Monday, 23 January 2012

Is 'the Incredibles' An Objectivist Movie?

Popular interpretation of the 2004 Pixar movie 'the Incredibles' is that it's Objectivist, as in that it holds to the principles that were laid out by Ayn Rand in her various books such as 'Atlas Shrugged', 'the Fountainhead' etc. etc. The basic idea that 'the Incredibles' shares a similar philosophy to Rand's works, where often an exceptional person or group of people are held back by the mediocrity of the government and are prevented from achieving their potential (in Rand's work it's, for example, the government keeping people from becoming stinking rich, while in 'the Incredibles' it's regular people forcing superheroes into retiring and taking up dull, pedestrian lives where they're not allowed to use their powers publicly). Are some of these criticisms accurate? ...Well a with all interpretations of media, there are a lot that seem to make a lot of sense, but the creators didn't seem to think that the Objectivist slant was that accurate.

I don't really either, to be honest. Here's my interpretation...
Firstly, yeah, at first glance there do seem to be a lot of similarities between the ideas in the plot and the ideas present in Rand's work. But showing an idea similar to ones that a philosophy uses isn't really that same as the writers intending that to be the case. For example, the Question quoted A is A in 'JLU', leading to people thinking that he, like Rorschach in bizarre moment of cyclical inspiration, when the writers said that the Question wasn't an Objectivist as "Objectivists are dicks" (paraphrasing, but that's basically what they said).

I think that the idea projected in 'the Incredibles' wasn't so much that "we are superior and the feeble norms are holding us back!" as idealists and good Samaritans are restricted from helping people due to the cynical and petty creating an atmosphere where altruism is suspicious.

"Praise me, genetic inferiors! Mwhahaha! You too kitty!"
Like at the beginning of the movie, before superheroes were banned, there wasn't really any sense that the superheroes were doing what they were doing because they felt any sense of moral superiority over the regular police or whatever. They had the power to help, and often they were the only people who were able to.

They projected no more self interest in helping people than Superman does when he fights a robot that is attacking Metropolis. It's a situation where, when the regular emergency services aren't enough, so he steps in.

Mimes: The Deadliest of All Street Performers
And it's not as if they aren't needed, on the way to his own wedding Mr Incredible has to stop multiple times to save cats from trees, foil bank robberies, stop a train from crashing and fighting supervillain. Once they banned superheroes, how much of a shithole must that city have become afterwards? I know that apparently it's canon that the supervillains faded away with no heroes around anymore, but what about the other things like robberies and train crashes?

To me the idea behind the film is more an idealism vs cynicism thing. The heroes help people because it's the right thing to do, but they have to first get past a cynical and greedy public who want to tear them down because they're easy targets, and then a supervillain who holds the opinion that the only thing that makes a superhero a superhero is their powers, thus aims to permanently erase superheroes by making superpowers the norm.

Another apparent example of the movie's Randian moral is the comment by Dash, who in response to being told that "Everyone's special" is "That's another way of saying no one is". This could be interpreted in the Objectivist manner of the less special holding the inherently better down... But it also could have no more meaning than a grumpy kid answering back to his condescending mother, rather than the writers being all "Fuckin' Muggles!". The line also acts as a foreshadowing for the villain Syndrome's plot as well. Maybe people are reading into it too much, maybe I am, but that's what I think.

My alternative, though vastly more nerdy, interpretation?

Goatee-less Poster.
'The Incredibles' is more a kind of meta comment on the superhero genre, much like it's fellow CG superhero movie 'Megamind'. 'Megamind' had a similar idealistic tract to the older film, where, where both supervillains and superheroes have a sense of honour or ethics that defines how they approach their roles. The Incredible family are heroes, so they must use their powers to help people, even when people are actively trying to stop them, same as how Megamind is a Supervillain, so most of his crimes are centred around attacking the one person who actually can fend him off as it's more sporting. These ideas of "How things are done" in a superhero genre setting are opposed by the villains in both stories, who violate the rules of the genre by just being being some dick in a costume who starts kills superheroes just to make a better death-robot and act on childish revenge fantasies, or being a guy who leers at women with telescopic vision, tears ATMs out of walls to get some quick cash or throws a violent hissyfit when he finds that his potential girlfriend actually isn't shallow as he assumed, as she doesn't immediately fall for him because he has powers.

