administrative work has long been characterized as a type of “feminine” labor (in comparison to the masculine endeavor of manual work); there are other reasons, too. At Insuricare, Bob is protecting no one, aside from the profit sheet. He’s no longer his own boss, either; here, he’s subordinate to his diminutive, squeaky-voiced superior Mr. Huph (Wallace Shawn), who is constantly breathing down his neck. And in the office block, any expression of Bob’s individuality – the defining principle of his superhero work – is blotted out, replaced by a colorless uniform, dull customer service scripts and monotonous rows of identical work cubicles.
Nowhere is the contradiction between Bob’s self-image and his reality so clear than in the scene in which he’s fired. In the middle of a dressing-down from Huph, Bob spies a nearby mugging happening through the window, and those old superhero reflexes get to twitching again. Faced with an ultimatum – leave the building to stop the robbery and get fired, or stay and keep his job – Bob acquiesces, only to explode in a fit of unemployment-inducing rage afterward. If he can’t be Mr. Incredible anymore, who can he be? The answer would come easier if his sense of self – of what it is to be a man – had budged at all over the last decade and a half. Alas, it hasn’t, and so in true Mr. Incredible style, Bob opts to hide his redundancy from his wife, believing instead that he should shoulder this ginormous burden on his own.
Before his firing, we learn that the only bright spots in Bob’s monotonous weeks are Wednesday evenings, when he goes out with old friend Lucius (FKA Frozone, voiced by Samuel L. Jackson), ostensibly to go bowling. In reality, though, the two are sneaking away from their wives to relive a bit of the old glory days. The few hours they spend saving people from burning buildings do restore some vitality in Bob, but deep down, he knows they’re only fleeting.
So when the opportunity later arises to do some legit superhero work, two problems appear to be solved: first, Bob’s unemployment, and, more vitally to him, his inner conflict. Rather than deal with the issue that’s been plaguing him for years, Bob defers, choosing instead to take up a job offer from the mysterious Mirage (Elizabeth Peña) to fight a robot on a Bond-esque secret island. Here, he gets the chance to flex his muscles and play to his strengths once more, and he’s the picture of his old self. Finally, he can be Mr. Incredible again, and the stagnant ideas he’s held on to about what it is to be a man – to be extraordinary, athletic and unbeatable – are re-affirmed.
It’s telling that he doesn’t let Helen know about this new job. Deep down, Bob probably knows it’s a bit fishy, and that his wife’s inevitable reservations about the shady nature of the job will be so rational that he won’t be able to argue. But this is the best he’s felt in years, so rather than be made to face reason, Bob prefers to preserve this sweet slice of joy for as long as he can.
“Mirage” is a fitting word to describe Bob’s newfound sense of fulfillment, given the illusory, too-good-to-be-true nature of his job. As it turns out, the assignments he’s been receiving are nothing more than ego-massages; ruses to entice the superhero into the clutches of arch-villain Syndrome (Jason Lee).
It isn’t long before Bob is captured, locked away and tortured. He’s never been more physically vulnerable than he is in Syndrome’s lair, where his limbs are strung up, rendering him completely powerless. Bob’s sense of impotence is made so much worse, though, by his inability to convince his nemesis to spare Helen and their kids, who were en route to rescue Dad before Syndrome sent murderous homing missiles to dog their plane.
Syndrome openly mocks everything Mr. Incredible stands for: when the plane is sunk, and his family is presumed dead, he goads him with a snidely-delivered “I seem to recall you prefer to work alone?” Now, Bob’s dejection is absolute. Everything that he believed made him such a great man – his strength, his bravery, and his lone-shouldering of all responsibility – has (seemingly) led to the loss of everything that really mattered to him.
But this is a kids’ film, and a Pixar one at that, so The Incredibles needs to provide an uplifting resolution. When it’s revealed that Helen and the kids have miraculously survived their plane crash, the first thing they do is set about rescuing their captive family member. Once reunited, the Incredibles clan fight off bloodthirsty flying discs and foil Syndrome’s violent master plan with a heart-warmingly collaborative effort. It’s absolutely central to the film’s message that no one member of the family can pull off what they do here alone – this film isn’t titled Mr. Incredible or Elastigirl for a reason.
By now, audiences have got the message, but it does take a while longer for Bob to really learn the error of his ways. However, with a little help from his wife, he gets there in the end: when he tries to explain to Helen why he didn’t tell her about being fired from Insuricare, she destroys his faulty logic with one line: “You didn’t want me to worry? And now we’re running for our lives through some godforsaken jungle?”
Before Syndrome’s evil plan is thwarted, Bob comes to realize that he really can’t do it all – but that, crucially, this isn’t down to some failing of his as a man. Whatever defeats and setbacks he’s experienced throughout the movie aren’t the fault of his own inadequacy; they’re a direct consequence of his flawed philosophy, the one that led him to believe he had to be the strongest, the bravest, an Atlas bearing the weight of the sky on his shoulders. Strength, he comes to realize, is finite, fear is natural, and doing everything on your own only makes you lonely. Most importantly, though, being a man (and a good one at that) starts with accepting these truths. It’s perfectly okay that he’s not “strong” enough because, as Helen puts it, “if we work together, you won’t have to be”. The Incredibles wants us to know that such a realization can, quite literally, save lives.