The Incredible and the Special

Part of an ongoing conversation.

My position is this:

While you may dislike the moral of the story of The Incredibles, please do not misstate it. The idea was that men of real talent — superheroism is here used as a metaphor for accomplishments of other kinds — should not be asked to hide their talent in the name up uplifting mediocrity, so that no one wins the gold and everyone gets a participation trophy.

The whole point of the opening scene is that the Supers are driven into hiding not because they are dangerous, but because those who benefit from their actions are ungrateful or jealous. Syndrome is a living example of that jealousy.

He was not in favor of making everyone equal to a super. He could have done that by selling rocket boots and immobilizer rays. He wanted to kill off and cut down the supers, and then go do what they did and get the admiration they had won.

It was a moral about earned valor versus stolen valor. If someone reads the speeches by Satan in Milton’sParadise Lost, he might think Satan is the hero also, because the villain appeals to very deep and basic truths when creating his rhetoric.

To this, our own Sophia’s Favorite replies curtly:

So they can stuff a straw man to shore up their impossibly naive point. That doesn’t make it a good story.

At least a story where most superpowered people set up protection rackets would be true to human nature. A story where the only problem anyone has, with people running around who can turn you to pulp with their fingers, is envy, is moronic.

Well, except it is a good story, and you are misstating what the point and the moral is.

And the point that envy is not the same as equality is not only not naive, it is profound and timely. I suspect Brad Bird risks his career for daring to say something so politically incorrect in the current day and age. The point is not only profound and timely, but brave.

The issue you are complaining about, where superheroes are so powerful that they cannot be controlled, simply does not exist in the story world presented by The Incredibles. When the government wanted to shut down the superheroes, they were shut down. When Syndrome wanted to kill off superheroes, he killed them off.

There is nothing moronic, or even bad art, to use superheroes as a metaphor for accomplishment. The “everyone is special” motif which has been shoved down the collective throat of America over the last few years is evil. It is not a reasonable stance, it is not another way of saying everyone is equal. It is a claim of unearned valor, the leper bell of envy clanging, expressing a desire to drag the talented down to the level of the mediocre.

That is what the movie is about. There are other superhero and science fiction stories about the corruptive power of power. The first Star Trek episode, if I recall, has exactly that as a theme: give a man godlike powers, and he becomes a devil.

In superhero movies in general, and in The Incredibles in particular, the supers corrupted by power are called supervillains.

To me, the interesting part of The Incredbiles is the very part you are calling moronic: because Mr Incredible, at the beginning of the movie, is too big for his britches. He is too confident, too arrogant, and so he brushes off Buddy and scoffs at the man whose life he saves but whose neck he sprains. When annoyed, Mr Incredible throws his boss through three walls. When forced to retire, he continues to sneak out and rescue people and try to relive the glory days.

But he is not in the right, is he?  We sympathize with his frustrations, but our hero is actually stepping over the line with these actions.

Before the film is over, Mr Incredible confesses in tears to his wife that his self centeredness almost made him miss the goodness of his family life — which is precisely the kind of life one need no special talents or powers to enjoy.

So both the complaints about the danger posed by the supers and Buddy’s resentment have a good argument on their side.

When Buddy, now Syndrome, says everyone can be super once he sells them his super technology, the audience is supposed to be brought up short and say, “Hmm. Well, why not? Wouldn’t that be better?” — but then in the next line, we hear Syndrome’s true motivation: “If everyone is special, no one is.”

In other words, no matter how noble sounding his rhetoric, Syndrome’s real purpose is to bring down the high. To hammer down the nail that stands tall. It is not equality he wants, it is to punish the successful for being successful.

You see, because envy and equality is not the same thing. In fact, they are opposite things.

Equality, true equality, means that the laws are fair and impartial, and the trophy goes to the winner who wins by the rules. Envy is false equality. False equality says it is unfair for the winner to win, so the rules should punish him for winning and reward the trophy to the loser, and that way the outcome is the same for all.

Under equality, the poor get richer and the rich get very much richer. People have the same freedom, but not the same income. Under envy, the rich are made poor and the poor are killed off.  People have neither income nor freedom, but they are equally miserable.

The confusion over this idea is central to the spiritual conflict tormenting America since the day of its founding. Those who say that equality means some men succeeed and some fail because the same laws are equally enforced on all are on the political Right. Those who say equality means the law has to favor certain races and classes of men to create equal outcomes and punish success are on the Left.

This division is older than the Civil War, albeit the Civil War was the only time the Left took up arms to protect their vision. At that time, their idea of equality was hidden under the rhetoric of ‘state’s rights’ meaning that the Virginia has as much right, an equal right, to uphold slavery as New York had to abolish it.

This is the core theme of The Incredibles. Envy  pretends to favor equality, but it is actually the opposite. The theme that power corrupts and absolute power corrupt absolutely is also a good theme, but it is not a theme of this movie. That is not the story being told here.

To dismiss a story for dealing with the one theme and not another as ‘moronic’ is flippant.