Upon reflection, naming him Speedy was just asking for it.

'Megamind', meanwhile, showed the progression of traditional supervillains from the old school theatrical sort from the Silver Age who never overtly tried to hurt anyone as there seemed to be an unspoken trust that the hero would stop them, to being the modern kind from books like 'the Authority', 'Nemesis' or 'Identity Crisis', who act just as you'd imagine small, petty men with too much power that they didn't earn would act. Ethics versus having no ethics. With some modern comics, Megamind seems to be saying, even old school supervillains could be heroes when compared to their modern counterparts.

So, my interpretation of both movies? They're about Superheroes, Supervillains and their genre, rather than some Objectivist spiel about how much it sucks to be prevented from reaching your potential by weak or stupid people. They're about people who want to use their powers responsibly, or get up to relatively harmless mischief rather using them to prove that they are better than normal people.

At least that's my interpretation. Y'all free to disagree with me.


  1. I quite like it - certainly more than the narrow, repugnant objectivist interpretation, and also much more than the "superheros are jocks" interpretation I read a really nasty blog post about several years ago.

    Interesting comparing it to Megamind - I myself enjoyed parts of Megamind, though much of it was boring, , but untimately didn't think it was a total waste of time. In contrast, The Incredibles is my favorite Pixar films and easily my favorite superhero film of all time because of the sheer coherency and intelligence of the worldbuilding and character construction. But you've brought out important moral resonance between the two - thanks!

  2. I think you have it right.

    In point of fact, I always felt the scene with Dash in the car wasn't just random, but also wasn't about a Randian ethic. It dovetails with Mr. Incredible himself ranting about how "they keep finding new ways to celebrate mediocrity... it's psychotic!"

    What's being remarked on there, is the fear and insecurity of a society that is desperate to create a feeling of achievement when actual achievement has been handicapped. Because Super Heroes are banned, so the in-universe logic goes, the public is mollified by being told that it's okay, nobody has to be "special", and it's right and proper for everyone to be bland and mediocre. Then fake awards and honors are created and given to people for doing nothing.

    I don't think this is really objectivist. It's more social commentary on political correctness run amok, and possibly on the suburbanization of society: everyone works in boxes in white collars, for no particular reason other than to push paper around. People in general don't deserve to live that way, it's not about who's special and who's not.

    Also, I think viewers of the film should note: Syndrome represents a person who misunderstands the nature of power and what heroism is. Syndrome cannot understand what real heroes are. He thinks it's just about glory, because as a child he wanted the "excitement" of being a Super. And in the film, Mr. Incredible even comes to realize he shares some guilt because he was cruel and arrogant towards Billy, and created Syndrome as a result. But Syndrome is still wrong.

    Plus, at the end of the film, Dash is told to use his powers, but to also be considerate of others: just because he's a Super, doesn't make him a better person or more deserving of a fair chance at success than anybody else. It's morality, not ability, that makes someone a good person. That's a pretty darn anti-Randian statement.

    I once saw it remarked, relating to the reading-in of objectivism to the film, that the people who are most certain the film is Ayn Rand propaganda are like Syndromes themselves: angry at all the wrong things, and entirely misjudging the situation.

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  4. "To me the idea behind the film is more an idealism vs cynicism thing. The heroes help people because it's the right thing to do, but they have to first get past a cynical and greedy public who want to tear them down because they're easy targets"

    That is the Objectivist interpretation. I think the problem here is that the author, like most people with a rudimentary knowledge of Objectivist ethics, is misunderstanding the division in Objectivism between altruism & benevolence.

    Altruism is the moral principle that self-sacrifice, the sacrifice of one's life, individuality, or values, is good. Benevolence is not considered self-sacrifice if the benevolent action upholds the values & represents the ideals of the benefactor. The will of the collective, in the context of this movie, represents altruism in the Objectivist sense: the heroes are forced to sacrifice their own values & ability to appease the mediocrity of the "cynical & greedy public." The heroes reject this sort of altruism by asserting their own values as an absolute above what is deemed right by the collective.