Comic book movies are huge nowadays. Whether because it’s easier to sell a known property with a built-in audience, or because that built-in audience is now in charge of what gets made, the numbers don’t lie. Hollywood wants tights.
Sometimes the results are well worth the effort. Really really worth it, like The Dark Knight or The Incredibles. Sometimes the results are absolutely horrible, like Daredevil or the more recent Iron Man 2 movie. What gives? Clearly they cover the same material. What is it that sets The Incredibles apart from other comic-book style films like the original Superman or Jaws where defeating the bad guy was everything?
Some Pretty Incredible Storytelling
Is every superhero story really about beating the bad guy? Brad Bird wouldn’t have you think so. In his masterful The Incredibles, Bob and friends pair off against the measly and less-than-incredible Syndrome. In the end, they defeat him, bringing the story to a resounding Triumphant success. But does defeating him really solve their problems? Is the problem that there is this well-funded wannabe wrecking havoc across the city or is there perhaps something a little more sophisticated going on?
Stories Are About Solving Problems
The Inciting Incident brings an inequity into the lives of the characters within the story, creating an imbalance that begs for some sort of resolution. This is why stories exist in the first place—to grant us some greater meaning when it comes to solving problems in our own lives. The Inciting Incident is simply the first step in that process.
Sometimes those inequities are resolved, as with Inception or The Town, other times they are not. Films like Rain Man or Into the Wild are perfect examples of films where those efforts to resolve problems end in failure. Either ending is perfectly acceptable. All that matters is that the Author knows what it is they want to say, and is clear about saying it.
The Incredibles issues begin with Bob’s loss in court against failed suicide-jumper Oliver Sansweet. Before then, everything in Bob’s world was hunky-dorey; after that lawsuit, not so much. It forces he and his family and every one of his friends into hiding. This event spawned an inequity within the lives of the characters, an inequity that Syndrome had relatively little to do with it (yet). Defeating him would not correct things as he is not the source of the problems in their lives.
Superheroes Who Don’t Get to Be Superheroes
This is the real problem at the heart of The Incredibles. With Bob’s loss in court, the Supers were forced into hiding, unable to be what they feel they were born to be. Bob doesn’t get to save the world, Helen has to pretend to be a happy housewife, and Dash has to act just like all the other kids in school. Those are some pretty hefty inequities at work there. Bob and his family have to do all these mundane activities because they can’t live up to their potential. And they would continue to do so, if it weren’t for the story working out the way it did.
Resolution and Defeating the Antagonist
Beating Syndrome’s robot didn’t resolve the story’s issues. Neither did beating him back at home. If he really was the source of all problems in the story, then his unfortunate cape incident would have made everything better. It would have cleared the inequity.
However, it was only once Violet put up her shield and lived up to her full potential that the problems in the story were finally resolved. Bob’s family, and by extension the rest of the Supers, found a way to be all that they can be. Sansweet’s settlement was righted.
Meaning Within the Ending
This solution of fulfilling one’s potential was what was really at stake in the film. By constructing the story this way, the Author (Brad Bird) says, Look, see, if you go about solving your problems this way, this is the kind of result you can expect.. And the images of Bob and his happy family were proof positive that they had taken the right approach.
Sophisticated goals come as a result of storytelling that doesn’t focus on the same old obvious, tried and true treasure that lies at the end of the road. They revolve around unique and often unconsidered inequities that we as the Audience have dealt with at one time or another.
Advanced Story Theory for this Article
The Overall Story Goal for The Incredibles was Being. When the Supers start living up to their potential and “being” the heroes they know they are supposed to be, then the problems in the story are finally resolved.
Interestingly enough, the Consequence of the Overall Story—the thing that will happen if the Goal somehow is not reached—is Doing. If Bob fails, all the Supers will have to continue doing the mundane and normal things they always have. The Consequence helps give motivation for the Goal to be attained.