When The Incredibles came out, in November 2004, it was Pixar’s sixth movie and only about the ninth superhero movie in the modern era (which archeologists agree started with X-Men in 2000). Focused more on adventure than comedy, with bar-raising computer animation and starring humans rather than toys, bugs, monsters, or fish, it was a departure for Pixar. And being wholly original, not based on preexisting characters, it was a departure for superhero movies.
Fourteen years later, Incredibles 2 is Pixar’s 20th feature and, depending on how you define the term, somewhere between the 60th and 80th superhero movie of the 2000s. The sequel, again written and directed by Brad Bird (these are the only Pixar movies where a single auteur is credited), once again sets a new standard for state-of-the-art animation, but nothing else about it feels new. Even the mid-century aesthetic, refreshingly retro in 2004, is overly familiar after seven seasons of Mad Men.
For the characters, no time has passed: Incredibles 2 starts with Bob (Craig T. Nelson), Helen (Holly Hunter), Dash (Huck Milner), and Violet Parr (Sarah Vowell) vanquishing the mole-like villain (“the Underminer”) who appeared at the end of The Incredibles, then returning to obscurity. Superheroing is still illegal, and all the public saw of the Underminer incident was the destruction it caused.
The Parrs are approached by tycoon siblings Winston (Bob Odenkirk) and Evelyn Deavor (Catherine Keener), superhero advocates who want to change the law, which means first changing public perception. They hire Helen (aka Elastigirl) to do some crime-fighting in the metropolis of New Urbem, outfitted with a camera so that TV news can show everyone the good she’s doing. Mr. Incredible, hurt that he wasn’t their first choice (he tends to do a lot more property damage than his wife does), supports Helen and stays home with Dash, Violet, and baby Jack-Jack, whose powers are starting to emerge.
There’s a new villain, of course, and assistance from Frozone (Samuel L. Jackson) and costume-designer Edna (Brad Bird), and a new batch of junior X-Men — er, supers — who are emboldened by the change in public opinion. On the home front, Bob is overwhelmed by Jack-Jack (whose fight with a raccoon is a highlight), and Violet is crushed to learn that her crush has forgotten her, his memory wiped by government agent Rick Dicker (Jonathan Banks) because of what he witnessed at the Underminer incident. The Violet subplot feels obligatory, a loose end from the first film that had to be tied up. But that’s better than poor Dash, who’s not given anything to do here and might as well have been sent off to summer camp.
Like a lot of superhero movies, this one gets its act together for an exciting finale, and it’s peppered with flashy moments throughout. Helen’s happiness at having the spotlight to herself for once is a pleasure to see. It simply isn’t as tight or focused as its predecessor was, and apart from a brief discussion of whether it’s OK to break the law when the law is unjust, there aren’t any bigger ideas to explore. You have to be more incredible than this to compete in today’s marketplace, but “pretty OK” will have to do for now.